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Beginning of Life


From Fallopian Tube to Test Tube to NICU. Even before conception, a potential human life takes shape—in the hopeful parents’ expectations and fears, and within the cells of their gametes. Biological, psychological, and cultural factors combine to charge this moment with great promise, for both the individual and society. Yet, it is also freighted with uncertainty: When does human life begin and how do we know? Should we sequence an embryo’s genome? And, if we do, should we intervene, based on the genetic information we gain? How does our growing knowledge of epigenetics inform how we conduct ourselves as fathers-to be, pregnant women, and mothers? And when a baby is born with a severe anomaly, how do we gauge its quality of life and its impact upon parents, siblings, and the community?


This Praxis Lab will address those questions and examine the scientific and cultural roots of human hopes and fears from before conception through the early days of life, as well as the profound decisions that we make on behalf of potential, unborn, and newborn children. During the first semester, we will employ both historical and contemporary sources, exploring each phase of life’s beginning from a variety of perspectives, consulting perinatologists, embryologists, ethicists, religious thinkers, and our own experience. By considering how social norms, scientific knowledge, and life history all intersect, we will develop a complex and historically sensitive perspective on this critical period. In the second semester, we will intervene in the real world, bringing our nuanced perspective to bear on the clinic, the public sphere, the neonatal nursery, or another context where decisions about the beginning of life must be made.

Beginning Of Life: Praxis Lab  Final Report


Kirtly Parker Jones, MD – Professor Emerita, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology

I always have been interested in the beginning of life and consider myself as a reproductive biologist at heart. I am a Professor Emerita in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology where I have had an academic appointment for the past 34 years. My undergraduate degree was in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology from the University of Colorado, where I also attended Medical School. My medical training in obstetrics and gynecology and fellowship in reproductive endocrinology were completed at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School.

My clinical and research interests include contraception and family planning, advanced reproductive technology (in-vitro fertilization), and menopause. I taught Ethics in Reproductive Medicine for undergraduates, as well as teaching reproductive medicine to medical students, residents and physicians. I was honored to be awarded the Linda K. Amos Award for Distinguished Service to Women by the University of Utah, and the Jarcho Distinguished Teaching Award by the University of Utah School of Medicine. In 2013 I was awarded the Calvin and Jeneal Hatch Prize in Teaching by the University of Utah.

Rachel Mason Dentinger, Ph.D. – Associate Instructor and Scholar-in-Residence

I am a historian of biology and medicine, interested in the ways that 20th-century biological research has interacted with practical medical and agricultural approaches to life. I have a B.S. in biology and I taught biology laboratory courses and worked in an immunology lab before getting my Ph.D. in the history of science and technology. Before arriving to the University of Utah, I completed a postdoctoral fellowship at King’s College London, where I studied the history of early-20th-century parasitology, asking how the movement of parasites between different species has shaped both medical and evolutionary ideas about the relationship we share with non-human animals. In addition to teaching in the University of Utah’s Honors College, I also teach medical humanities, where I focus on the history and ethical implications of manipulating the human gene pool.

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