Department of History of Science and Ideas

Medicine at the Borders of Life

Foetal Research and the Emergence of Ethical Controversy in Sweden

Programme Description

There are few issues in contemporary biomedicine that stir up as much debates as the uses of human embryos and foetuses for research and therapeutics. Most recently these debates have centred on the research involving stem cells derived from days-old human embryos created for fertility treatment. According to its proponents this research holds immense promise for treatment of diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s. Opponents charge that such research threatens fundamental moral values of human life. However, controversies surrounding the uses of embryos and foetuses for scientific research and knowledge production are not a new phenomenon

The primary purpose of this research programme is to explore the social and cultural history of human foetal research in Sweden. It focuses on the emergence of human foetuses as objects of scientific inquiry and their circulation through many areas of society from the seventeenth century to the late twentieth century, with an emphasis on the Swedish post-war period. The major research question is how, why and with what consequences foetal research in Sweden developed and became ethically contested. Theoretically, the aim is to nuance current models on “biopolitics” and “biomedicalisaton” by showing how national and local contexts have affected the nature and status of global biomedicine. The research includes several subprojects and draws upon many kinds of empirical sources: material, written, visual, audiovisual, and oral. Depending on the aims of the individual research, various approaches may be relevant, including methodologies in history of medicine, history of science, science and technology studies, media history, visual studies, gender studies, disability studies, and postcolonial studies.

The second purpose is to strengthen and develop Swedish research in the history of medicine, both nationally and internationally. Presently there exists broad expertise in this field but it has not developed into a proper discipline in Sweden. To further this goal the research group is constituted by researchers that represent different career positions. Planned outputs include articles, monographs, an edited volume, and the organisation of six national and international workshops.

All together, the programme will substantially contribute to our knowledge of the history of reproduction, reproductive research and biomedicine as well as providing a vital basis for political discussion and public debate. It will also be a historical resource to the evolving field of medical humanities.

(Picture: The male fetus, a drawing from around 1700 by the Swedish physician Lars Roberg (1664–1742). He became a Professor of Medicine at Uppsala University in 1697 and retained the chair until 1740. Roberg founded the Nosocomium academicum, the later Uppsala Academic Hospital, in 1708.)

The male fetus, a drawing from around 1700 by the Swedish physician Lars Roberg.