Rethinking Choice: Potential Pregnancies, High-Tech Mothering and Reproductive DemocracyPerin Gürel
The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception. By Deborah Spar. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2006.
Single By Chance, Mothers By Choice: How Women are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family. By Rosanna Hertz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies. By Charis Thompson. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.
It may not seem prudent to rethink the liberal, humanist subject of choice when even the most elemental reproductive freedoms are being threatened state by state in the U.S. It may also seem unnecessary as feminists have consistently reconsidered and modified the rhetoric of choice. African-American women, for example, drew attention to racist sterilization as a balancing point to abortion rights during the 1970s; contemporary transnational feminists such as Inderpal Grewal point out the uneasy connections between the liberal feminist concept of "choice" and neoliberal consumerist rhetoric (Grewal 2005, 30-31). However, the first decade of the 21st century is also a particularly good time to consider the future of reproductive choice given recent technological and structural innovations. Consider, for example, the worldwide off-label use of the inexpensive drug misoprostol for inducing self-administered abortions (Leland 2005). This kind of medicalized but "unassisted" abortion is a new phenomenon, as is "assisted" reproduction, which made it possible for a 67-year-old woman in Barcelona to give birth to twin sons earlier this year. Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice by Rosanna Hertz and The Baby Business by Deborah Spar are good starting points for exploring how science, technology, globalization, and even the history of liberal feminism have changed the dynamics of reproduction and parenting during the last few decades of the 20th century. Charis Thompson's Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies, on the other hand, is a superb scholarly analysis of the intricate gendered politics of high-tech reproduction, bolstered by the author's decades-long participatory experience in clinics and her impressive multidisciplinary grounding.
Deborah Spar's The Baby Business is a socio-economic and political exploration of what the author calls "The Baby Market," a global terrain in which nation-state laws, international commerce and human affect intersect in conventional and unconventional ways. A titled professor and Senior Associate Dean at Harvard Business School who has published extensively on economic globalization, Spar pulls no punches in stating that reproductive technologies and adoption form a worldwide, though uneven, arena of capitalist commerce. Early on in her preface, Spar states her mission to uncover the workings of raw economics. Indeed, despite the warm and fuzzy rhetoric surrounding egg "donations," surrogate "angels," and adoptions by "forever families," money changes hands in rather banal ways: When parents buy egg or sperm; when they contract with surrogates; when they choose a child to adopt or an embryo to implant, they are doing business. Firms are making money, customers are making choices, and children—for better or worse—are being sold (xi).
This bold argument is supported well by extensive secondary research, number-crunching and lucid economic theory. The Baby Business is generally descriptive, and its author strives to maintain a neutral tone, except, of course, when she is playfully reminding us that our neighbors "bought" their daughter, and that cousin in California is "leasing" her womb. This "gotcha" attitude, however, is more than balanced by Spar's sober tracing of how money exchanges hands in this 3-billion-dollar-a-year business and the role played by various countries. Denmark's highly-regulated and anonymous sperm "donation" system, for example, appeals to women and couples all across Europe, and has helped generate the market giant Cyros International Sperm Bank, which now exports gametes to over fifty countries, with a contribution margin of around 80 percent (3). Spar also quickly contrast how Cyros operates in Europe, where customers do not want any personal information about the donor, with its business practices in the U.S., where couples and single women often want to know as much as possible about the genetic father. This moment is one of many that make the reader wish for more socio-cultural analysis. It would be interesting, for example, to see how what Matthew Jacobson has recently identified as the white ethnic "roots, too" phenomenon contributes to the different constructions of identity and kinship in the U.S. and Europe (Jacobson 2006). Americans, after all, are also the major consumers of newly-popularized DNA tests that promise to reveal the exact ethnicities of long-dead ancestors.
The Baby Market, however, is a sweeping book; it strives successfully to outline an impressively powerful market with little in-depth attention to the individual plights, tragedies and triumphs that have come to dominate media accounts of reproductive technologies. Instead, Spar studies reproductive technologies in "a commercial context in which competing firms simply use technology to meet their customer's needs" (xix). This clear focus on the commercial base makes The Baby Business a refreshing and informative read. Moreover, it allows the author to avoid the emotional burden of writing about broken families, genetic diseases, stem cell lines and international adoptions. She instead reviews the opposing arguments and files them under the umbrella of political pressures that influence the market. On the subject of embryos, for example, Spar notes the absence of property rights that secure other branches of commerce and questions whether abstract worries about de-humanization should stand in the way of such an important arena of regulation when ill effects are "difficult to demonstrate empirically" (200). This generally empirical, materialist and objective tone dominates the book, illuminating the contemporary discussion on reproductive politics from a new angle. When suggesting reasons why it might not be wise to ban international adoptions, Spar simply muses, "By what logic can we argue that the Fertility Institute of Las Vegas can charge its clients $44,800 for a gestational surrogate cycle, but Angel's Haven can't charge $8,000 to place a war orphan from Ethiopia." (189)
Perin Gürel is a graduate student in American Studies at Yale University. She holds a B.A. in American Studies and English from UC Berkeley, where she worked as a teaching assistant and studied with folklorist Alan Dundes.