November 19, 2018
With Responses From
Life is complicated, and Emre leaves room for vulnerability.
Merve Emre’s project aims to center “particular peoples’ experiences of reproduction and care” in feminist advocacy, hoping in so doing that this will bring us closer to addressing the “vast structural inequalities of time, money, kinship, healthcare, legal protections, and bodily integrity.” Sign me up! However, later in her essay Emre complicates her own vision when she notes that “people’s bodies are unruly sites for politics.” And that is the trouble: the devil is always in the details.
The private, like the body, is an unruly site for politics. Life is complicated. You can call it hypocrisy, but Emre presents a sympathetic picture that is open to vulnerability.
Emre’s text makes beautifully clear that the personal will always trump the political. When facing “real” people with their “real” feelings, Emre wants us to suspend any (feminist or other) judgment. Because the private, like the body, is an unruly site for politics: as Emre’s subject B says, “for the possibility of this other kind of love, I will apparently do everything.” Indeed, when our own deep, uncontrollable, personal desires are concerned, we rarely act in line with whatever political choices we think should be made. Life is more complicated. You can call it hypocrisy, but Emre presents a more sympathetic picture that appeals to me because it opens itself to vulnerability, even as it risks complicating her project of inclusive feminism. I will extend in two directions what Emre started here.
First, Emre’s four stories point toward new questions about public and medical policy related to assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). The subject S is working for a company in Silicon Valley that, as a part of her healthcare package, covers a limited opportunity to harvest eggs for freezing. S, who is thirty-four, sees this “treatment” as “insurance” for future fertility options. The next subject, B, is a forty-year-old writer and university lecturer going through various ART treatments and enduring setbacks. She is disadvantaged as a single woman between jobs, including the realization that her new employer has a one-year waiting period before paid maternity leave is available. Her “older” reproductive age means constant agonizing over her current options.
B’s situation is what S wants to avoid. If B had frozen viable embryos, eggs, or in vitro gametes (a new ART on the horizon which was recently successfully tested on animals), she would not need to worry about her age to have “her own” genetically-related children. The age of conception and gestation has been pushed well out by ARTs, and the debate is currently raging among feminists and bioethicists—not to mention the public—of whether women should have an age limit to fertility treatments at all. Some argue, why restrict women to some arbitrary premenopausal age? What if a woman is born without a uterus, and therefore never had a chance of being premenopausal? Along the lines of Shulamith Firestone, the Australian expert on trans medicine, William A. W. Walters, advocated for ectogenesis (artificial wombs) and uterine transplantation (when that becomes possible) “for the infertile woman who might otherwise have to consider surrogacy.”
Arguments for age limits on ARTs usually are framed in bioethical literature around ideas of the “nature” of the human life cycle. Robert Sparrow, a philosopher who focuses on the ethics of technology, argues that because the inability to conceive a child after menopause cannot constitute infertility, “It therefore might be argued that reproductive freedom does not extend to the right of a woman to become pregnant after having undergone normal menopause.”
This moves toward my second point, which is about rights of access. When Emre writes that for S, the option to harvest and freeze her reproductive tissue is “a happy product of Silicon Valley’s marriage of capitalist competition and social justice,” the phrase is both problematic and provocative. Using the language of social justice to talk about access to the latest ARTs risks alienating those potential allies who are fighting for the basic “right to choose” or access to free quality prenatal and childcare.
In the stories Emre presents, different kinds of people’s varying degrees of access to ARTs are also flattened out. B’s conundrum is very different from S’s, but their various struggles seem to be homogenized under the larger theoretical umbrella of the “right to have a child,” with an addition of empathetic rhetoric that is rightfully ecumenical in the moment but leaves me somehow wanting.
I am reminded of a 1999 art project Does She or Doesn’t She? (Cheaper by the Dozen), created by the cyberfeminist art collective subRosa. Presented on the Carnegie Mellon University campus, the project brought attention to the fact that many ovarian egg “donations” are made by college students in order to pay for their college education—not as personal “insurance,” like it is for S. And students get paid more money if they are blonde, blue-eyed, and white, because enough ART customers will pay more for their eggs.
In a part of her bioart project Pregnancy that is not quoted by Emre, micha cárdenas raises these issues of privilege, her own specifically, describing herself as “a light-skinned Latina whose immigrant father made sure she made it through college.” She continues, “In California, I had access to a trans-woman endocrinologist and a trans-woman surgeon,” unlike many trans women of color, who struggle to “live long enough to realize their dreams” because of anti-trans violence.
South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s work also testifies to cárdenas’s point in beautiful large-scale portraits of Muholi’s queer, lesbian, and trans friends. Their faces speak to differences that the kind of feminist solidarity Emre champions must attend to.
Emre’s essay engages with an important and increasingly topical question of how to respond, from our specific subject positions and cross-disciplinary vintage points, to assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). In feminist scholarship, it is well-traveled territory, exemplified by Susan Merrill Squier’s Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technologies (1994), among many others. More current updates are always welcome, though, especially ones that use personal narratives as tethers to lived experience.
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