Reconceiving the Human Fetus in Reproductive Bioethics: Perspectives from Cultural Anthropology and Bioarchaeology

  • Sallie HanEmail author
  • Tracy K. Betsinger
  • Michaelyn Harle
  • Amy B. Scott
Conference paper


An important consideration in reproductive bioethics is the question of personhood, which impacts family and medical decision-making as well as policy and law. Anthropology is uniquely suited to provide both a cross-cultural and historical and prehistorical perspective on the status of fetuses. Far from being taken for granted as a natural or biological condition, personhood is a status and identity actively negotiated, ascribed, and contested through social and cultural processes that are the particular concern of cultural anthropologists and bioarchaeologists. This chapter draws on both ethnographic and bioarchaeological research to demonstrate how and whether personhood was/is ascribed to fetuses in specific prehistoric, historic, and modern examples. While cultural anthropology has contributed to the discussion of personhood, identity, and bioethics for some time, bioarchaeology (i.e., study of human skeletal remains from the past) has only recently begun to investigate identity in the past. However, its development of a focus on fetal personhood is an important contribution to both bioarchaeology and to bioethics. This chapter demonstrates the possibilities for the meaningful integration of bioarchaeology and cultural anthropology into an evolving conversation on reproductive bioethics.


Bioarchaeology Cultural anthropology Ethnography Fetus Personhood 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sallie Han
    • 1
    Email author
  • Tracy K. Betsinger
    • 1
  • Michaelyn Harle
    • 2
  • Amy B. Scott
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologySUNY College at OneontaOneontaUSA
  2. 2.Tennessee Valley AuthorityKnoxvilleUSA
  3. 3.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of New BrunswickFrederictonCanada

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