Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 202–223 | Cite as

Humanity at the Edge: The Moral Laboratory of Feeding Precarious Lives

  • Mette N. Svendsen
  • Iben M. Gjødsbøl
  • Mie S. Dam
  • Laura E. Navne
Original Paper


At the heart of anthropology and the social sciences lies a notion of human existence according to which humans and animals share the basic need for food, but only humans have the capacity for morality. Based on fieldwork in a pig laboratory, a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and a dementia nursing home, we follow practices of feeding precarious lives lacking most markers of human personhood, including the exercise of moral judgment. Despite the absence of such markers, laboratory researchers and caregivers in these three sites do not abstain from engaging in questions about the moral status of the piglets, infants, and people with dementia in their care. They continually negotiate how their charges belong to the human collectivity and thereby challenge the notion of ‘the human’ that is foundational to anthropology. Combining analytical approaches that do not operate with a fixed boundary between human and animal value and agency with approaches that focus on human experience and virtue ethics, we argue that ‘the human’ at stake in the moral laboratory of feeding precarious lives puts ‘the human’ in anthropology at disposal for moral experimentation.


Human personhood Moral laboratory Animal experimentation Multi-species Neonatal intensive care Dementia care 


In Western thought, what makes us human is our capacity for creating culture and exercising moral virtues. This view is foundational to anthropology which has taken the human capacity for personhood and meaning-making as its disciplinary ground. Thus, Clifford Geertz described anthropology as an interpretive discipline “in search of meaning” (1973:5). Building on this legacy, Michael Lambek opens his collection of essays on action, person, and value by stating that “ethics is intrinsic to human life” (Lambek 2015:1). This intrinsic proneness refers to the ways in which “we are subject to ethical discrimination and to self-reflection; subject to finding ourselves in relation to others and building continuing relations with one another; subject to action; and subject to the grammar, felicity conditions, effects and consequences of speaking and of embodiment” (ibid.:38). The ‘we’ in such descriptions is a human ‘we’ echoing a division of labor between the sciences, delegating the meaning-making human to social science and the animal and the plants to natural science (Whatmore 2014). Tim Ingold aptly sums up this cultural reasoning: “humans are both persons and organisms, animals are all organism” (2000:48). He further argues that this notion of humanity is the reason why anthropologists and other scientists have enquired into the animal nature of the human, but not into the humanity of non-human animals (ibid.). This is to say, while both humans and animals share basic biological needs such as food, it is not food but moral judgment that differentiates the human from the animal.

In a pig laboratory, a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and a dementia nursing home, the three sites where we carried out ethnographic fieldwork, beings are cared for who do not show ethical exertion and cannot engage in the kind of virtuous actions associated with the meaning-making human. Despite the absence of such virtuous action, caregivers’ situated moral judgment did not treat the individuals in their care as belonging to the ‘animal condition’ and hence their very practices contested the notion of the human at the heart of anthropology. In following their daily work, we became particularly interested in how their ethical exertions draw lines around the human. How, we wondered, is the relationship between food and morality—between the ‘animal condition’ and the capacity for morality—enacted and experienced in practices of feeding piglets, prematurely born infants, and people with late-stage dementia? The present paper is an attempt to pursue this question by tracing the moral experimentation of caregivers in the NICU and the nursing home and that of researchers in the pig laboratory.

We propose that the practices related to food in these three sites constitute moral laboratories (Mattingly 2014) in delineating the value of life at the same time as they pose both possibilities and moral burdens among professionals when faced with life’s fragility. In feeding precarious lives, caregivers negotiate the moral border between human and animal and the moral border between ethical exertion and profound passivity. In the pig laboratory, the experiments we followed concerned the optimization of better nutrition in early life and modeled the piglets as substitutes for overwhelmingly sick infants by making them into bodies on which different forms of baby nutrition could be tested. The researchers and animal technicians feed the piglets and treat them as ‘almost humans’ in an effort to bring the laboratory practices closer to the clinical setting and create worthy lives for prematurely born infants. In the NICU, infants who are born prematurely cannot suckle or absorb food very well and feeding is a high-risk endeavor. The negotiations among doctors and nurses around the most fragile infants illuminate a notion of premature life as ‘not yet quite human’. In the dementia nursing home, elderly people cannot administer their own nutrition or personal hygiene, and those severely progressed in their disease have trouble chewing and swallowing food. Although these elderly people have less prospect of life than the most vulnerable infants in the NICU, caregivers meticulously feed and clean people with late-stage dementia thereby treating them as ‘still humans’ who hold the possibility for exercising moral virtues. In the following, practices of feeding and cleaning bodies at the very fringes of life become our empirical starting point for exploring valuations of life.

Life and Its Worth

To investigate how life and its worth is negotiated in the pig laboratory, the NICU, and the nursing home we need tools that do not in advance take life and worth as givens, but will enable us to explore the processes through which life (of piglets, infants and people with dementia) comes into being and is valued. In the following, we attend to value as an activity rather than something that comes before action and has explanatory power (Dussauge, Helgesson, and Lee 2015). Consequently, we do not operate with a fixed boundary between human and animal value, but pursue how life and valuation in different relationships and spaces are negotiated or problematized (Dussauge, Helgesson, and Lee 2015; Fourcade 2011; Zelizer 1994). This perspective draws on laboratory ethnography and studies in science and technology that direct attention to the distributed character of agency and illuminate how actors (human or nonhuman) are part of larger “actor networks” (Latour 1987) that “configure” (Woolgar 1991), “enact” (Mol 2002) or “script” (Timmerman 1996) them in specific ways. We take inspiration from this literature in bringing the three sites into the same study and exploring how life and its worth are not inherent, but the outcome of connections and disconnections between bodies, feeding machines, catheters, pumps, name plates, tubes, spoons, diapers and other components. We suggest that dissolving the dichotomy between human and nonhuman, and between human social life on the one hand and biological bodies on the other, enables us to explore the complex attachments and detachments that make bodies and lives emerge and gain significance (Wool 2015). In undermining the nature/culture distinction, this perspective taps into studies of the anthropology of food that ethnographically inquire into generic categories, such as nature and meat (Yates-Doerr and Mol 2012), and attend to absorption as a process through which bodies draw the environment into themselves while at the same time shaping that environment (Solomon 2016). Placing this interest in the porosity between body, food, and environment in conversation with recent studies on imaginations and enactments of the human in the sciences (Rees 2015, 2017), we explore how practices of feeding precarious lives end up creating new ways of doing the human.

For the researchers in the animal laboratory, and the caregivers in the NICU and the dementia nursing home, the daily engagement with precarious lives raises questions about the ‘good’—about doing the best possible, not only care-wise but also morally and ethically speaking—and about what counts as a life worth living. Cheryl Mattingly’s work on moral laboratories (2014) urges us to explore how people as experiencing subjects attempt to realize morally worthy lives (ibid.:10), what life projects are at stake in their striving (ibid.:12), and how this striving is “marked with a radical uncertainty” (ibid.:16). Bearing in mind this “first-person virtue ethics” (ibid.:9–14) we engage what is at stake for the caregivers in our three sites. In the pig laboratory, the NICU, and the dementia nursing home, caregivers hold in trust or erase the moral lives of the animals and humans in their care and struggle to determine the worth and “life projects” (cf. Mattingly 2014) of these beings. In tracing these processes, we weave together third-person descriptions of the mix of human and nonhuman actors and first-person experiences, thereby engaging the uncanny interface between laboratory studies and moral anthropology. Had we only approached our three sites from the perspective of distributed agency, we would not have come to explore the moral agency of caregivers and animal researchers. Had we, on the other hand, only followed Cheryl Mattingly’s call to engage first-person-virtue-ethics, only the caregivers and researchers’ experiences and commitments would have mattered, not their enactments of the human. We suggest that the combination of treating the three sites as parallel practices and of engaging the moral agency of caregivers and researchers holds the potential to track humanity at the edge.

Multi-sited and Multi-species Ethnography

The ethnography on which this article draws comes out of a collaborative project initiated in 2013.1 Over a period of 18 months, ethnographic fieldwork took place in an animal laboratory (third author Mie S. Dam), a NICU (fourth author Laura E. Navne), and a dementia nursing home (second author Iben M. Gjødsbøl), all located in or around Copenhagen in Denmark. In these sites second, third, and fourth authors followed daily work practices and interviewed professionals along with parents in the NICU and relatives of residents in the nursing home. The first author, Mette N. Svendsen, participated in a number of these interviews. Since 2009, she has been researching human and animal relationships in the field of neonatology, conducting shorter periods of fieldwork in laboratory, clinical and agricultural sites and interviewing professionals in these sites. 54 persons were interviewed in total across all projects.

When discussing the ethnography at monthly meetings, we have treated each site—visited by all team members—as a ‘prism’ for the other sites, thereby crafting what we call ‘thickness by comparison’. With this, we use the classic comparative method of anthropology to reveal the many differences between sites and draw out common features. However, where comparison in anthropology has moved across geographical distances, our method of thickness by comparison travels across categories of newborn and old, human and animal, within the same society; categories that are so evident that we easily forget that “it could be otherwise” (Woolgar & Lezaun 2013). In being both multi-sited (Marcus 1995) and multi-species (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010), this prism methodology has helped us unravel the different edges of the human as they appear across species and dissimilar spaces. If from the outset we imagined negotiations of the value of life to be part of reflective discussions among the various caregivers, we quickly realized that such discussions belonged to the exception rather than the rule.2 What we encountered were caregivers whose days to a large extent were structured around feeding and cleaning bodies. Overwhelmingly present in the everyday care work were the materiality, smell, work load, and intimate social relations involved in attending to the absorption of food by bodies. Thus, by juxtaposing ethnographies from our three sites we zoom in on the work of ‘doing’ morality rather than ‘saying’ morality.

Sustaining Precarious Lives

“You cannot let people starve or go thirsty, no way! As a professional health person you are obliged to exercise care and conscientiousness and that is certainly not to let people starve and be thirsty. [Food and drinks] belong to the basics.” This statement came from Helene, a former highly placed employee in the Danish Health and Medicines Authority who we interviewed about her key role in developing a set of guidelines for end of life treatment in Danish health care (Danish Health and Medicines Authority 2012a, b). In many respects, Helene stated the evident. It is hard to imagine any health professional who would let a patient starve or suffer thirst.

In the interview, Helene was very clear in making a distinction between on the one hand, food and drinks of which a person cannot be deprived, and, on the other, life sustaining treatment which can be an object of decision-making, that is, moral exertion, and therefore either may be withdrawn or continued. In Denmark euthanasia is prohibited, yet discontinuing life support is a possibility when treatment is considered futile (Danish Health and Medicines Authority 2012a, b). In the Danish guidelines for discontinuing life support, water and food are not mentioned and as our interviews demonstrated, this rests on a key distinction between nutrition and medical treatment. As Helene explained, “If you end up in palliative care, it is alright to increase the morphine dose, but not to reduce the intake of fluid”. This interpretation is in line with declarations that emphasize access to nutrition and water as a human right (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 2003).

Access to food and drink is also mentioned in the legislation on the welfare of animals. As a member state of the European Union, Denmark follows EU animal welfare legislation which is based on the five freedoms3 that include “freedom from hunger and thirst”. In the legislation for the use of animals in science, it says that member states shall ensure that “all animals are provided with accommodation, an environment, food, water and care that are appropriate to their health and well-being” (EU 2010, Article 33, 1a). This statement supports another general statement of the legislative act on animals in research that they “have an intrinsic value which must be respected” (Article 12). That is, the obligations of animal ‘caregivers’ come close to the moral obligations of caregivers in human health care: food belongs to the basic condition of both human and animal life and as a caregiver you are not permitted to let anyone (human or nonhuman) starve or suffer from thirst.

Nevertheless, these obligations cannot change the moral economy of animal experimentation which legitimizes the killing of research animals as part of creating welfare and survival for humans. In the Danish legislation regarding animals in research, a “considerable benefit” (“væsentlig gavn”) for humans, animals or plants (Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark 2014, §8) needs to be predicted for an experiment to be approved. Consequently, depriving research animals of food and fluids or providing them with nutrition that causes disease and suffering may be legitimized if the harm to the animal can be balanced against the expected benefits. In other words, the boundary between food and medication that the legislation makes all-important in relation to humans dissolves in the context of animals in research. Consequently, depriving an animal of food as part of an experiment can be approved, and euthanasia is not illegal but is the proper way to end the animal’s life, providing the creature is “killed with minimum pain, suffering and distress” (EU 2010, Article 6). When an animal is doing work for the species—either improving the health of the human species or the health of their own species—killing is no longer a routinized act as in the slaughter house, but gains the character of the sacrifice.4

Taken together, legislation on human and animal life reflects a strong notion of food as a basic need, a ‘ground level’ of both beings, and suggests that meeting this need is a way of respecting sentient (human and animal) life as something that has value in and of itself. At the same time, however, the various guidelines and the practices in which they are based reflect a significant distinction between ‘killable’ and ‘non-killable’ individuals. Thus, while the ability to eat marks a biological continuity between human and animal, the obligation to offer food and to continue feeding introduces a moral discontinuity between human and animal. Whereas ‘care persons’ (animal technicians or researchers) in animal laboratories may deprive animals of food and drink and kill them as part of creating health and welfare for humans, ‘care persons’ (caregivers) in human health care are not permitted to end the lives of humans by withholding food and drink. Only withdrawal of medical treatment (which may lead to death) is a possibility in very specific cases. Hence, following matters of feeding among precarious animals and humans sheds further light on the role of food in drawing lines around the human, and/or blurring boundaries between human and animal.

Almost Human: Caring for Piglets in the Animal Laboratory

Since the beginning of the 2000s, a Danish group of researchers based in the veterinary campus of Copenhagen University has studied the relationship between gut maturation and nutrition in neonates. The group has built up a renowned expertise in using piglets as an animal model of weak infants at risk of early infections (Sangild et al. 2014) including the devastating and life threatening gut disease, necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). The researchers have become particularly interested in testing the effects of bovine colostrum on gut microbiota, immunity, and cognitive development in prematurely born piglets.5 The aim of their research is to translate the results of the experiments into improved nutrition for infants in NICUs worldwide. Their experiments—like every other animal based biomedical experiment—reflect the dominant Western conception of the human: biological similarity between human and pig qualifies the pig as proxy for the human; moral difference between human and animal makes it possible to treat the pig as expendable, imposing suffering on the animal and killing it at the end of experiment.

On a Friday morning in November 2013, master’s-degree student Emma, postdoctoral researcher Peter, and the third author enter the ‘pig NICU’. Eleven days earlier a pregnant sow from ordinary Danish pig production was moved to the stables at the university and some days later anesthetized and a C-Section carried out. Twenty-three premature piglets were taken out of her huge body and installed in the pig NICU, a room of 25 square meters with a row of incubator-like cages placed on a heated surface. In each cage a small piglet weighing between 300 and 1000 grams was put on a mattress of foam rubber with tubes connecting its body to a nutrition machine on the shelf above the incubator-like cages. During the following 26 days the piglets are to be fed different forms of nutrition and on the last day of the experiment killed and turned into biosamples stored in the freezer. Born prematurely, the piglets are extraordinarily precarious lives that easily come to suffer from the same deadly diseases as infants in the NICU. This is exactly what the study aims at, yet of paramount importance to the researchers is that the piglets stay alive as many days as possible in order to register the effects of different forms of nutrition on their organ development. To achieve this goal takes much individual care within the otherwise standardized experimental set-up; a form of care which for the researchers also represents a way of simulating in their laboratory equipment and practices the equipment and clinical routines in the human NICU. In carefully timing and adjusting the feeding to the piglets’ conditions, attending to them clinically, relieving their pain, and staying in the laboratory during nights, the researchers approach the animals as sentient beings. This is also evident in other ways when Emma, Peter, and the third author enter the pig NICU. One of the master’s students in the group, Anna, has provided each piglet with the name of a Nobel Prize winner and put name signs with pictures of these famous scientists on the cages. In every experiment, a label on each incubator-like cage box has a letter which names the piglet in the study. This morning the cage of Piglet A also bears the name sign and picture of Albert Einstein, Piglet R has a picture of Conrad Röntgen on its cage, the name and picture of Fielding Huxley decorate the cage of Piglet H and so on. “They contribute to research, yet never receive a prize for it”, the third author comments when she sees the naming. “Yes”, Anna replies, “This is the ironic thing”.

As Emma and Peter begin their morning routine, they care for the piglets one at a time. They score the feces on the diaper of each piglet providing a low number for ordinary brown feces indicating a healthy gut, and a high number for diarrhea indicating a gut problem. For the first 5 days of their lives the piglets have been continuously fed parenteral nutrition administered through an artery-catheter. In addition, half of the piglets have been fed bovine colostrum every third hour through a catheter in their oral cavity. The piglets are now eleven days old and able to eat by themselves from a little green feeding trough. The piglets grunt eagerly when Emma or Peter approach them. In shifting the diaper of Huxley and preparing his food, they immediately observe that he is limp and has a distended bowel. “Hey, sweetie” (“Hej, lille ven”) Emma says calmly as she gently puts Huxley on the scale. Peter notices that Huxley has lost weight, which to him is a sign of poor condition as the experiment is based on the dominant assumption in neonatology that growth indicates functional health. Senior researcher Christian enters the pig NICU and joins the discussion about Huxley. He decides to inject rectal gel and water into its intestine to relieve its constipation. Peter comments, “It’s not well. I have to stick by what I usually say. The animals should not suffer. This is NOT the intention. [If they do] then it isn’t much fun”. The study follows all ethics guidelines for professional conduct, but guidelines do not erase moral questions or provide a clear answer to Huxley’s precarious situation. While Anna, Peter, and Christian agree that the best thing for Huxley may be to euthanize it right away to end its sufferings, they also hesitate. More piglets than expected have had to be euthanized during this experiment and if Huxley cannot make it to the scheduled “kill day”, they will have to enroll a whole new litter in the laboratory and run a new study to end up with a sufficiently large cohort. Displeased about the situation, Christian comments, “We have put so many resources into a litter like this”.

Their considerations are interrupted by Anna who enters the pig NICU with an anesthetized sleeping piglet in her arms. This pig belongs to the litter enrolled in the laboratory four weeks earlier which has now reached their “kill day”. Together with Peter, who heads the study, Anna has taken on an enormous amount of work caring for this litter. She has been in the animal laboratory almost every day for several weeks feeding the piglets and testing them cognitively and she knows each of the piglets individually. Her toneless posture and unhappy face communicate her sadness about the impending killing of the pig in her arms. With a comforting smile, Peter says softly, “Are we to call the grief counsellor?” Although they all smile at the joke, no one laughs at Anna. The third author intuitively gives Anna and her pig a hug. Everyone in the group is, from their own experience, aware of the ambiguities of treating the piglets as both sentient beings and data. These ambiguities are also expressed in other ways. Often the researchers address the piglets as if they were their infants, for instance closing a feeding session by saying, “Goodnight my babies” (see Svendsen and Koch 2013) or with a smile remarking to a piglet that is eating well, “Daddy is proud of you”. Experiences of human-animal relatedness and questions about the moral boundaries of using animals in research continually reemerge in laboratory life (Sharp 2013). In the pig laboratory, it is during the researchers’ many hours of feeding and meticulous care of the piglets that expressions of kinship mostly occur.

In his work on the ethical condition of being human, Lambek discusses irony as a form of human agency that “names the recognition that one is subject to multiple and possibly competing, contradictory, or incommensurable aims, claims, intensions, desires, or commitments” (Lambek 2015:20). The irony that we encountered repeatedly in the laboratory points to the ethical scene that unfolds in the daily routines of feeding, cleaning, and killing piglets. This ethical scene we may conceptualize as a moral laboratory in striving for the right balance between doing good to the pig and doing good to research. At stake for Christian, Emma, and Peter in attending to Huxley is the question of how to balance the best for the individual pig against the costs of running a new study in terms of time, work load, money and suffering for the new litter of piglets. This is also what is at stake in the shifts in gender naming around Huxley. Peter refers to the pig as both Huxley whose sufferings he wishes to end and as “it” that needs to create good data. Thus, the practices and dialogue of the researchers illuminate their constant attempts to sound out the right way to handle piglet suffering in the context of both its existential affinity with the human and its identity as a tool for human health and potential. Although the researchers situate their actions within the moral economy of animal experimentation which unambiguously conditions the animal as a source of human health, they cannot erase the existential affinity between pig and human that Anna so vividly embodies and which is of central importance to running the experiments and ensuring the piglets remain alive in the experiment as long as possible. In feeding the piglets and determining the length and quality of each piglet’s life, the researchers inhabit the ambiguous space of making the pig become almost human and, at the same time, letting it stay within the experimental design that imposes suffering and death on it.

At some point this same morning, Huxley’s respiration worsens and after consulting Christian, Emma and Peter reckon that even if they decide not to euthanize it, Huxley will die anyway very soon. In the experimental practice a piglet that dies by itself represents a wasted life. To become good samples, Huxley needs to die immediately before being dissected. Annoyed and sorry about the worsened situation, they decide to euthanize Huxley right away. Before noon, Huxley and the pig in Anna’s arms have been turned into roughly 160 samples stored in the freezer.

In these laboratory practices, an alterity between human and animal is simultaneously dissolved and upheld. This bears some resemblance to kinship practices among the Korowai people in Indonesia described by Rupert Stasch (2009). Stasch argues that the Korowai organize and experience social engagements and relations around ways in which they are distant from each other and strange to each other. For instance, due to avoidance practices between mother-in-law and son-in-law, these two persons who are often in each other’s presence must stay out of each other’s sight, avoid bodily contact, and are not allowed to eat from the same plate. In upholding such avoidance imperatives, mother-in-law and son-in-law perform “reciprocal engagement” (Stasch 2009:87) and express that the relation is morally valuable to them. Such detachment practices are also thematized in Matei Candea’s ethnography about researchers and meerkats in the Kalahari. He makes the observation that both researchers and meerkats abstain from direct engagement and through their detachment practices become active participants in various human-animal-technical social relations (Candea 2010). In spelling out the productive aspects of distance, he concludes that detachment is a form of engagement.

To consider otherness and distance as a quality of social relations is enlightening when understanding human–pig relationships in the Danish laboratory. The researchers establish a kind of interspecies kinship (Govindrajan 2015), we might say, by caring for the warm pig bodies in their arms and jokingly addressing them as “my babies” or as doppelgängers of famous scientists.6 At the same time the researchers uphold the avoidance imperative by abstaining from treating the piglets as humans who can escape suffering and euthanization. In combining intimacy and distance they struggle for a kind of “intimate alterity” (Stasch 2009:117) facilitating the tie between the pigs and the infants that their research is all about. The physical laboratory space is as much a moral laboratory as a real laboratory where the researchers strive to do well for the individual piglet in the contradictory circumstances of exploiting it, and to work for infant health as they contest human uniqueness. Their virtuous acts of shifting between existential affinity with the pig and their killing of it illuminate the daily work of turning the piglets into ‘almost humans’. In the laboratory practices, killing becomes something very different from a routine slaughter. The proper death is one that enables the piglets to pave the way towards better food and health for infants in the NICU.

Not yet Human: Caring for Premature Infants in the NICU

In the NICU in Copenhagen, prematurely born infants are treated as early as gestation week 23. Among the smallest infants born between weeks 23 and 27 of gestation, there is a 60% chance of survival and out of these surviving infants, 30–50% risk a wide range of physical and mental disabilities. Medical technology, expertise, and constant care from specialized professionals are at the heart of the impressive survival rate given how fragile and immature these infants are. Although most infants survive, death is well known in this setting as are discussions around what counts as a ‘good life’ when disabilities are likely to appear.

In Denmark as in many other countries, nursing policies and guidelines place a great emphasis on breast feeding. This is also the case in the NICU. However, due to premature birth it is often difficult for mothers to start breast milk production. Consequently, the days of most couples in the NICU are structured around producing and preparing milk for their infant. The mother may still be at the maternity ward spending hours every day on pumping breast milk, the father carrying milliliters of milk from the mother to the infant where he is instructed by nurses in how to feed the infant. As most mothers do not have sufficient milk for their child, many infants have their diets supplemented by human donor milk or formula; many of the smallest infants rely heavily on parenteral nutrition through the blood. Although the neonate is dependent on food and fluids to grow and mature, the immaturity of the gut complicates digestion, and the infant may contract deadly diseases such as NEC. That is, while food and fluids are basic essentials without which the infant cannot survive, they are also high-risk matters to be decided on the daily doctor’s round and treated like a medication: which nutrition to put in the catheter, what amount, and when to let it enter the body of the infant. These decisions affect the infant’s chances of survival and the quality of its future life.

Despite the fact that food and feeding practices in the NICU are very far from either a nursing situation or an ordinary meal, we often encountered the nurses actively articulating connections between feeding the infant and more ordinary food situations. In referring to the individual nutrition schemes, one nurse called these “the menu”. The same nurse referred to the dosing cup and the syringe through which the food is provided to the infant as “knife and fork”. In one situation, an infant was relying heavily on parenteral nutrition through the blood, and the mother’s milk was only a supplement. However, it was after the nurse had provided the infant with five milliliters of mother’s milk through a stomach tube that the nurse contently remarked, “He has eaten up” (“spist op”). Although the milk did not come into contact with the infant’s throat, she said “You have to take care so that he won’t cough it up or choke”. In using a language that belongs to the ordinary meal situation for humans (“menu”; “knife and fork”) or the ordinary situation of feeding a small child (“eating up”; “cough up food”; “choke”) along with emphasizing the importance of mother’s milk as the “real” meal, we may see these statements and feeding activities as practices that morally incorporate the infant in a family and in human ways of eating.

The question of becoming human is also at stake in other ways in the NICU. On an evening watch in February 2014, Doctor Frederic attends to an infant boy, Noé, born the same day in gestation week 23. Noé is highly immature and the clinicians do not expect him to survive. Yet, uncertainty is the staunchest companion in neonatology (Mesman 2008) and clinicians know from experience never to predict how an infant may develop in the first hours, days, and weeks in the NICU. This evening Noé’s incubator looks different from other incubators on the ward. The glass is steamy indicating a high level of humidity. When Doctor Frederic opens the small window to the incubator, a tiny body of 20 cm becomes visible. His skin looks dark blue and transparent. Doctor Frederic lifts his arm slightly and experiences no resistance. “A fetus”, he comments. The humidity inside the incubator indicates that Noé is losing fluids and cannot absorb the liquids he is fed. Outside the room, the fourth author talks to another doctor, Doctor Thomas, about Noé and asks him if he, too, considers Noé a fetus. Doctor Thomas answers, “Well… considering his vulnerability, yes…his skin provides such a thin barrier between his body and the world, fluids penetrate his skin…but is he a human? Yes indeed he is, with a right to live because he is born, and he is here now”. In pointing out the nebulous barrier between Noé and the incubator, Doctor Thomas himself raises the question of humanness and thereby underlines Noé’s marginality. In answering his own question, he actively moves Noé into the human collectivity and confirms his right to live.

Ten minutes later Nurse Louise brings Doctor Frederic the results of Noé’s blood samples. The samples reveal a huge blood loss which the two of them suspect may be caused by fluid loss or cerebral bleeding. They decide to brain scan him immediately and push the huge mobile brain scanner into his room. Doctor Frederic runs a tiny doptone over Noé’s bald head. Looking at the screen, he says, “I have never seen a brain this immature.” Later, by the computer where Doctor Frederic is documenting the results or the blood samples and the brain scan, he comments, “In this case we are in the veterinarian world” (“veterinærverdenen”). When the fourth author asks him to elaborate, he says, “It is a fetus we are treating here”. Doctor Frederic is not joking or smiling as he mentions the veterinarian world, a term that associates knowledge and treatment of animals. Yet there is a level of irony in his statement as he does not seriously take Noé for an animal nor the NICU for a veterinarian department. He does not contest that Noé is born from human parents and biogenetically human. Rather, the ironic comment about the veterinarian world questions the value of Noé’s life and thereby points to the discrepancies between the clinical aim of making viable healthy babies and the present task this evening of treating an infant who is so immature and at the fringes of life that he is somehow comparable with an animal.7 If against the odds Noé does survive, he is susceptible to great disabilities thus creating a scenario that is very far from the heroic clinician who heals and contributes to good lives. In other situations of treating infants at risk of severe neurological disabilities, clinicians voiced their fear of an infant ending as a ‘vegetable’ in a wheelchair without any language or motor function, that is, with no capacity for ethical exertion. Here, the ‘vegetable’ metaphor expresses doubt about continued treatment by articulating the infant’s life as at the margins of the human species.

Although Doctor Thomas’s comment that the infant is human and has a right to live is a much more common articulation in the NICU8 than Doctor Frederic’s comment about the veterinarian world, both comments raise questions about how best to act when the boundary between animal and human and between the experimental and the clinical setting is slippery and when clinical work also requires them to patrol the borders of who is to be included in the collectivity of living humans or excluded from it.

Ethnography from around the world has documented the many ways in which fetuses, prematurely born infants, or full term infants may be conceived as monstrous, not quite human, or not a full person in a variety of societies (Fortes 1987; Morgan 2009; Stasch 2009; Scheper-Hughes 1992; Gammeltoft 2014). In this light it is not so much the contested species identity of an infant that is interesting, but, rather, what it takes for a being to become human in various societies. In the NICU, all the usual ways for an infant to enter the world by being taken care of by parents in a home are suspended. The mere survival of prematurely born infants is conditioned on detaching infants from the bodies of their parents and connecting them to technology and professional expertise (Landzelius 2003). In this high technological setting, attachment between parents and child are facilitated and emphasized in other ways. All parents have a bed next to their infant and are encouraged to stay in the NICU both days and nights. Soon after the infant’s arrival in the NICU, a poster with the infant’s name and the names of his/her parents are put up above the incubator and within the first days drawings from siblings, photos of the parents, teddy bears and other objects come to decorate the incubator, firmly placing the infant in a family and connecting him/her to a home outside the NICU. In this setting, name plates and photos are not joking arrangements as is the case in the pig NICU. Rather the decorations of the space around the incubator represent the right way of becoming an infant in the NICU, illustrating how the identity of a human person—in contrast to an animal in research—is enacted through being given a name, placed in a family, and linked to spaces and futures outside the NICU (Svendsen 2015).

In the animal laboratory, the success of the experiment depends on making the piglets ‘species flexible’ (Dam et al. forthcoming). In the NICU, the infants at the very fringes of life are ‘species flexible’, too. Yet on this site, all efforts go into making them become full humans and full members of a family. When this is not possible—if an infant cannot absorb food and fluids, as with Noé—the moral burdens of acting as custodians of humanity come to the fore. Later in the night when Doctor Frederic and Nurse Marianne are putting a long line on a very small infant in an incubator next to Noé’s, Nurse Marianne tells Doctor Frederic that Gustav, an infant they treated nine months ago, visited the clinic the day before. The ear specialist expects Gustav to be completely deaf, and the eye specialist expects him to end up with severe visual impairment. Nurse Marianne herself found Gustav’s reactions abnormal and she wonders whether this might indicate a neurological problem also. Addressing the fourth author, Nurse Marianne says, “I have stayed in this field for 25 years, so somehow it must be meaningful …”. Then, Nurse Marianne and Doctor Frederic go on to talk about the many success stories of infants treated who develop perfectly normally and have happy healthy lives, yet Doctor Frederic ends the conversation saying, “There is no doubt that some of our infants pay a high price for others of our infants to gain the good life”, thereby hesitantly suggesting that Gustav, along with Noé if he survives, represent the unavoidable losses in the fight for saving the many infants born prematurely. Here too, we might note, Noé unintentionally comes close to the research piglets that is sacrificed for the health and wellbeing of the larger collectivity of future neonates.

When treating infants like Noé, the clinicians cannot predict the future of the child receiving treatment. They hope for a good positive outcome, yet they also know that some infants end up severely disabled like Gustav. In the daily practices of attending to infants and instructing parents in how to take part in the feeding, the clinicians do what they can to establish lives worth living; and as part of this endeavor they come to orchestrate and oversee who enters the collectivity of livable humans. Such a task is in no respect a question of decision-making or simply following a guideline. Rather, it involves acts of connecting infants to technology, food, and parents, and constantly monitoring and adjusting these connections in light of the infant’s shifting situation. Whereas in the animal laboratory alterity is part of what makes the researchers’ relations to the pigs poignant and valuable (without the sacrifice the experiments would lose their meaning), alterity in infants at the margins of life in the NICU becomes an impetus to make them familiar, leave the borderland and enter the human collectivity. In both questioning and stating the meaning of this endeavor, Nurse Marianne reveals to us that the moral peril of this ongoing work can never be fully erased. While Gustav continues to live on, Noé died before he reached one week.

Still Human: Caring for People with Dementia in the Nursing Home

In Denmark’s welfare state, when people with dementia can no longer take care of themselves or it becomes too great a burden for their spouse or children to care for them, they are moved into a nursing home run by the Danish state. In the nursing home, activities related to food and personal hygiene—which before transition to the nursing home involved close relatives—are now in the hands of caregivers. In one of the large dementia nursing homes at the outskirts of Copenhagen, which the second author visited during her fieldwork, daily care work is to a large extent structured around preparing food, giving food to residents, and cleaning their bodies. In one of the wards for people with common types of dementia—Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia—the caregivers make great efforts to establish the shared kitchen as a living room for the residents where they can interact and share meals. Of paramount importance in their care is the incitement to respect residents and meet their many and varied wishes when it comes to eating porridge in the middle of the day or wearing pieces of clothes that do not go together. In talking to an elderly lady, Martha, about the fruit salad to be prepared in the kitchen, the caregiver asks Martha for advice and tries to engage her in a conversation about the fruit salad. When Martha a few moments later begins her usual cry of sorrow, “God, please let me die, I don’t want to be here anymore”, the caregiver does not simply ignore her or belittle her inquiries, but responds, “I don’t kill anyone on Mondays”. Very dissatisfied, Martha says, “Oh, what a pity”. The dialogue almost brings us back into the laboratory space of scheduled “kill days”. In the dementia nursing home, however, Martha’s wish for a “kill day” provokes an ironic response that at once respects her as a person and dismisses her wish, and also introduces humor into the exchange. This short dialogue reminds us of the strong presence of death in the dementia nursing home and the many forces—from legislation to daily care work—that hold it at bay.

While the residents’ right of self-determination is in many respects with and without irony guarded by caregivers, what they do not tolerate is strongly compromised personal hygiene. Hence, when an elderly woman has feces on her fingers as she is lying on the sofa in the kitchen, the two caregivers engage in conversation with her, yet do not accept her opposition to being washed, but resolutely take her under her arms and put her in the shower.

The task of cleaning the bodies of residents and engaging them in eating become paramount in the later stages of the disease when people with dementia cannot eat by themselves, speak, or move around. In the dementia nursing home, residents who are bedridden belong in a specialized unit. As they have difficulties chewing and swallowing food, the caregivers blend food into a smooth puree and mix juice with a thickening powder before they spoon-feed the residents. Mary, a caregiver, enters the room of an elderly lady, Karen, sits at her bedside and begins to feed her with thickened juice. Karen has no language and is only able to say one sound “gek–gek”, yet Mary, who knows Karen well, is able to interpret her different ways of saying “gek–gek”. On this morning in June 2014, Mary speaks to Karen about the sweet tooth that she has always had, and Mary hums a children’s song while slowly filling the spoon with porridge and bringing it to Karen’s mouth, waiting for her to open the mouth before she carefully lets the porridge glide onto her tongue. Through the meal Karen’s “gek–gek” changes into a more delighted tone. At one point Karen expresses some sounds difficult for the second author (who assists Mary) to interpret, but Mary immediately recognizes these sounds as sneezes. At the end of the meal, Karen utters sounds that come close to a kind of humming, and Mary responds by continuing the humming that Karen has started. When Karen has eaten her porridge, Mary leaves her and enters the kitchen to prepare breakfast for the next resident. Here she meets a colleague who proudly shows Mary the almost empty bowl and says, “It was great. She [the resident next door to Karen] just ate”. As “just eating” is not easily achieved in the specialized unit, the caregivers exchange experiences of how to make residents swallow food and take in as many calories as possible. They prepare protein-dense smoothies and sweeten the food in ways they think suit the tastes of the residents. When feeding and washing residents, they notice and recognize every small step that indicates that a resident is smiling a little more than usual or in other ways responding to the care situation. In an interview, the manager of the nursing home referred to such moments of successful interaction as “magical moments”. In many respects, Mary and Karen’s interaction of humming to each other counts as such a magical moment. By feeding people with late-stage dementia, placing them in a biography (as when Mary refers to Karen’s sweet tooth), and valuing and highlighting the responses they make—be it a barely audible humming, a difference in the tone of “gek–gek” or a raised eyebrow—caregivers constitute people with dementia as meaning-making individuals who have a capacity for ethical exertion and thus continue to hold human value.

Nevertheless, caregivers also face situations in which their continuous care for a person with dementia is brought into question. One evening a couple of weeks after the morning where Mary fed Karen breakfast, another caregiver, Ellen, is entering Karen’s room to feed her. Karen expresses some gek–gek sounds that to the second author, who assists Ellen, almost sound like sobbing. Ellen puts strawberry pudding on the spoon and begins to feed Karen. After a few spoonfuls, Karen uses her tongue to block her mouth every time the spoon comes close. “I don’t think you are that hungry today, Karen”, Ellen comments as she moves the spoon to Karen’s mouth and gently presses it towards her lips. Karen does not open her mouth. Ellen tries again. She moves the spoon to Karen’s mouth, saying, “Here is one more spoonful, if you like”. Karen continues to block her mouth with her tongue, yet Ellen gently continues to encourage her to eat. After many unsuccessful attempts, Ellen says, “I think we’d better end now”. She cleans Karen’s eyes, where pus has formed, and puts on some calm music. Karen whimpers as Ellen and the second author leave the room. In the kitchen, Ellen comments to the second author that perhaps Karen is not interested in food; maybe she does not want to be disturbed. “For how long is one supposed to encourage feeding and stay with the person?” Ellen asks. Although food and drink belong to the basics in the nursing home, and structure daily care practices, the feeding routines also raise fundamental questions about how to respect the resident with late-stage dementia as, on the one hand, a responding and interacting person who has a will, and, on the other, as a human person who cannot be permitted to starve to death. In other words, is the blocked mouth an expression of Karen’s personal wish to not eat, and hence an expression of the “autonomy” often associated with being human? Or is the blocked mouth an expression of her cognitive deficits and an invitation to care for her by insisting on making her eat? As Harbers, Mol and Stollmeyer point out, ethnographies about feeding in the nursing home “articulate the moments at which one feels one is intruding, the occasions of tensions, where there is hurt—and also point out those locations where the good is sought or enacted in one or other of its variants” (Harbers, Mol, and Stollmeyer 2002:219). In the moral laboratory for experimenting in how best to care for people with late-stage dementia and to respect their human value, Ellen, Mary, and other caregivers sit at the beds of people with dementia hoping and striving for a cheerful “gek–gek”, an open mouth or another kind of cooperating response. Such “magical moments” do not come easily or often. As is the case in both the pig lab and the NICU, the moral experimentation in the nursing home contains spaces of possibility and moral perils and disappointments (Mattingly 2014:15). Ellen leaves Karen doubting what ‘the best good’ is. During the second author’s fieldwork, the caregivers debated as to how long staff should continue putting food on a spoon and encouraging the resident to eat, and they agreed on a maximum time of 20 min. In leaving Karen the day she does not want to eat, Ellen comments that this new guideline is helpful. It provides her with some point of orientation as she tries to hold dementia-sufferers in life and personhood, maintaining their human value, their worth.

Although caregivers in the nursing home are indeed nurturing human value, there was in this setting no question about the essential humanity of the elderly people with dementia. No caregiver would dream of comparing the person with dementia with an animal. While the caregivers may draw subtle comparisons between small children and people with dementia (as when Mary sings children’s songs for Karen), the dementia sufferers are not ‘species flexible’ in the same way as the piglets and the infants. It is not the border between human and animal that is at stake in daily care practices, but the border between the capacity for moral judgment and the absence of such judgment and agency. Consequently, the alterity of the person with dementia and the ideal able-bodied and able-minded independent human person is continuously overcome, erased we might say, by creating a space of possibility for dementia sufferers to appear as responding persons; making them live up to human ways of keeping bodies such as not tolerating feces on fingers and furniture; and manifesting their human value by daily feeding them and putting great efforts into attaching them to life. In these practices we see parallels to practices in the NICU where the language about knife and fork create spaces of possibilities for the tiny premature baby to act as a human person.

When directly asked, caregivers tell us that they do not wish to become residents in the institution themselves (see Gjødsbøl et al. forthcoming). At the same time as they put all their work efforts into caring for and sustaining in life the person with dementia, they thoroughly dislike the possibility of ending their own life in the nursing home: they find highly disturbing the passivity of the residents with late-stage dementia. Consequently, what we see in all three sites is that the practices that produce a particular moral truth also hold within them possibilities for critique (Mattingly 2014:155). In the dementia nursing home, the very striving to transform highly passive bodies into responding bodies is continuously being challenged by the caregivers themselves. In the midst of patrolling the borders around the human, insisting on treating the person with dementia as still human and worthy of life and care, Martha’s pleading voice (“…please let me die!”) cannot be truly expelled.

What it Takes to be Human

In the feeding of research piglets, extremely prematurely born infants, and people with late stage dementia, researchers and caregivers attend to beings that do not possess the usual markers of human personhood. In that sense, they reside outside the category of the moral person that is at the center of anthropology and the social sciences more generally. Nevertheless the care practices we followed in all three sites demonstrate that caregivers do not treat the individuals in their care as simply “faceless flesh” (Bruns 2011:66). Rather, in preparing and providing food for these beings, caregivers negotiate the worthiness of their lives, and as part of daily work they come to administer and orchestrate who is to enter, leave, or stay in the human collectivity.

This daily care work is not so much centered on ‘what it means to be human’ as on ‘what it takes to be human’. In sharing with us their cultivation of magical moments, their daily efforts of creating lives worth living, and their hope of transforming the lives of the piglets and humans they care for, we come to see the caregivers’ and animal researchers’ ‘first person’ character and realize that the life-giving and life-draining power of their work is as much about their own belonging in a moral human community as it is about the humanity or non-humanity of the individuals in their care. In all three sites, ‘what it takes’ to be human encompasses a systematics of acting humanely by offering food as part of daily routines. This systematics intersects with the systematics of the ‘real’ animal laboratory when the researchers create knowledge about gut and brain developments by following a protocol, standardizing nutrition, scoring diapers, measuring food. Although Mattingly explores moral experimentation as part of ordinary life (2014:61–79), she does not bring in a vocabulary from the real laboratory (protocols, standardization etc.) to theorize the moral laboratory’s ordinary routines. Rather, she solely mobilizes the laboratory trope to highlight the natality aspect of experimenting with what the good life might be and how to live it in situations of illness and suffering. In the spirit of Mattingly’s work, this is also what we have done here. Nevertheless, our empirical sites bring to light the ways in which the explorative aspects of moral becoming are rooted in standardized practices and rigorous routines that are fundamental to the ‘real’ laboratory. Moreover, when caregivers and researchers systematically act humanely by letting food slip from the spoon or the syringe into the bodies of piglets, infants, and people with dementia, these actions do not only shape their moral subjectivity (as Mattingly would have it). With their very material processes of feeding precarious lives, new enactments of the human and new human subject positions continuously open up.

In the animal laboratory, the very comparability of the pig and the human, which is at the core of the laboratory practices, does not subject the pigs to an ‘animal condition’ of only basic needs. Rather the daily practices of feeding and caring for the piglets create a space for moral experimentation in which the piglets become species flexible and thereby almost humans. If it is so that absorption is “the possibility for bodies, substances, and environments to mingle, draw attention to each other, and even shift definitional parameters in the process” (Solomon 2016:5), then the absorptive processes we witnessed in the laboratory continuously dissolve species boundaries. The distinct practices of laboratory work incorporate piglets into the human collectivity and delineate researcher and piglet in new ways. A form of interspecies kinship is fostered with which the piglets as children of the researchers or as doubles of prize winning scientists are treated as sentient individuals and attached both to the researchers who care for them and the infants who they act as models for. The virtuous action strived for concerns the conjoining of intimacy and alterity. In other words, to the researchers, the moral distance implied in the killing of the pig is crucial to the completion of the relationship between infant and pig at which their research aims.

In the NICU, the extremely prematurely born infant is also species flexible. The doctor’s ironic comment about the veterinarian world may be seen as a moral experimentation that makes Noé comparable with an animal and places him on the low end of the scale of existence. (A scale, we might note, which has already been abandoned in the laboratory where the pigs as kin of the researchers and doubles of famous scientists have become much more than pigs). Consequently, the moral experimentation of the laboratory and the NICU illuminates the contestations around who belongs in the category of the human person. Nevertheless, in the NICU all efforts are put into turning the ‘animal-like’ or ‘plant-like’ neonate at the margins of life into a familiar human. Feeding practices play a central role in placing the infant in kinship with parents and attaching infants to the human collectivity. In combination with all the technology and specialized medical expertise, the omnipresence of the parents in the NICU and the value put on mother’s milk hold the potential to move the infants from the borderland of humanity into the human collectivity. In this setting, the moral economy in the animal laboratory intersects with the less obvious moral economy in the NICU where less successful treatments of some children may be experienced as ‘the price’ to pay for other infants to become lives worth living.

In the dementia nursing home, the person with dementia is unambiguously placed in the human collectivity and cannot escape ‘the human’ in the same way as is possible for the piglet and the infant. Despite the fact that many people in the dementia nursing home do not have family who visit them on a regular basis to retain them in kinship, the person with late-stage dementia is not being transformed into life without human predicates. He/she remains “a candidate for the human” (Bruns 2011:44–45). Thereby the dementia case illuminates a difference in the framework of moral experimentation in early and late life. In early life the infant at the edge of humanity may slip into the ‘veterinarian world’ rendering explicit the moral border between human and animal in Western thought; in late life the person may eventually lose agency and the narrative capacities for placing him/herself in time, rendering visible the conjoined moral border between ‘showing human agency’ and profound passivity. Therefore, alterity in the form of strange sounds or movements, or the absence of action is a circumstance that needs to be overcome by creating possibilities for people with dementia to appear as recognizable persons (Taylor 2008) and by confirming their human value through continued feeding. If a discontinuation of feeding is to be practiced, the people with dementia need to act ‘first persons’ by showing ‘will’ and ‘autonomy’.

Matters of food and excrement which in Western philosophy belong to the basics—the ‘ground level’ of animal needs—reveal themselves as practices in which caregivers participate in moral experimentation and, whether they like it or not, they come to act as custodians of humanity. This experimental work—inextricably linked to the metabolic processes of absorbing food—matters to the researchers and caregivers as individuals and professionals. Although we have not in this paper explored how moral experimentation travels into other situations, it has been our experience that in all three sites moral experimentation comes to inform the work of the various professionals. Thus, for instance, the notion of ‘magical moments’ among staff in the dementia nursing home seems to have developed from previous moral experiments on how to care for and treat people with dementia.

The work of the caregivers and the researchers, with their experience in walking the borders at the edges of humanity, also matters to the social scientists. We began this article as an ethnographic engagement with anthropological conceptions of the moral person as foundational to the discipline. Our exploration of daily care practices in the pig laboratory, the NICU, and the dementia nursing home illuminates that this concept of the human as a meaning-making creature can never be stable. The relational politics at stake in feeding precarious lives spells out the power of porosity between caregivers acting humanely by offering food and the many different precarious lives that through these acts become connected to the human collectivity. If we initially used the term ‘human collectivity’ to refer to a moral fellowship of viable human beings, our prism methodology has dug out the heterogeneity of this collectivity, rendering visible the ‘human’ in the barely responding person with dementia and illuminating the ‘human’ in the animal and the ‘animal’ in the human. This latter point may remind us of the anthropological possibilities of enquiring into the humanity of non-human animals (cf. Ingold 2000). In other words, border, edge, and maintenance practices in doing the human force open our all too generic Western category of ‘the human’. The ethnography highlights not so much the possibility of being less or more human as it reveals a multiplicity of enactments of humanness. We might say that the feeding practices we have excavated here, contest the concept of the human at the heart of anthropology and open up an epistemic space for interrogating this concept. In other words, the flexibility of the human at stake in the moral laboratory of feeding precarious lives also holds the potential to put the central concepts of anthropology up for moral experimentation.


  1. 1.

    The project is headed by the first author, Mette N. Svendsen, and funded by the Danish Research Councils’ Sapere Aude program. First and third author are also part of the research platform NEOMUNE and some of the empirical material discussed is generated as part of this research collaboration. The study has been approved by the Danish Data Protection Agency and all informants that appear in the manuscript have been anonymized.

  2. 2.

    This said, there were certainly differences between the three sites. Negotiations of the “good life” were more explicit in the NICU than in the other two sites, a theme we take up in other parts of our work.

  3. 3.

    The concept of animal welfare became prominent with the UK Brambell Report from 1965 and the UK Farm Welfare Advisory Committee in 1967, which concerned the lives of farm animals in the context of the industrialization of food production. In these first documents, animal welfare is defined in terms of the five freedoms: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, freedom to express normal behavior, freedom from fear and distress (Anneberg, Varrst, and Bubandt 2013:550). The five freedoms have continued to be central to all animal welfare legislation.

  4. 4.

    As Michael Lynch has pointed, laboratory life consecrates the animal and transforms it from a naturalistic animal into an analytical entity (Lynch 1988) that holds the potential of scientific breakthroughs. This sacrificial logic also has a linguistic presence in the field of animal based experimental science where the term ‘sacrifice’ is a normal term with an almost technical content for the acts that lead to the death of the animal in the experiment.

  5. 5.

    While the experiments we followed take a specific interest in bovine colostrum for human infants, bovine colostrum is also considered a beneficial product for other groups of precarious humans, for instance people who are weakened due to chemotherapy, surgery, or old age.

  6. 6.

    See Dam et al. (forthcoming) for a discussion of inter-species kinship in the pig laboratory.

  7. 7.

    Historically, both animals and children have been considered less than human.

  8. 8.

    This statement also reflects Dr. Frederic’s general approach to premature lives. That he in this particular case mentions ‘the veterinarian world’ indicates the extremity of Noe’s situation.



Our sincere thanks to the researchers in the pig laboratory, and the many caregivers in the NICU and the dementia nursing home, all of whom invited us into their daily work practices and willingly engaged in conversations with us. Thank you to the participants in the panel “Moral (and other) Laboratories” at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver 2015 and to the participants in the workshop “Human and Animals at the Margins” in Copenhagen 2016. Thank you to Teresa Kuan and Lone Grøn for encouraging us to address the issue of “moral laboratories” across our sites and for organizing this special issue. For intellectual inspiration, we are grateful to Tobias Rees who commented on an earlier version of this article and to the two anonymous reviewers who contributed with highly constructive feedback and helped us sharpen our arguments. We acknowledge the support from the Danish Research Councils (Sapere Aude grant 12-133657) and from the research centre NEOMUNE.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mette N. Svendsen
    • 1
  • Iben M. Gjødsbøl
    • 1
  • Mie S. Dam
    • 1
  • Laura E. Navne
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Public Health, Centre for Medical Science and Technology StudiesUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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