Cornell University Press Open Access

Sandra Bärnreuther on global reproductive medicine in India

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We asked Sandra Bärnreuther three questions about her new book Substantial Relations and her research on reproductive medicine in India.

1. What inspired you to write this book?

When I started this project over ten years ago, In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) in India was prominently portrayed in the global media. Most reports focused on the country’s then flourishing transnational surrogacy market. However, IVF as a mundane medical intervention received less attention. I was curious to know how clinicians and patients in India practice and experience IVF in their everyday lives. And how the procedure has changed over recent decades: from a public research project to a largely privatized practice; from a ‘hobby’ undertaken by inventive doctors to a commercialized object of consumption; from an experimental procedure to a standardized intervention. Historically situating contemporary IVF practice in India also inspired me to examine the country’s long-standing role in the field of reproductive medicine globally: not only as a transnational market but also a provider of resources for the pharmaceutical industry in Europe or a pioneer in IVF research.

2. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for the book?

When I was tracing the story of (the late) Dr. Subhas Mukherjee, who claimed that he had successfully conducted IVF in the 1978 – just a few months after the world’s first IVF baby was born in the UK – I interviewed one of his good friends. He mentioned in passing that Dr. Subhas Mukherjee had helped him establish a urine collection program for a Dutch pharmaceutical company in Kolkata in the 1970s. It turned out that the collected urine was exported to Europe where it was purified into human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone which is used during IVF procedures. It was great fun following these historical connections between India and the Netherlands through archival material and the stories of former company managers, workers, and urine donors.

3. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

I wish I had realized the extent to which normative discussions in Europe and the US had informed my thinking about IVF at the beginning of my research. The questions I posed changed substantially over the course of my fieldwork – an experience which is certainly familiar to many anthropologists. The more I learnt about the different concerns of my interlocutors and their diverse perspectives on IVF, the more I had to reorient my own avenues of inquiry. While this was an exciting journey, it also made the writing process more challenging.

*Featured photo: Image of in vitro fertilization by iLexx

Sandra Bärnreuther is Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland.

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