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Technoscientific shaping of human nature – But what does nature stand for?

Synnyt/Origins | Special Issue: Bio/Art/Education | January 2015 1
Mianna Meskus
University of Helsinki
is paper aims to unpack the somewhat bold question of what does the concept of nature stand
for, when we are talking about contemporary technological shaping of ‘human nature’. I will explore
the question from several perspectives that have been valuable in my research on the government of life
through medical technologies, and the use of living human tissue in experimental biomedical research.
I will take up some conceptual discussions and methodological stances in the multidisciplinary eld
of science and technology studies (STS) that bring intriguing perspectives to guring out how to
characterize human life today. e paper is based on a presentation at the ‘Bio/Art/Education:
Symposium on Bioart’, held at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture at Aalto University in
Oc tober, 2014.
To begin with, let us consider how biological and biotechnological forms of knowledge transform
our societies. ey are often understood to actually transform what it means to be human. is is an
observation that we can pick up from the news headlines in dierent kinds of media, from scientic
journals to popular magazines and science documentaries. Only recently, there has been discussion
on how one can nd out about one’s ancestors through direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry services,
available online. e role of biosciences and biotechnologies in shaping human nature has also been
debated in the case of environmental toxins in food production. Furthermore, it has been discussed
in the case of enhancing athletes’ bodily capacities and performance through the use of synthetic
hormones and, in the case of helping couples to overcome infertility through in vitro fertilization and
surrogacy (Irni, Meskus, & Oikkonen, 2014).
ese are but few examples of the complex ways in which technoscientic knowledge intertwines
with humanity in today’s Western world, and increasingly also globally. e fact that scientic
knowledge transforms the conditions of our existence is of course neither new nor surprising. But there
is, in our time, a sense of novelty and even radicalism in the tempo and scope of technological shaping
of humanity, across developed and developing countries. To capture this sense of novelty, sociologist
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Mike Michael (2006) has oered several observations on how our everyday lives are changing:
Observation 1: Our bodies are increasingly interwoven into information
and communication networks.
Observation 2: Our bodily capacities are transformed, corrected and
enhanced, with the help of biomedical and other kinds of techniques.
Observation 3: Our experience of space is multiplied through and
complexied in technoscientically mediated connections.
Observation 4: Our experience of time contorts as future seems increasingly
Observation 5: Our sense of self becomes, paradoxically, at once more
distributed and more singular.
You might want to consider for yourselves how apt or valid you think these characterizations
are, in your personal experience. I would propose that they certainly seem to be central axioms of
contemporary existence that we somehow need to make sense of and take a stance to – whether
we want it or not. ese characteristics are conditioning our present day lives. It is dicult or even
impossible to distance oneself from them.
Before proceeding further, the concept of ‘technoscience’ needs to be claried. e concept refers,
rstly, to the ways in which science and technology have become mutually entangled in the modern era.
It refers to the fact that in modern science, technology is indispensable to the production of scientic
knowledge. Scientic knowledge is produced through the development and use of experimental
settings and technical apparatuses (e.g. Haraway, 1997; Latour, 1987).
e elds of molecular biology and genetics are particularly interesting here. In molecular biology
and modern genetics (which relies heavily on molecular biology) the object of knowledge, for example
a stem cell or a DNA sequence, is known in such a way that it can be modied. Anthropologist Paul
Rabinow (1998, p. 141) has characterized modern day biology in the following way: ‘Representing
and intervening, knowledge and power, understanding and reform, are built in, from the start, as
simultaneous goals and means’.
But there is also a more broad use for the term ‘technoscience’. Often it is applied to describe
contemporary societies and cultures in general. Especially Western societies seem to be characterized
by the extension of scientic knowledge and dierent kinds of technologies to ever more spheres of
life. Contemporary technoscientic world circulates facts and things from one sphere of life to another,
with as increasing pace (see Michael, 2006). Textual, material and technological artefacts move from
research laboratories into industrial production lines, local and global markets, the media, everyday
household practices, art galleries, and so forth. Some technoscientic pratices and artifacts are fairly
xed and stabilized. ey have become part of our daily routines. Others are more unstable, uid and
changing – and often also more contested.
As a sociologist and researcher in science and technology studies, this movement or circulation
of humans and nonhumans oers, to me, a fruitful entry point to the analysis of present day life. I
have previously studied the historical circulation of techniques used in governing our reproductive
bodily capacities, through the ethically contested cases of racial hygiene and contemporary practices of
foetal testing (Meskus, 2009a, 2009b, 2012). I have also looked at another form of new reproductive
technology, that of IVF or in vitro fertilization, from the perspective of ordering of human-nonhuman
relations (Meskus, 2014a, 2014b). At present, my research follows the circulation of living human
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body parts, that is, human pluripotent stem cells, from patients, to research laboratories, and to the
developing drug markets (Meskus & de Miguel Beriain, 2013; Meskus, forthcoming). ese research
encounters with technoscientic shaping of the human body have brought me to the situation where
the issue of shaping of human ‘nature’ seems to lurk around the corner.
If we focus on – and even celebrate – our ability to shape, to modify, to transform that something
which is called human nature, what do we imply?
Do we imply that there is Nature that awaits our transformative interventions but that, nevertheless,
exists prior to human intervention?
Do we imply, on the contrary, that human biological existence emerges, in essence, through
modication and is, as such, exible and resilient?
I shall reveal my cards straight away. I argue we should tackle these questions as mutually
informative, not as mutually exclusive. ey seem like opposite philosophical stances to the question
of nature, but they need not be so. It is necessary to acknowledge and to account for how bioscience
and biotechnologies create, in practice, new forms and boundaries of life. As such, they also transform
the conditions of society and culture. So, nature is being shaped and there is ample evidence of it, as
the examples I mentioned in the beginning of this paper indicate.
However, it is salient to acknowledge that the conditioning relations also apply to the opposite
direction: biological factors such as genes, microbes, stem cells, and evolutionary processes, structure
and shape the forms of life and nature. What is important to note here is that this need not take us
to biological reductionism. Biological factors and processes carry with them active, surprising, and
changing powers. As feminist theorist Vicki Kirby (2008) emphasizes, biological processes can and
need to be studied without bringing in the postulate of these processes as ‘pre-scriptive’ (see also
Meskus, 2014a).
erefore in social research, and perhaps also in art and artistic practice, it seems fruitful to keep
oneself analytically attentive to both how humans shape nature and, how nature shapes humans. In
my own work this attempt has led me to study the ‘constitutive relationalities’ (Haraway, 2006: 141)
of humans and cells. It is evident that scientists modify and intervene with the biological material they
work with, in the lab and on the Petri dish. However, an equally relevant and interesting perspective
is to look at the eectivity of this biological material, of living pluripotent stem cells, on humans.
ese cell-level agencies condition and transform human activity and experience. ey ‘do’ or perform
both expected and unexpected things. ereby they also produce cognitive, aective and embodied
eects in researchers studying them (Meskus, forthcoming). We might call this the unescapable and
mundane relationality between bioscientists and the living, experimental material they work on.
Technoscientic shaping of human nature underscores the fact that ontological dualisms that are
the legacy of Western philosophical thinking, such as nature/culture and social/biological, seem to blur
and even to crumble. I want to dedicate a few words to this aspect in my attempt to answer the tricky
question presented in the title of the paper. One of the classical texts in science studies and particularly
in feminist science studies is the “Cyborg Manifesto”, written by biologist and feminist theorist Donna
Haraway, in the beginning of 1980s. In this text Haraway (1991) explores the ambiguous distinction
between worlds that are considered ‘natural’ and those that are considered ‘crafted’. Taking medicine
as one example, she underlines that modern medicine is full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism
and machine.
In another seminal text in STS unpacking the ontological categorization of nature/culture,
philosopher Bruno Latour (1991) claims that ‘we have never been modern’ and that our understanding
of nature and culture as separate spheres of the world, is fundamentally awed. Latour ags up the
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rather complicated and provocative idea that it is thanks to the modern imaginary of nature and culture
as ontologically separate that we are actually able to produce new hybrid entities at an ever increasing
pace. Latour claims that hybrids such as frozen embryos, genetically modied maize, tissue banks,
psychotropic drugs, and sensing robots, can be created and are experienced as justied on the condition
that we simultaneously retain nature and culture as separate entities and believe their ontological
boundaries to be intact.
In terms of the theme of this symposium, the shaping of biology in doing art, I think both these
thinkers oer ideas as to how to approach the technoscientic world in a realist and positive, yet critical
and sensitive manner. Haraway, in particular, is very critical about asymmetric gender relations, but
at the same time writes that ‘a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which
people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, and not afraid of permanently
partial identities and contradictory standpoints’ (Haraway, 1991, 154.) Conducting research on new
reproductive technologies and experimental science, I have found this kind of research ethos extremely
helpful. It helps in sensitizing to both the positive and the more dangerous aspects of technological
shaping of our life. It encourages acknowledging the complexities of technoscientic practices, that
rarely are either good or bad.
Having said this, I shall end my paper with a glimpse on the morally loaded manner in which the
concept of nature has historically been and still is used. I wish to add to the conceptual relations of
nature/culture and social/biological the dimension of moral evaluation, as the gure below indicates:
nature culture
social biologial
Evaluative dimension: ‘natural’, ‘normal’, ‘expected’
When we are exploring the technoscientic shaping of nature, be it human or nonhuman, it is
quite evident that we are moving on a morally loaded terrain. Biological and technological knowledge
and the way these are applied in practice, raise political and ethical controversy. us, to analyze
what ‘nature’ stands for in Western use, takes us to practices of valuing and evaluation. is of course
is paradoxical given that one corner stone of our philosophical thinking is to perceive ‘nature’ as
something real, separate, and out there. So what has valuation to do with nature?
Let us look at the English dictionary entry for the concept of nature. According to Oxford
Dictionaries (, as a noun it refers to ‘the phenomena of the physical world
collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth,
as opposed to humans or human creations. It also refers to ‘the basic or inherent features, character, or
qualities of something’, and ‘the innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal . When
further exploring the uses of the concept, one nds that an exemplary phrase of its use is one that the
Synnyt/Origins | Special Issue: Bio/Art/Education | January 2015 5
negative: ‘against nature’ means ‘unnatural in a way perceived as immoral.
e emphases here are my own. e point here is to see that the denition of nature consists of
an evident semantic ambiguity. Nature refers to other than human, but also to human. It signies
something that is innate or essential. However, it also refers (via the example of negation) to something
that is natural as in normal, and morally acceptable.
In her discussion on ‘the nature and the natural’, biologist Evelyn Fox Keller (2008) points at
this slippage between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be’, in the use of the concept of nature. Her project
is to disambiguate the relation between biological nature and the natural. She wants to root out the
persistent eorts to ground moral order upon natural order. However, Keller admits that the task is a
hard one. e tendency to place moral order upon perceived natural order seems immune to much of
the powerful critique biologists themselves, for example, have presented towards this tendency. It is
somehow alluring and frighteningly easy to think that something considered natural is for that reason
also moral. Vice versa, that which is regarded as morally right is often seen as depicting an order of
If we search for a current example where this ambiguity is prevalent, we might want to consider
again the case of new reproductive technologies. Technoscientic shaping of reproduction, through the
donation of gametes, in vitro fertilization and through freezing, selecting and transferring embryos, is
perhaps one of the most evident practices where nature, technologies and moral debates come together
(e.g. ompson, 2005). e phenomenon conates and confuses sexuality, gender roles, biological
‘laws’, family politics, kinship relations, microscopic technologies, religious norms, et cetera. My point
here is to underline that if we explore the multiple ways in which human and nonhuman natures
are being modied and transformed and if we try to develop an approach to that is simultaneously
realist, broadminded and critical, it is useful to remember the inbuilt ambiguity in our understanding
of nature. is means that we will constantly come across confusing understandings of what is and
what ought to be, and what is inherent or articial. We are enforced to operate within this confusing
semantic framework, because it is so eective in our everyday thinking as well as in many social,
political, and economic practices.
Doing empirical research in social sciences diers of course in many ways from doing art, even
though both ‘doings’ would be interested in what nature, or biology, is and how it can be modied for
various purposes. As the presentations in this symposium show, the merger of technology and biology
transforming our everyday life interestingly also aects artistic practices. To conclude and perhaps also
to pave the way for further discussion, I suggest it would be interesting to explicate and to compare
they ways in which activities of bioart come across the issues touched upon in this paper; the exible
yet existing boundaries of nature and culture, and the moral orderings attached to these boundaries.
Haraway, Donna J. (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_
OncoMouse™. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna J. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. e Reinvention of Nature. London: Free
Association Books.
Haraway, Donna J. (2006) When we have never been human, what is to be done? Interview with
Donna Haraway. Interviewer Nicholas Gane. eory, Culture & Society 23(7/8): 135–158.
Irni, Sari, Meskus, Mianna & Oikkonen, Venla (eds.) (2014) Muokattu elämä: Teknotiede,
sukupuoli ja materiaalisuus [Molded Life: Technoscience, Gender and Materiality]. Tampere:
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Keller, Evelyn Fox (2008) Lecture: Nature and the natural. BioSocieties 3(2): 117–124.
Kirby, Vicki (2008) Natural convers(at)ions: or, what if culture was really nature all along? In
Alaimo S and Hekman S (eds) Material feminisms. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University
Press, pp. 214–236.
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Michael, Mike (2006) Technoscience and Everyday Life: e Complex Simplicities of the Mundane.
Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Meskus, Mianna (2009a) Elämän tiede. Tutkimus lääketieteellisestä teknologiasta, vanhemmuudesta
ja perimän hallinnasta [Science of Life: A Study on Medical Technology, Parenthood and the
Government of Heredity]. Tampere: Vastapaino.
Meskus, Mianna (2009b). Governing Risk through Informed Choice: Prenatal Testing in Welfarist
Maternity Care. Teoksessa Susanne Bauer & Ayo Wahlberg (toim.) Contested Categories. Life Sciences
in Society. Farnham & Burlington: Ashgate, pp. 49–68.
Meskus, Mianna (2012) Personalized Ethics: e Emergence and the Eects in Prenatal Testing.
BioSocieties 7:4, 373–392.
Meskus, Mianna (2014a) Agential multiplicity in the assisted beginnings of life. European Journal of
Women’s Studies, published online 22 April 2014. DOI: 10.1177/1350506814530691.
Meskus, Mianna (2014b) Hedelmöityshoidot ruumiillisena kokemuksena [e embodied experience
of infertility treatment]. In Irni, Sari, Meskus, Mianna & Oikkonen, Venla (eds.) Muokattu elämä:
Teknotiede, sukupuoli ja materiaalisuus. Tampere: Vastapaino, pp. 51–85.
Meskus, Mianna (forthcoming) Biopolitics, Ethics, and Stem Cell Science. New York: Palgrave
Meskus, Mianna & de Miguel Beriain, Iñigo (2013) Embryo-like features of induced pluripotent
stem cells defy legal and ethical boundaries. Croatian Medical Journal 54:6, 589–91.
Rabinow, Paul (1998) Genetic and molecular bodies. In T. Yamamoto (ed.), Philosophical designs
for a socio cultural transformation. Beyond violence and the modern era. Tokyo: EHESS & Rowman &
Littleeld Publishers, pp. 135-150.
ompson, Charis (2005) Making parents: e ontological choreography of reproductive technologies.
Cambridge & London: e MIT Press.
Mianna Meskus works as PI and Lecturer of Science and Technology Studies at the Department
of Social Research, University of Helsinki. She has been a visiting fellow at the BIOS Centre
at London School of Economics and Political Science and at the Department of Social Science,
Health and Medicine at King’s College, London. She has published in journals such as BioSocieties,
European Journal of Women’s Studies, and Contemporary Social Science. She is the author of the book
(translated title) Science of Life: A Study on Medical Technology, Parenthood and the Government of
Heredity (Vastapaino, 2009), and co-author of the book (translated title) Molded Life: Technoscience,
Gender and Materiality (Vastapaino, 2014). See her home page at/meskus/in-
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
This article explores the idea of agential multiplicity in medical treatment of childlessness. The analysis illustrates the kinds of agencies that emerge in the use of assisted reproductive technologies. The article begins with a discussion on feelings as participants in IVF treatment and as elements of women’s embodied experience. This is followed by an analysis of three consecutive steps of IVF: ovulation induction, assisted fertilization in the laboratory and embryo transfer. The article aims to show that feminist theory and praxis benefits from empirical analyses of lived bodily experiences as they take form in relation to non-human agencies. Also, it provides a view into how biological processes and material elements can be taken into account in anti-essentializing ways in feminist research.
Full-text available
Prenatal testing for congenital anomalies and genetic diseases is a recurring topic for social scientific research on biomedicine. In this research, the question of ethics is often examined in terms of discrepancies between abstract bioethical principles and individuals’ grounded experiences. This article aims to contribute to discussions of the ethics of prenatal testing by drawing from a ‘Foucauldian’ analysis of ethical practices in specific historical settings that involve forms of technology, politics and personal reflection. On the basis of an empirical study in a Nordic welfare state setting, that of Finland, the first part of the article presents a short genealogy on how clinical geneticists’ problematizations concerning selective abortion and disability have been translated into a form of ethics that I characterize as ‘personalized’. The concept of ‘personalized ethics’ is explored to highlight a transformation in the ethical rationales pertaining to prenatal testing from a profession-centred code of conduct into a matter of personal ethical deliberation. The second part of the article discusses pregnant women's experiences of prenatal testing. A salient effect of practicing personalized ethics, I propose, is that new local moral worlds emerge where women turn to their peers for moral acceptance and some shared ethical grounds to cope with the decisions expected of them.
Full-text available
As part of my interest in the persistence of unproductive debates about the relative importance of nature and nurture, I focus here on the especially problematic relation between nature and the natural. For if the definition of nature is problematic, its semantic relation to ‘natural’ is even more so. I explore some of the problems that arise from slippage between substantive and normative conceptions of ‘natural’ (inviting collateral slippage between is and ought), from the bifurcatory structure of its negation and from changing assumptions about nature’s domain.
This interview reconsiders Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto 21 years after it was first published. It asks what has become of the three boundary breakdowns around which the Manifesto was structured - those between animals and humans, animal-humans (organisms) and machines, and the ‘physical and non-physical’. Against this backdrop, this interview examines the connection between the Cyborg Manifesto and Haraway’s more recent writings on companion species, along with what it means to read or write a ‘manifesto’ today. Recent notions of the ‘posthuman’ are also placed into question.
Assisted reproductive technology (ART) makes babies and parents at once. Drawing on science and technology studies, feminist theory, and historical and ethnographic analyses of ART clinics, Charis Thompson explores the intertwining of biological reproduction with the personal, political, and technological meanings of reproduction. She analyzes the "ontological choreography" at ART clinics—the dynamics by which technical, scientific, kinship, gender, emotional, legal, political, financial, and other matters are coordinated—using ethnographic data to address questions usually treated in the abstract. Reproductive technologies, says Thompson, are part of the increasing tendency to turn social problems into biomedical questions and can be used as a lens through which to see the resulting changes in the relations between science and society. After giving an account of the book's disciplinary roots in science and technology studies and in feminist scholarship on reproduction, Thompson comes to the ethnographic heart of her study. She develops her concept of ontological choreography by examining ART's normalization of "miraculous" technology (including the etiquette of technological sex); gender identity in the assigned roles of mother and father and the conservative nature of gender relations in the clinic; the naturalization of technologically assisted kinship and procreative intent; and patients' pursuit of agency through objectification and technology. Finally, Thompson explores the economies of reproductive technologies, concluding with a speculative and polemical look at the "biomedical mode of reproduction" as a predictor of future relations between science and society.
Doctoral dissertation work in sociology examines how human heredity became a scientific, political and a personal issue in the 20th century Finland. The study focuses on the institutionalisation of rationales and technologies concerning heredity, in the context of Finnish medicine and health care. The analysis concentrates specifically on the introduction and development of prenatal screening within maternity care. The data comprises of medical articles, policy documents and committee reports, as well as popular guidebooks and health magazines. The study commences with an analysis on the early 20th century discussions on racial hygiene. It ends with an analysis on the choices given to pregnant mothers and families at present. Freedom to choose, considered by geneticists and many others as a guarantee of the ethicality of medical applications, is presented in this study as a historically, politically and scientifically constructed issue. New medical testing methods have generated new possibilities of governing life itself. However, they have also created new ethical problems. Leaning on recent historical data, the study illustrates how medical risk rationales on heredity have been asserted by the medical profession into Finnish health care. It also depicts medical professions ambivalence between maintaining the patients autonomy and utilizing for example prenatal testing according to health policy interests. Personalized risk is discussed as a result of the empirical analysis. It is indicated that increasing risk awareness amongst the public, as well as offering choices, have had unintended consequences. According to doctors, present day parents often want to control risks more than what is considered justified or acceptable. People s hopes to anticipate the health and normality of their future children have exceeded the limits offered by medicine. Individualization of the government of heredity is closely linked to a process that is termed as depolitization. The concept refers to disembedding of medical genetics from its social contexts. Prenatal screening is regarded to be based on individual choice facilitated by neutral medical knowledge. However, prenatal screening within maternity care also has its basis in health policy aims and economical calculations. Methodological basis of the study lies in Michel Foucault s writings on the history of thought, as well as in science and technology studies. Sosiologian väitöstutkimus tarkastelee, miten ihmisen perimästä on 1900-luvun kuluessa tullut tieteellinen, poliittinen ja henkilökohtainen asia Suomessa. Tutkimuksessa selvitetään perinnöllisyyttä koskevien ajattelutapojen ja teknologioiden vakiintumista suomalaisessa lääketieteessä ja terveydenhuollossa. Erityisesti siinä tarkastellaan äitiyshuollon sikiöseulontojen käyttöönottoa ja kehittämistä. Aineistona ovat lääketieteelliset artikkelit, hallinnolliset asiakirjat ja komiteamietinnöt sekä valistusoppaat ja terveyslehdet. Tutkimus alkaa 1900-luvun alun rotuhygieniakeskustelujen analyysilla. Se päättyy nykypäivän odottavien äitien ja perheiden valinnanvapauksien pohdintaan. Valinnanvapaus, jota geneetikot monien muiden lailla pitävät lääketieteen sovellutusten eettisyyden takeena, on tämän tutkimuksen näkökulmasta historiallisesti, tieteellisesti ja poliittisesti muokkautunut ilmiö. Uudet lääketieteelliset tutkimusmenetelmät ovat synnyttäneet uusia elämänhallinnan mahdollisuuksia, mutta myös eettisiä ongelmia. Lähihistoriallisiin aineistoihin nojautuen tutkimus valottaa, miten lääkäreiden aktiivisen toiminnan tuloksena perinnöllisyyslääketieteellinen riskiajattelu on vakiinnutettu suomalaiseen terveydenhuoltoon. Se osoittaa asiantuntijoiden tasapainoilun yhtäältä potilaiden omakohtaisten ratkaisuiden kunnioittamisen ja toisaalta esimerkiksi sikiötutkimusmenetelmien terveyspoliittisesti järkevän hyödyntämisen välillä. Tutkimuksessa pohditaan lääketieteellisen riskiajattelun henkilökohtaistumista . Analyysit osoittavat, että riskitietoisuuden lisäämisellä ja valinnanmahdollisuuksien tarjoamisella on ollut tarkoittamattomia seurauksia. Lääkäreiden mukaan nykypäivän vanhemmat haluavat usein hallita riskejä enemmän kuin on aiheellista tai mahdollista. Ihmisten toiveet tulevien lasten terveyden ja normaaliuden ennakoimisesta ovat ylittäneet lääketieteen tarjoamat rajat. Perimän hallinnan yksilöllistyminen on kiinteästi kytköksissä kehityskulkuun, jota tutkimuksessa nimitetään epäpolitisoitumiseksi. Käsitteellä viitataan perinnöllisyyslääketieteellisen tiedon ja teknologian irrottamiseen yhteiskunnallisista konteksteistaan. Äitiyshuollon sikiötutkimukset nähdään neutraaliin tietoon perustuvana vanhempien valinnanmahdollisuutena. Sikiöseulonnalla on kuitenkin myös terveyspoliittiset ja taloudelliset lähtökohtansa.