Artistic visions, scientific images. In the 1960s, feminist artists turned to the body in an explicitly political act of ‘re-appropriation’ from overwhelmingly male science. Images of birth, pregnant bodies and developing forms proliferated. Their production was fuelled by ideological as well as personal concerns, as artists documented the progression of their pregnancies. By the 1980s the appeal of embryos had extended to wider artist groups. Many, such as Helen Chadwick pictured here manipulating embryos with a suction pipette, worked closely with scientists. But artists picturing embryos sought to express prevailing social fears and expectations, as well as concerns around personhood, the commodification of the body and the origins of life and death.

Assisting conception, regulating research

As assisted reproduction moved from experiment to standard practice, new kinds of embryo images were recruited to win public acceptance.

In Britain the Conservative deregulation of healthcare in the 1980s encouraged the foundation of commercial infertility clinics competing with National Health Service centres. To improve the low success rate, fertility specialists fertilized and implanted multiple eggs, but some ‘spares’ remained and scientists proposed to use them for research. The government supported research under close state supervision, but only for 14 days after fertilization, i.e., before the migration of epiblast cells (‘primitive streak’ formation) and neurulation (the onset of central nervous system development).

When parliament resisted, scientists mobilized and the public debate brought images of embryos to broadsheet pages. Media stories told of families ‘blessed with children’ post-IVF. The distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘assisted’ conception was blurred. All development was framed as uncertain, fragile and in need of assistance; embryos were increasingly pictured as collections of cells rather than Nilsson’s homunculi. In 1990 parliament passed the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act. Yet the 14-day limit remains contested both by those arguing for the continuity of life from conception, and by embryologists, for many of whom it marks no significant boundary.

A ‘grade-one’ eight-cell embryo photographed in an assisted conception clinic, mid-1990s


Assisting conception, producing families, 2007