Jennifer Cellio

Jennifer Cellio



I am revising a manuscript for publication—in addition to shaping the entire work for a broader audience, I’m also incorporating work on disability and bioethics that I could not include in an earlier draft.

The manuscript, tentatively entitled Unfit: Rhetorics of Reproduction and Hereditary “Fitness,” examines discourses of so-called “fitness” (e.g., an evolutionary fitness for reproduction, fitness for parenting, etc.) and their variations at three moments when they appear in popular and political discussions of reproduction: in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century arguments for eugenic sterilization, during the twentieth-century birth control movement, and in late-twentieth-century conversations about assisted reproductive technologies.

I begin with the construction of the label “the Unfit,” a phrase present throughout both scientific and eugenic literature of the early-twentieth century. Informed by the notion of “survival of the fittest” as popularized by Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin, hereditary “fitness” encapsulates then-current ideas about an individual’s ability to survive as well as his or her right to reproduce in an era obsessed with “race betterment” and scientific progress. Throughout the British and American eugenics movements, terms like “the fit,” “the unfit,” and “fitness,” were deployed in popular and scientific discussions of reproduction for sexist, racist, ableist, classist, and heteronormative ends. Many of these arguments operated within legitimate scientific communities, which resulted in and lent credence to eugenic practices (sterilization, institutionalization) largely directed at women. By tracing its circulation at specific moments, I reveal the social constructedness of hereditary “fitness” and historicize current beliefs about what it means to be “fit” for reproduction and/or parenthood.

To establish the construction of hereditary “fitness” as an instrument of the eugenics movement, I analyze several rhetorical formations—including definition and figures of definition, special topoi, kairos and audience, and figures of thought, especially analogy—in order to make visible the specific work each performs. For example, highlighting shifts in definitions of “fitness” in early versions of hereditary theory, and describing the use of special topoi to invent arguments for eugenic sterilization, illustrates the ways these rhetorical formations supported the production of women as fit (or not) objects and subjects for reproduction.

While revising and updating this project, I have discovered additional but related areas of interest. I have not determined whether or not these interests should be folded into the manuscript or pursued as separate areas of research. One area includes current debate about advanced maternal/paternal age, wherein recent studies on paternal age and autism and the disadvantages faced by children with older parents provide discouraging counterpoints to more “upbeat” assessments of age-based infertility and the benefits of “waiting” to start a family. The second interest is rhetorics of disability and “prevention” that continue to dominate discussions of advanced maternal age. My own turn as pregnant woman of “advanced maternal age” obtains in both of these interests, as do the echoes of “fitness” that reverberate in the literature.


Eugenics, rhetoric, reproductive rights, histories of medicine, definitional disputes, disability


Connections and method are the words that relate most to my work.

The bulk my subject matter is at least 100 years old—the Eugenics movement reached its apex in the early 1900s, and Social Darwinism emerged 30 years before that. This distance might explain why (relatively) few Americans know anything about the eugenics movement. However, traces of eugenic ideology and policy remain in American medicine, including obstetrics and reproductive technologies, and should be exposed and their effects presented in an accessible format. (I also believe that we need to be more “connected” to our eugenic past in order to recognize and disavow current eugenic practices, a la Alexandra Minna Stern and others.)

I subscribe to the belief that rhetoric is epistemic and therefore that it constructs our reality. Rhetorical analysis/discourse analysis enables us to locate causes and effects (choices and consequences) within and upon texts of all kinds, including the bodies of women deemed “unfit” for parenting. I am especially invested in studying rhetorics of science. “Science” can be considered a “god term,” one that most listeners find fundamentally persuasive. Illuminating the rhetorical in the scientific exposes the manner in which science itself is a human construct.


  • How would you describe the relationship between medical rhetoric/health communication (however you see yourself) with other fields and sub-fields (e.g., rhetoric of science)?  For example, we struggled with what to name the symposium.  Some suggested medical rhetoric, but that doesn’t comfortably fit some from Communication nor from English Studies.  In other words, how do you align what may be a specific focus with broader disciplinary concerns and tensions?

I think this question is fascinating and I am eager to hear what others have to say. I would imagine that some in medical rhetoric would disapprove of the “muckraking” that folks in rhetoric of science do. Although I value this type of work, and I believe it has an important place in conversations about scientific knowledge, I am sure that other scholars would prefer a more tempered approach. There are some rhetoric of science scholars who are committed to exposing the social construction of science, regardless of the consequences, and I tend to like their work. Even so, I seek a wider audience and so try to strike a balance.

An example: I can recall one instance in my career when another scholar (big name and sphere of influence) insisted that I NOT write a chapter on Sanger and birth control because I would be supporting the efforts of those trying to undermine Planned Parenthood. She told me it would be “dangerous.” I wrote about Sanger anyway, but the scholar’s words did stay with me and I was careful about the criticisms I leveled at Sanger.

I can imagine that some in the medical rhetoric community might have similar concerns about rhetorics of science.

  • What do you see as the primary distinctions between a “humanities” orientation to research and a “social sciences” orientation? what is at stake in these different orientations?

One distinction (I’m not sure if it’s primary) is that the humanities seem less invested in working directly with the medical community. Much of the work done from a humanities perspective is historical or informational—all of the information I sought was already “out there.”  I did not speak to a single member of the medical community during all of the research I did on eugenics—my research consisted entirely of reading historical documents (often alone at the microfiche). Even humanities-based research on “current” scientific or medical topics takes up issues that are already circulating in the public sphere.

As for what is at stake, I think some scholars in the humanities fail to consider the “science” perspective and the value of empirical data. When one can conduct all of one’s research without speaking to another human being, one may overlook the ways that discourses work on people. I wondered, as I did my own research on egg donation websites, how many women were grateful for those sites rather than critical? How many were pleased to have so much personal information about the donors? How many were so eager to parent children that they didn’t once consider the ways the information was presented or the consequences of that presentation. A social scientist might have acted on these musings and incorporated them into the paper. I did not, and I don’t know that my (humanities-based, Department of English, rhetoric of science) readers would have wanted that information…

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