Feminists Against Women: the New Reproductive Technologies

by Wendy McElroy

Part Two

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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