We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Merve Emre offers a sweeping account of over a century of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), from a Progressive Era “artificial womb” to the unevenly distributed dramas and devastations of in vitro fertilization (IVF) today. The near-complete absence of race and racism from the essay, however, obscures both the context and the core of the case that Emre is trying to make.
This is a shame, because there is much here to admire. Particularly potent and timely is Emre’s appreciation of Shulamith Firestone’s 1970 call in The Dialectic of Sex for mechanized gestation as fundamental to the abolition of gender hierarchy. Firestone’s vision stands as a metric of current failures, highlighting the entrenchment of heteropatriarchy, cis-normativity, and class stratification in current uses of ARTs, even as these technologies approach and exceed our forebears’ science-fictional imaginings.
Emre excoriates Firestone’s second-wave critics for their recourse to “the natural” as the sacred ground of feminist resistance, particularly vis-à-vis medicalized birth. She rightly notes, moreover, the cresting dominance of “the natural” as a heteronormative and classist brand. This critique grounds her persuasive call for an “anti-naturalist” politics: an avowal of the fact that, whether or not it involves test tubes, “all reproduction is assisted”: that is, embedded in contexts and relationships that foster life—or fail to.
But the violence of “the natural” long preceded its second-wave champions. As Hazel Carby and Hortense Spillers argued in their work in the 1980s, the enslavement of African and African-descended people entailed their expulsion from heteropatriarchal gender and kinship categories. White families defined themselves by these hierarchical roles, children serving as intergenerational conduits for the spoils of conquest and chattel slavery. But for humans rendered commodities, the “natural” relations of “mother” and “father” entailed no rights or protections with respect to their saleable offspring. This legacy persists in prevailing stereotypes of “unnatural” black (un)mothers and (un)fathers. Among other things, this justifies, as Dorothy Roberts demonstrates, the mass removal of black children from their homes and, often, placement with white families. Similar logics long underpinned the mass removal of Native American children from their kin. Or all too recently, we might look to the murder-suicide that killed Devonte Hart and his five siblings, all black. Their adoptive mothers’ white middle-class “naturalness” covered over years of torture preceding the fatal act.
Racism has also deeply shaped the occurrence of prematurity, miscarriage, and infertility. Emre’s “artificial womb” surfaced in the context of massive baby-saving campaigns that ignored black infants, despite the fact that black infants died at roughly double the rate as did white infants. Harmonizing with the above black feminist theorizations, an emerging public health consensus sees the vast disparities in reproductive health in the United States as rooted in the intergenerational violence of racism. Anthropologist Dana-Ain Davis hence casts disparate black prematurity rates as manifesting what Saidiya Hartman terms “the afterlife of slavery”: the everyday anti-blackness, state violence, and medical racism that yields the same black–white infant mortality ratio today as in the 1890s. Infertility and, as Omese’eke Natasha Tinsley observes, reproductive losses across the board also all disproportionately impact black women, yet the still-potent myth of black hyperfecundity overshadows this fact.
Moreover, to adequately attend to racism demands acknowledging that, while “natural” birth should not be fetishized, overmedicalization presents real harms. Emre’s dismissal of 1970s feminist calls for demedicalized birth obscures these harms (and in fact sits oddly with B’s and N’s suffering at the hands of residents), which are vastly disproportionate for people of color. As the Black Women Birthing Justice Collective highlights, black women are far more likely than whites to be injured or die from the sequelae of cesarean delivery.
No surprise, then, that racism permeates the world of ARTs. Daisy Deomampo has shown in her work on Indian surrogacy that these circuits of reproductive labor underwrite the global reproduction of whiteness. And even as fertility care candidates in North America may hail from a broader racial and gender spectrum, racism permeates the lives that follow IVF. In “Confessions of a Black Pregnant Dad,” Syrus Marcus Ware writes, “As a trans dad, my gender identity is challenged in several ways,” by that none of those affect “our family as much as the way that race-based thinking is projected on the tiniest of humans.”
Emre’s framing obscures the violence of racism as central to reproductive injustice. Because of this, it also misses the manifold ways that women of color and queer people of color have conceived of and practiced anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and gender-liberatory modes of reproduction and kinship. Particularly powerful and generative is the Reproductive Justice framework for theory, praxis, and movement building. Rooted in black and woman-of-color feminism, Reproductive Justice, as defined by the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, centers the human rights to have a child, not to have a child, to parent children in healthy and safe environments, gender freedom, and sexual autonomy. It refuses neoliberal logics of “choice,” puts those most impacted by reproductive oppression at the center of analysis and organizing, and sees children as a collective responsibility. As one of SisterSong’s founding organizers and theorists Loretta Ross writes, “children are the links to our ancestors, and responsibility for their health, education, safety, and well-being rests with the community.”
On this point, Emre in fact truncates Firestone’s own vision. Firestone coupled her technological imperative with a call for “the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to society as a whole.” Alexis Pauline Gumbs reminds us that this too is a vision that women of color, particularly queer women, have made most manifest. Drawing on the account of “Doc,” a participant in the 1979 First National Conference of Third World Lesbians and Gays, she writes that the Third World Lesbian Caucus “claimed responsibility for the children of all individual lesbians of color as a collective of third world lesbians.” This contributed to “the project of seeing mothering as a queer collaboration with the future . . . transforming the parenting relationship from a property relationship to a partnership in practice.”
None of this is to minimize the heartbreak of S, B, N, K, or micha cárdenas in their respective quests for biological parenthood. Emre importantly calls attention to the dangers that face cárdenas as a Latina trans woman—though tellingly, she is the only person whose ethnicity Emre mentions. Without reckoning with the historical relations between racism and reproduction, however, we can fully understand neither the breadth nor the source of that danger. With respect to all of the stories that these aspiring parents courageously share, we are far less able to apprehend the interweaving of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism that issues in crushing isolation and reproductive scarcity. Conversely, centering black and woman-of-color feminist conceptions and practices of kinship offers abundant technologies for living into the assistance that all of our futures require.
Annie Menzel is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her book, The Political Life of Black Infant Mortality, is forthcoming from the University of California Press.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Against the philosopher’s dying wish, the final volume of History of Sexuality has now been published. How should we approach it, and what can it teach us about how Christianity shaped the modern self?
The release of a restored Basic Instinct alongside director Paul Verhoeven’s newest erotic epic, Benedetta, offers an occasion to think not only about the ethics and politics of watching bodies on screen, but about the uncanny relationship between film and reality.
The 1980s sex wars are most strongly associated with conflict over pornography. But a central component, often lost in present-day recollections, was a debate over the politics of queer desire.