by Wendy McElroy

"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 patriarchial. 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 medi- cal 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 fac- tors 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 'marginal- izing' 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 ques- tion. 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 chose. 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 chose 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.

Proceed to Part II of article

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