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Feminists Against Women: The New Reproductive Technologies


Wendy McElroy

 Author Notes

Libertarian columnist, commentator and author of XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press, 1995) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender-Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996).

Ms. McElroy maintains a web site of her own which offers more of her writing.

 Essay -

"59 Year Old Woman Gives Birth to Twins on Christmas Day!"

This headline was recently splashed - not across the National Enquirer - but on the front pages of reputable papers around the globe, all of whom rushed to report that a 59-year-old British businesswoman had produced two healthy children from donated eggs which had been implanted in her uterus. She was soon overshadowed by a pregnant 62-year-old Italian woman, who wanted a baby to replace her only child, a son who had died in an accident. Then, a black woman gave birth to a white baby and the world confronted a new question: should parents be allowed to choose the race of their children? Or the sex? Should 'designer' babies be encouraged? Or should the new reproductive technologies [NRTs] be banned, as several European nations are now attempting to do?

And what are the technologies causing such a flap? A partial list of these controversial NRTs includes: sperm donation, by which a woman is impregnated with sperm from someone other than her partner; egg donation, by which one women conceives with an egg donated by another; sperm and egg freezing; embryo adoption, by which a donated egg and sperm are cultured into an embryo; embryo freezing; and embryo screening. The world has come a long way since Louise Brown became the first in vitro baby in 1978.

The social implications of the NRTs are staggering. A single infant can have more than two parents, all of whom might die of old age before he or she begins to teethe. If recent experiments on mice are an indication, a woman could abort a female fetus and, using its ovaries and eggs, later give birth to her own grandchild. Instead of having children during their peak career years, women could wait until retirement to raise a family. Women could reset their biological clocks at will.

The prospect of such a reproduction revolution has sparked a hue and cry across Europe, similar to that last heard when the villagers stormed Castle Frankenstein: 'there are things man is not meant to know, and science not meant to do!' Certainly, many important ethical questions surround the NRTs. For example: With two possible sets of 'parents', how should the courts adjudicate custody claims? What will prevent governments from commandeering this science to produce 'better' citizens? Will women be pressured to abort defective fetuses? Who defines a defect?

These are the sort of questions that will alter the framework of the reproductive debate in the next decade. Indeed, they may alter the framework of reproduction itself.

The Feminist Backlash against the NRTs

Fundamental change inspires not only backlash, but also champions. And in the cacophony of discussion surrounding the NRTs, you would think one of the staunchest voices for freeing a woman's body from the restrictions of nature would be feminism. After all, it is 'a woman's body, a woman's right'. You would think that feminists would shout with joy that women -like men -can now have children in their fifties or sixties.

But high profile feminists, such as Janice Raymond, Andrea Dworkin and Gena Corea, are on the attack against the NRTs, from birth control to in vitro fertilization (IVF). And their critique has nothing to do with the ethical questions posed above. It is matter of ideology: these critics are radical feminists, who analyze society in terms of gender. That is, they consider men and women to be separate political classes, with interests that necessarily and dramatically conflict.

Men, it is claimed, oppress women. This is true of all men, however well-intentioned and benevolent they may seem, because the gender oppression is embodied in every single institution of society, from government to the university system and medicine. Since every man benefits from these unjust institutions, all men are oppressors. Radical feminists, who sometimes call themselves 'post-Marxists', tend to single out the institution of capitalism as an especially virulent form of gender injustice. But the system of oppression itself - the seamless web of male domination - is called patriarchy, or sometimes simply 'white male culture'.

Patriarchy is considered to be a cancer rooted so deeply in our culture that even the language with which we speak and think reinforces male dominance: the word 'history' rather than 'herstory' is merely one example. Entire branches of human knowledge, such as history and science, must be reconstructed because its research is patriarchal. A prime example of this is the scientific method which emphasizes evidence and replicable results over personal experience; this constitutes another male attempt to dominate nature, rather than remain open to it.

For radical feminists, it is no more possible to reform patriarchy than it is to cure leukemia with an aspirin. The only path to women's liberation is through a gender revolution which will blast away every vestige of white male culture.

In her book Our Blood, Andrea Dworkin, one of the loudest voices against patriarchy, explains the scope of this much anticipated gender revolution:

"In order to stop...systematic abuses against us, we must destroy these very definitions of masculinity and femininity, of men and women...We must destroy the very structure of culture as we know it, its art, its churches, its laws: we must eradicate from consciousness and memory all of the images, institutions and structural mental sets that turn men into rapists by definition and women into victims by definition."

Radical feminists approach the NRTs from this ideological perspective. Already convinced that the medical establishment is out to dominate women, they condemn the NRTs as medical violence against women. Specifically, they are a technological attempt to further enslave women's reproductive functions and turn them into baby factories under male management.

Consider the phrases with which Janice Raymond describes the NRTS in her recent and influential book Women as Wombs. She calls them 'reproductive abuse', an aspect of 'the spermatic economy of sex and breeding' or 'spermocracy', and 'medicalized pornography'. Or flip through Gena Corea's essay "The New Reproductive Technologies", in which she baldly states, "The new reproductive technologies represent an escalation of violence against women, a violence camouflaged behind medical terms." Of embryo flushing, which is a key procedure of artificial insemination, she states, "That's done in cows."

This condemnation extends to Electronic Fetal Monitors, which have been heralded elsewhere as a breakthrough in fetal care. The ironically titled anthology Healing Technologies: Feminist Perspectives insists that such Monitors are the result of the 'dominance of males and male values' and of the merger of 'business and health care systems...another male alliance.'

Even birth control (formerly sacrosanct to feminists) is now being redefined as oppression. In the essay 'In His Image: Science and Technology', Heather Menzies explains, "I didn't immediately see the pill or the IUD as sinister in themselves; I began to see them, though, in context, as part of a larger system...they are a part of a particular phrasing of the role of reproduction in society geared to production and consumption, and a particular phrasing of the problem of women's bondage to their own bodies."

The above arguments sound absurd...until you realize that radical feminists are almost the only women in the feminist movement speaking out on this issue, and this gives them tremendous impact. Or until you step onto the campus of major universities, such as the University of Massachusetts where Raymond teaches medical ethics, or the University of Michigan where radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon is a Professor of Law: then you realize that gender revolution is a vital part of political correctness and it is rampant in both classrooms and scholarly journals.

Or until you peruse the shelves of libraries and bookstores now stocked with radical feminist works from major publishers, all of which argue against the NRTS. These include: Living Laboratories by Robyn Rowland, The Mother Machine by Gena Corea, The Politics of Reproduction by Mary O'Brien, and such anthologies as Made to Order: the Myth of Reproductive and Genetic Progress, Man-Made Women: How the New Reproductive Technologies Affect Women, and Test Tube Women.

Even the mainstream feminist classic The New Our Bodies, Ourselves ominously asserts in the revised edition [1994], 'We must judge the value of the reproductive technologies in the context of the social, political and economic setting...' Medical procedures are to be evaluated not on the benefits they bring to individual women, but on the political effect they have on women as a class. Medicine is no longer a scientific matter: it belongs to ideology.

Although the NRTs have not yet stirred up the legal furor they are causing in Europe, the groundwork is being laid. Across North America, feminist groups like the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in Canada have been preparing studies and statistics in hope of restricting infertility clinics. Such legislation has been debated in the U.S. Congress and is the logical outgrowth of a wave of court trials meant to adjudicate reproductive rights. One recent example is the 1989 U.S. State Circuit Court in Knoxville, Tennessee, which held that a woman [Mary Sue Davis] could override a man's [Junior Davis] objection to thawing embryos created before their divorce for transplantation into her womb. This decision was overruled by a higher court in 1992.

In this jumble of conflict, there are loud and coherent voices for reproductive liberty, in particular that of John Robertson, professor of law at the University of Texas, who argues that the right to reproduce is grounded in the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing the right to privacy. But such cogent arguments come from a totally different world view than radical feminism; they do not really address 'gender' objections. For example, radical feminists dismiss the Constitution as a document written by and for white slave-owning males. They reject any appeal to privacy because it places reproductive rights beyond considerations of social justice and social ethics. So-called 'privacy rights' are just another attempt to tie reproduction to the male-dominated tradition of property rights.

The failure of NRT advocates to confront radical feminists on their own terms has lessened the effectiveness of their advocacy. Unfortunately, the radical feminist critique has been given a further boost of flimsy credibility by the actual abuses of NRTs that do occur. For example, it is a matter of record that Third World women have been sterilized against their will or without their knowledge. Some women in America have died as a result of the improperly tested Dalkon Shield IUD.

It is important, therefore, to distinguish radical feminist objections to the NRTs both from those with valid medical reservations and from those who fear that medical procedures may be imposed upon women or unreasonably denied to them.

Radical Feminism's Specific Claims

Radical feminists are not concerned with valid testing of the NRTs or whether certain women seem to want them; these factors are irrelevant. They contend that all NRTs are inescapably abusive to all women in two fundamental ways:

First and foremost, they have been created by patriarchy with the ultimate goal of gender subjugation. In her essay 'How the New Reproductive Technologies Will Affect all Women,' Gena Corea cautions us against even the friendliest of family doctors. These doctors are still men, working for the patriarchal medical establishment: indeed, the very benevolence of such doctors acts as a lure to women who are less politically sophisticated than Corea herself. She writes:

"...[T]he technologies will be used by physicians for seemingly benevolent purposes. These kindly looking physicians may even speak with a feminist or a liberal rhetoric, passionately defending a woman's right to choose these technologies and 'control her own body'. It is these...who are the danger."

The second way in which NRTs oppress women is by 'marginalizing' their role in the birth process. Through the 'medicalization' of childbirth, women are said to be losing the monopoly of power they once enjoyed over giving life.

[Unfortunately for radical feminists, history does not smile upon this interpretation. In 17th and 18th century Europe, when technological intervention in childbirth was virtually unknown, children had only a 50% chance of living until their first birthday. Women had a 10% chance of dying in childbirth. They had a 20% chance of being permanently injured by midwives, who commonly punctured the sac of amniotic fluid with dirty fingernails.

The reality of childbirth is far from the 'ideal' eulogized by the popular writer Margaret Atwood, which is favorably quoted in Body/Politics, a radical feminist anthology. "This time I will do it by myself squatting on old newspapers in a corner alone; or on leaves,, dry leaves, a heap of them, that's cleaner. The baby will slip out easily as an egg, a kitten, and I'll lick it off and bite the cord, the blood returning to the ground where it belongs; the moon will be full, pulling."]

By-passing the Non-Trivial Issue of Choice

Before launching into their critique, however, even radical feminists see the necessity of dealing with a tricky question, which is neither medical or technological. It is a moral question. It involves 'a woman's body, a woman's right'. Specifically, it is the issue of choice: the right of every woman to decide for herself what medical procedures she wishes to undergo. What do radical feminists tell women who choose to 'medicalize' the birth process by using such devices as Electronic Fetal Monitors? Or the many women who seek out the NRTs in order to have a child? Would feminists deny these women the right to exercise medical choice over their own bodies?

In a word: yes.

In Women as Wombs Janice Raymond writes, "Feminists must go beyond choice and consent as a standard for women's freedom. Before consent, there must be self-determination so that consent does not simply amount to acquiescing to the available options." Here, radical feminists are trying to establish a conflict between choice and self-determination. They concede that some women appear to choose procedures such as IVF. But they deny that these women are actually choosing or even capable of doing so, because their options have been limited by the twin male evils of technology and the free market.

In other words, women have been so indoctrinated and their options have been so limited that women cannot truly be said to choose. Women who think they want the NRTs are merely dupes of patriarchy. Only when women are freed from oppression will true choice be possible to them.

Thus, the ground of debate is being shifted from choice to self-determination, from sexual/reproductive freedom to gender liberation. This shift must be ideologically uncomfortable for many radical feminists. But it also offers a distinct advantage. They can dismiss the flood of women who appear to choose the NRTs as lacking self-determination. They can also cancel out the possibility of such embarrassing choices cropping up in the future by simply banning them. In short, they can gloss over the incredible tension that exists between their competing claims: (1) women must control their reproductive functions; and (2) certain reproductive choices are unacceptable.

It is important to understand: this is not simply a rejection of bad choices, it is a denial of women's ability to choose anything at all. Consider:

All choices are made under the influence of culture. Every choice is made in the presence of limited options. This is true of women today or of women in some future feminist utopia. To claim that such influences somehow negate a woman's free will is to deny that anyone ever truly chooses anything. It strips women of the only defense they really have against destructive influences: the exercise of their free will.

To this, radical feminists reply that technology and the free market are not mere influences; they are forms of violence, like guns pressed against the temples of women. Indeed, technology and capitalism exert such compelling pressure that direct force is unnecessary to confuse obviously weak-minded weak-willed women. Projecting a dystopian future, Corea predicts 'No force will be required to get us to accept the donor eggs -that is, to prohibit us from reproducing ourselves. Control of consciousness will do quite well.'

For centuries, men have declared that women don't know their own minds. Now radical feminists mouth the same old patriarchal line.

Let's examine the two forces that so befuddle weak-minded, weak-willed women.

Technology as Male Exploitation

In the introduction to their anthology Theories of Women's Studies, Gloria Bowles and Renate Duelli Klein present the political rationale behind radical feminism's rejection of science, including medicine, as valid:

"We are skeptical whether the present structure of education (and the nature of societal institutions at large) can ever accommodate feminist claims because its very existence depends on the perpetuation of patriarchal assumptions and values...What we are at is nothing less than an intellectual revolution: we challenge the dominant culture at its source."

Since technology is an outgrowth and handmaiden of science, even those technological developments formerly considered to be advancements for women are now revealed to be oppressive. In his book Blaming Technology: the Irrational Search for Scapegoats, the civil engineer Samuel C. Florman commented on the increasing tension between the scientific community and feminism. He decries the growing body of literature that explains how science is 'male imaging' and how even technological development which were formerly heralded as freeing women - e.g. household appliances - are now condemned for turning them into dependent consumers. The puzzled Florman echoes the feminist critique in order to speculate on the possible motives behind it:

"The development of household appliances, for example, instead of freeing the housewife for a richer life as advertised, has helped to reduce her to the level of a maidservant whose greatest skill is consumerism. Factory jobs have attracted women to the workplace in roles they have come to dislike. Innovations affecting the most intimate aspects of women's lives, such as the baby bottle and birth-control devices, have been developed almost exclusively by men. Dependent upon technology, but removed from its sources and, paradoxically, enslaved by it, women may well have developed deep-seated resentments that persist even in those who consider themselves liberal."

To radical feminists, the enslavement of women by technology is inevitable, because technology is directly opposed to what is natural...to what is female. Technology is male science. It seeks to control the environment in order to dominate, whereas women remain open to nature. Science links validity to replicable results and relies on evidence; woman-centered research draws from the experiences of women and seeks to validate their 'voice'.

In a paper delivered at a women's studies conference, Judith Dilorio described feminist methodology:

"Researchers will utilize first-hand, immediate and intimate contact with their subjects through direct observation and reflective analysis, drawing upon her or his own experiential information (feelings, fantasies, thoughts) as well as her or his observations of what others say and do in order to relate the subjective and objective dimensions."

According to feminist methodology, all that exists are transitory meanings imposed by the will of human beings. All that exists is experience. To those of us who cry out for objective standards, especially when dealing with medical procedures, radical feminists insist that science is nothing more than what is dictated by scientists: it is not value-free.

By this, feminists are saying something different than merely observing that science, along with all human knowledge, is necessarily selective. Which is to say, in order to process the vast amount of data bombarding us at every turn, the human brain selects out what it considers to be important. This is not evidence of bias, but merely a description of how the human brain functions. Actual bias occurs whenever human beings refuse to reconsider or alter their conclusions in the light of reasonable doubt.

To invalidate an area of study because it selects knowledge, because it decides what data are relevant to its concerns, is to preclude the possibility of human beings ever achieving knowledge in any area, including feminism. The search for truth is the process of selecting and integrating data and experience. The real questions about bias should be: are the facts selected true?; and, is the method of selection valid?

It is curious to note: despite their rejection of objectivity and the possibility of truth, radical feminists seem able to claim absolute knowledge when it comes to condemning patriarchy and technology.

The Free Market as Male Evil

Perhaps the most dramatic expression of radical feminists' contempt for individual choice is their passionate rejection of surrogate motherhood, by which one woman agrees to bear a child for another. In essence, they call for the prohibition of surrogacy contracts, because such an arrangement is said to convert women into breeding stock.

In testifying before the House Judiciary Committee of Michigan in October 1987, Janice Raymond declared of surrogacy contracts, '[they] should be made unenforceable as a matter of public policy... they reinforce the subordination of women by making women into reproductive objects and reproductive commodities.'

The radical feminist case against surrogacy contracts has been spelled out by Phyllis Chesler in her essay, 'Mothers on Trial: Custody and the 'Baby M' Case'. This was the custody battle which took place in 1987 before the New Jersey Superior Court. The surrogate mother sought custody of the child conceived with sperm provided by a couple who had contracted her services.

"Some feminists said 'We must have a right to make contracts. It's very important. if a woman can change her mind about this contract -if it isn't enforced -we'll lose that right!' ...They didn't consider that a contract that is both immoral and illegal isn't and shouldn't be enforceable. They didn't consider that businessmen make and break contracts every second... Only a woman who, like all women, is seen as nothing but a surrogate uterus, is supposed to live up to -of be held down for -the most punitive, most dehumanizing of contracts. No one else. Certainly no man."

The radical feminist objections against surrogacy contracts rests on two basic points, which are commonly raised against all forms of reproductive technology: first, the woman is selling herself into a form of slavery; and second, the woman cannot give informed consent...in this case, because she does not know how she will feel later toward the child she is bearing.

The first objection is that the surrogate is selling herself into slavery. It can be easily argued that there is nothing different, in kind, from a surrogate renting out her womb and other women who routinely rent out other aspects of their bodies in employment contracts: stewardesses, secretaries, maids. The question becomes: what constitutes slavery?

The essence of slavery is what has been called 'alienation of the will' -that is, you transfer over to another person not merely the limited use of your body, but all moral and legal jurisdiction over it. You transfer title to yourself as a human being. This means that, if you signed such a contract, you would instantly lose all responsibility for living up to its terms, because you would no longer be a legal entity capable of being bound by contracts. In this way, a 'slavery contract' is a contradiction in terms. All that can be contracted out are services.

The second objection to surrogacy contracts is that the woman does not give informed consent. And, on this point, the legal system sometimes agrees. Although in the 1987 Baby M case, Judge Sorkow found in favor of the biological father and against the surrogate mother, his ruling also seemed critical of surrogacy contracts:

"She never makes a totally voluntary, informed decision, for quite clearly any decision prior to the baby's birth is, in the most important sense, uninformed, and any decision after that, compelled by a pre-existing contractual commitment, the threat of a lawsuit, and the inducement of a $10,000 payment is less than totally voluntary. Her interests are of little concern to those who controlled this transaction."

This ruling does not so much invalidate surrogacy contracts as it invalidates the possibility of any contract whatsoever between human beings. Consider what the court views as a lack of informed consent.

1. the surrogate doesn't know how she will feel about the baby she is carrying until it is born. A similar statement could be made about almost any contract. If I sell my family home, for example, I do not know how much I will miss the memories and associations it contains until the house is gone. If I am commissioned to paint a landscape, I don't know how emotionally attached I might become to the painting until it has been executed. To claim that a woman can change her mind about a contract, with impunity, simply because she has second thoughts, is to say no contract exists at all.

2. the surrogate is said to be 'compelled by a pre-existing agreement' and 'the threat of a lawsuit'. These two factors are almost the definition of what constitutes a contract: namely, an agreement that binds you and leaves you vulnerable to damages if breached. If these factors are coercive, then contracts themselves are coercion.

3. the interests of the surrogate 'are of little concern to those who controlled the transaction'. Again, this is true of all contracts, which are binding agreements between people who are pursuing their own perceived best interests. If the surrogate is of age and in her right mind, it is assumed that she's looking out for herself. If the surrogate later discovers that keeping the baby is in her actual self-interest, she can breach the contract and pay the damages involved.

The feminist rejection of surrogacy is revealed to be just another assault on women's right to make 'wrong' choices and on the free market which is the arena of her choices. .

This becomes clear whenever a radical feminist waffles on what they call 'limited individual situations' -such as one sister carrying a baby for an infertile sibling. This, some maintain, should be tolerated for compassionate reasons, on the same level as a bone marrow transplant between relatives.

In the book New Approaches to Human Reproduction editor Linda M. Whiteford makes a distinction between commercial surrogacy and the altruistic kind.

"Commercial surrogacy exploits socioeconomic class differences, using financial need and emotional need as currency. The exchange of money transforms surrogacy from an altruistic gift between sisters or friends into baby selling or womb renting..."

But 'humanitarian' surrogacy is still the medicalization of childbirth. Here the object of radical feminist condemnation becomes clear: it is not NRTs, but the free market that is the true evil. Women may compassionately lend their wombs, but they should never be allowed to materially profit by the process.

Why? Because such profiteering would exploit the wombs of underprivileged women. In other words, if a surrogate truly needs money, her contracts are invalid on the grounds of socio-economic coercion. But it is precisely those who need money who most need the right to contract for it. To deny poor women the right to sell their services -whether as a waitress, a nurse or a surrogate -deals a death blow to their economic chances. Their services and labor may be the only things they have to leverage themselves out of poverty. They need the right to contract far more than rich and powerful women do.

The bottom line is this: the free market has no mechanism to force anyone to provide or consume anything. To the extent that the free market has an underlying ideology it is that every human being has the right to act as his or her own agent in exchanging their own property and services. In other words, people are self-owners.

The true issue surrounding reproductive technology is 'a woman's body, a woman's right'. In essence, radical feminists wish to alter feminism's most famous slogan to read: 'A woman's body...sometimes a woman's right.'

The quest for 'technological justice'

However fuzzy radical feminists may be in arguing against the NRTs, they are crystal clear about their end goal. Remember: radical feminism is a call for revolution, not for reform. They do not seek to regulate the NRTs and reproductive contracts; they demand their abolition. They seek to outlaw currently widespread practices such as surrogacy, in vitro fertilization, and the implantation of contraceptives. They call for legal sanctions against anyone who sells or provides the NRTs - e.g. doctors and hospitals - and a cessation of research in this area.

In short, through a twisty maze of rhetoric, radical feminists demand 'technological justice' in order to liberate a class of 'breeder women' who are 'contractually oppressed'.

Orwell's 1984 newspeak was only a decade late in coming.

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