Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Katherine Verdery


Dana-Ain Davis

Committee Members

Dana-Ain Davis

John Collins

Jeff Maskovsky


Medical Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies, Reproductive Technology, Tissue Economies, Evangelical Politics, United States


This dissertation examines the controversial fates of frozen human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures and frozen for future in the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century. Stem cell researchers covet human embryos as wellsprings of biovalue for curing human diseases and generating new forms of wealth. At the same time, pro-life Christians target excess embryos for rescue as adoptable orphans and mobilize the frozen unborn within legal strategies to redefine personhood. As a comparative ethnography, this dissertation reveals what these putatively opposing solutions share in common by examining why and how frozen reproductive remainders are saved.

Based on twenty-seven months of ethnographic field research in California following the global financial crisis (2008-2013), this dissertation draws from in-depth interviews, document analysis, and participant observation in two organizations on the vanguard of managing frozen biological assets: a Christian embryo adoption program and a university stem cell tissue bank. Both solutions for America’s embryo surplus agree about what makes embryos valuable, which is their potential.

This dissertation develops saving as a theoretical framework for examining the processes through which frozen IVF embryo potential is produced and valued. First, the lens of saving gives voice to evangelical Christians, IVF patients, and stem cell scientists, whose perspectives offer a revision to scholarly understandings about the growing connections between the life sciences and finance capital. Perspectives from American embryo savers illuminate how the opposing missions of stem cell researchers and Christian adopters belie common efforts within financial crises that transform frozen forms of capital—like reproductive remainders—from devalued trash into potent treasure. Additionally, the saving framework illuminates that stem cell tissue bankers and embryo adoption proponents share a commitment to “doing good” today on behalf of a better tomorrow. On the one hand, stem cell researchers strive to adhere to and model the principles of “good science,” at the heart of which are responsibilities to not be wasteful. Embryo adoption proponents, on the other hand, strive to live according to Christian values of equality, dignity, and duty by modeling social forms of inclusion through “good family.” This dissertation contributes to knowledge about the politics of regenerating value when “life” is in surplus and provides insight into political formations that cohere around saving when futures are felt to be uncertain.