Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Freezing life, buying time: Consuming cryopreservation services in the United States
by Romain, Tiffany, Ph.D., Stanford University, 2011, 273; 3442430
Abstract (Summary)

This study examines biomedical services offered as responses to aging as well as users' experiences of anxiety, hope, uncertainty, and anticipation. I study these experiences through three applications of cryopreservation technology: (a) the freezing of embryos during in vitro fertilization treatment (IVF); (b) the freezing and banking of oocytes (unfertilized eggs); and (c) cryonics, the freezing of corpses with the hope that these bodies will be revived and restored to health in the distant future. I argue that metaphorical and literal relationships between time and money ubiquitous in the United States are intensified and concretized through cryopreservation technology: specifically, biological time is being commodified.

Each of the services I examine is a direct response to a problem of aging, but each realm of services problematizes aging differently: women and couples cryopreserving eggs and embryos attempt to extend the period of fertility whereas the men who engage in cryonics (the majority of cryonics advocates are men) strive to radically extend the human lifespan. The chapters of the dissertation are divided along these lines into two parts. Part I, "Beginnings," explores the history of cryopreservation research, the science of cryobiology, and the applications of cryopreservation technology in fertility medicine. It considers cryopreservation when it is used on gametes and embryos, at the very beginning of life, yet this beginning is complicated: it is interrupted, preserved, and potentially enabled when the cells are put into suspended animation. Part II, "Endings," focuses on the historical co-development of cryonics along side cryobiology and current social worlds of cryonics practitioners. Cryopreservation is applied at the time of death, the ending of person's existence in material, bodily form, yet according to cosmologies of cryonics, by interrupting death through cryopreservation, life's ending is put on hold until the future treatment of a body pushes it in the direction of renewed life or final death. From the viewpoint of cryonicists, cryopreservation represents a potential new beginning. The two parts of the dissertation mirror and juxtapose the two realms of cryopreservation, probe the various beginnings and endings that cryopreservation affords across the applications, and compare the "legitimate" and the "fringe," exposing where they converge and diverge.

My study reveals the surprising finding that, despite the many differences in the services and users, all three groups of consumers engaged with cryopreservation using economic reasoning. They described their harnessing of the technology as a form of investment in oneself and one's body with the potential return of "more time," and utilized risk-management strategies in deciding whether or not to use it. I show that all three applications are related to dominant ways of thinking about time and the future in the United States, particularly in how they are each understood through frameworks of investment and insurance. I also show that each was forged through hopeful grassroots consumer advocacy as consumers claimed personal responsibility for their future well-being.

The services' striking differences are also illustrative of variation in cosmologies of personhood, the future, and what makes a life worth living that are co-present in the United States. Reproductive cryopreservation is driven by the normative and relational goal of biologically related family. In contrast, cryonics is driven by the goals of immortality, posthumanity, space travel, and so on, which are extreme and more individualistic. I discuss these cosmological differences in relationship to each group of users' social locations marked by gender, race, class, age, health, political orientation, occupation, and more.

This examination of cryopreservation expands our knowledge of emerging conceptualizations of aging, biomedicine, and future projections of health and well-being in the United States, and, more specifically, the ways that speculative economic reasoning is increasingly applied to lives and bodies. The study also interrogates the boundaries of legitimacy, exploring where, when, and how lines are drawn that separate the extremes that are embraced from the extremes that are shunned, and how the drawing of boundaries relates to social worlds. It contributes to scholarship on the relationships between capital and biotechnoscience as well as investigations into hope, imagination, the extreme, and time.

The ethnographic research for this project was conducted over eighteen months in field sites including IVF clinics and an embryology lab in California; international conferences for research cryobiologists; a cryobiology research facility; a cryonics facility in Arizona; and cryonics communities in California, Arizona, and online. The fieldwork is complemented with historical research: surveys of cryobiology research articles and volumes, cryonics newsletters, marketing materials, mass media, and science fiction.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Kohrman, Matthew
School: Stanford University
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 72/03, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Cultural anthropology
Keywords: Cryonics, Cryopreservation, In vitro fertilization
Publication Number: 3442430
ISBN: 978-1-124-46140-3
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