Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Frankenstein and his monster are still with us: Organ donation and surrogate motherhood

Adjunct Research Fellow Claire Stubber and Senior Research Fellow Maggie Kirkman from the Jean Hailes Research Unit at SPHPM have collaborated on a new article published in Soundings that explores the persistence of the Frankenstein myth in relation to organ transplantation and surrogate motherhood.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus is considered one of the earliest examples of science fiction, first published in 1818. It tells the story of a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who creates a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. It continues to be raised today as a cautionary tale for science.

Using auto-ethnographic accounts of organ transplantation and surrogate motherhood, Dr Stubber and Dr Kirkman explore how the myth of Frankenstein persists in influencing constructions of science and technology, and the lives of people who benefit from them.

Claire Stubber, who received a donated heart and lungs as a teenager, wrote a thesis for her PhD (conferred in 2013 by the University of Western Australia) in which she analysed Mary Shelley’s novel in the light of her own experience. When Claire met Maggie Kirkman at the Jean Hailes Research Unit, they realised that both had had their lives transformed by experiences that evoked thoughts of the audacious scientist Frankenstein and his Creature: In 1988, Maggie’s sister Linda gave birth to Maggie’s daughter Alice using in vitro fertilisation (IVF). It was Australia’s first IVF surrogacy, and one of the first in the world.

Although archetypal myths such as Frankenstein have been shaping the way people think about science for many decades and Mary Shelley’s monstrous creation is commonly introduced into arguments over controversial science, Claire and Maggie realised that thoughts of Frankenstein and monsters would not be common in the SPHPM. They decided to write about this topic that is both “unscientific” and fundamental to the way that many people still think about science.

It is fair to say that most people who fear that mad scientists will create monsters have not read Frankenstein; they often mistakenly call the Creature “Frankenstein”. Nevertheless, the myth is so powerful that one just has to utter the name to conjure up scenes from a horror movie with a large bolt holding a terrifying monster’s skull in place.

Claire and Maggie offer perceptive auto-ethnographic insights into their experiences, exploring how life-saving organ transplantation and life-giving surrogacy have been construed as hubristic or arrogant. Receiving a new heart and lungs allowed Claire to evade death, at least temporarily. That falls clearly within the ancient taboo against humans defying the limits imposed by the gods. So, too, does creating a whole new person outside the body, as in IVF. When Linda gestated Maggie’s baby that added further fearful possibilities to the realm of science and society.

They wrote in their paper that, “Our decisions were enacted at the margins of life and death; we resorted to science and technology for possible solutions. The intersection of life, death, and science is part of the bedrock of philosophy, religion, and culture.” Claire and Maggie present evidence in the paper that Frankenstein represents the fear that humans may go too far in their desire to prolong life and to create it. They also wrote about their own discomfort with the benefits they had received, and about how they came to accommodate that discomfort within their own lives.

Together, Claire and Maggie are now undertaking research using in-depth interviews to investigate recipients’ experiences of heart and lung transplantation.

You can read the paper here.

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