Reflecting the ‘Human Nature’ of IVF Embryos: Disappearing Women in Ethics, Law, and Fertility Practice

J Law Biosci (2016) doi: 10.1093/jlb/lsw058

24 Pages Posted: 29 Nov 2016

See all articles by Jenni Millbank

Jenni Millbank

University of Technology, Sydney, Faculty of Law

Date Written: November 27, 2016


Many laws and ethical documents instruct us that disembodied embryos created through IVF processes are not mere tissue; they are ‘widely regarded’ as unique objects of serious moral consideration. Even in jurisdictions which disavow any overt characterization of embryonic personhood, the embryo, by virtue of its uniqueness and orientation toward future development, is said to have a ‘special status’ or command ‘respect’. The woman whose desire for a child or children created this embryo, and who inhabits the body to whom it may one day be returned, is an omission or at best an afterthought in such frameworks. This paper engages in an historical analysis of this conundrum in the Australian context. It argues that the institutional structure of foundational ethics bodies (made up of a mandated mix of scientific and religious representation, in practice dominated by men, and absent any requirement of the participation of women patients) has produced the embryo as an object of ideological compromise: ‘not mere cells’ and ‘not life’, but a poorly bounded and endlessly contested something-in-between. The paper then turns to engage with the narratives of a selection of women patients about their sense of connectedness to their stored or discarded embryos, drawn from a larger study on decision making concerning patient's experience of decision making about IVF embryos. I draw on these narratives to ask how we could reorient law and policy toward the concerns, needs and desires of such women.

Keywords: human embryos, IVF reproductive technology, ethical guidance, embodied relationality, feminist challenges to the disembodied embryo

JEL Classification: I18, K36

Suggested Citation

Millbank, Jenni, Reflecting the ‘Human Nature’ of IVF Embryos: Disappearing Women in Ethics, Law, and Fertility Practice (November 27, 2016). J Law Biosci (2016) doi: 10.1093/jlb/lsw058. Available at SSRN:

Jenni Millbank (Contact Author)

University of Technology, Sydney, Faculty of Law ( email )


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