Ayo Wahlberg, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen

Good quality – on the routinization of sperm banking in China

How should we account for the dramatic (yet by no means self-evident) rise and consolidation of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) such as sperm banking in China? Two possible analytic routes stand out: One might venture to explain it in terms of a framework of globalization where such “technologies are rapidly globalizing to pronatalist developing societies, where children are highly desired, parenthood is culturally mandatory, and childlessness socially unacceptable” (Inhorn 2003); or one might explore processes of standardization which “aim[s] to render the world equivalent across cultures, time, and geography” (Timmermans and Epstein 2010). However, while global standards and flows have certainly played a crucial role in the consolidation of ART in China, in this paper I propose we can gain analytical traction from turning such approaches on their head by asking a ‘bottom up’ question of how do ARTs gain a foothold in a particular legal, cultural and socio-economic setting, which is to ask, how do they become routine? By routinization I do not so much refer to processes by which medical procedures come to be fixed in ‘proper’ patterns or sequences, rather I point to the mundane, everyday practices that sustain and enable ART, involving buildings, laboratory equipment, cleaners, nurses, doctors, laboratory technicians and the like. I also point to the socio-historical processes whereby certain forms of medical technology come to be (re-)produced and entrenched within particular juridical, medical, social, economic, cultural and institutional configurations. Taking the example of sperm banking in China, I suggest that tracking routes of routinisation can help us to account for the ‘difficult birth’ of ART in China. I show how sperm banking in China has been made up through acts of pioneering (moral and technological), political lobbying, procurement and maintenance of laboratory equipment, training and rostering of staff, development of Standard Operating Procedures, recruitment and screening of donors and the logistical administration of storage and distribution. It is through such mundane practices that the jingzi ku (sperm bank) has become a repository of life in China.

Ayo Wahlberg is Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. His comparative research has focused on the different ways in which herbal medicine (in Vietnam and the United Kingdom), and more recently reproductive medicine (in China and Denmark), have been mobilized, normalized and routinized in the past few decades. 

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