Lucy van de Wiel is awarded the Praemium Erasmianum Prize for her dissertation: Freezing Fertility. Oocyte Cryopreservation and the Gender Politics of Ageing.

18 April 2017

Since 1988, the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation awards annual Research Prizes. A maximum of five prizes of € 3,000 each are awarded to young academic researchers in the humanities and social sciences, who have written a PhD dissertation of outstanding quality. Lucy's is the first ASCA dissertation to win this prestigious prize.

Lucy van de Wiel’s dissertation, situated at the intersection of cultural analysis, media studies, gender studies and science and technology studies, is a groundbreaking study of the wide-ranging implications of egg freezing or Oocyte Cryopreservation (OC), an increasingly popular fertility technology with global reach. By looking at discussions about egg freezing in newspapers, at documentary representations of egg freezing and at the use of images in egg freezing itself (images of frozen or fertilized egg shown to potential parents or used to advertise the technology), the dissertation shows how the possibility of freezing eggs, which allows motherhood to be postponed, has profound consequences for the way in which female ageing is understood.

The distinctive scientific merit and originality of this dissertation lie in its consideration of the medically, culturally and socially transformative impact of Oocyte Cryopreservation (OC) at multiple levels and from various perspectives. Van de Wiel shows, first of all, how Oocyte Cryopreservation (OC) has changed the “relation between ageing and reproductivity, between cells and bodies,” allowing women to circumvent age-related infertility and enabling “new forms of motherhood and pre-emptive kinship negotiations.” In parallel to this, Van de Wiel follows and analyses the cultural debates around these technological developments, showing how OC triggers a series of discussions around when in life women should or should not have children. This politically relevant research is further enriched by Van de Wiel’s historical work.  She traces discourses of chrononormativity – discourses that discipline women’s bodies by telling them when to do what – back to the first medical treatises on menopause from the nineteenth century and to debates around contraceptives in the mid-twentieth century.

Since egg-freezing is an internationally used technology that, as Van de Wiel shows, also creates global systems of circulation through online egg banks, the dissertation has clear international relevance. Van de Wiel’s research into media discussions of egg freezing in the Netherlands and the UK shows that although there are differences in emphasis, the way in which the discussions unfold – especially in terms of contrasting, in a moralizing way, women who freeze their eggs for medical reasons and those who do so for social (translated as “selfish”) reasons – are strikingly similar. Van de Wiel does not consider OC in isolation, but relates it to older reproductive technologies such as IVF and sperm freezing, as well as to the emergence of the menopause as a pathologized condition in the nineteenth century. Through its detailed reflection on the way OC constructs the female body and its ageing process the dissertation makes an important contribution to wider discussions in science and technology studies, gender studies and the emerging field of the study of ageing. The lucidly written dissertation also meaningfully intervenes in discussions about fertility treatment in the public realm, as is evidenced by the media interest it received in, among others, De Volkskrant and New Scientist. The fact that Van de Wiel has gone on to work as a postdoc researcher with the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at the University of Cambridge, led by Prof. Sarah Franklin, testifies to the excellence of the dissertation and its interdisciplinary and international appeal.   

The dissertation project was supervised by Mieke Bal, José van Dijck and Esther Peeren.

Published by  ASCA