Rethinking Choice: Potential Pregnancies, High-Tech Mothering and Reproductive DemocracyPerin Gürel
Central to Spar's thesis is the axiom that the final product is in fact similar, at least theoretically: a healthy child to call one's own (xvi). She suggests that bans on one procedure would therefore work to bolster exchange in another; banning international adoptions, for example, would increase customers for gestational surrogacy agreements and vice versa. Spar observes that most governments have chosen between two extreme reactions to the market for children, oscillating between outright bans on the one hand and a laissez-faire attitude on the other. As a scholar of globalization, Spar is particularly informative on the pressure such uneven laws, along with developments in science and health care policies, place on reproductive "choices." Spar explores nation-wide bans, which vary widely from country to country, and notes their failure as financially-secure couples cross borders to ensure their choice of therapy. When cytoplasmic transfer, for example, was banned in the U.S. in 2002, it did not stop a Michigan couple that same year from flying to Beirut for the procedure, through which older women's eggs are rejuvenated with genetic material from a younger woman. (xi)
Spar, however, finds laissez-faire policies equally suspect; if the market continues to function unhindered, she argues, societies might find themselves facing ontological crises too late. She therefore recommends that reproductive technologies, procedures, tissues, and adoption be perceived and regulated as parts of a single business, churning out the same product in different models. Her solution is regulation through the imposing of "workable limits," based on a presumably international "system of contracts and property rights" (228, 203). Arguing against the political "reluctance to regulate" a market that many people refuse to identify as a market and with which, on moral grounds, many elected politicians refuse to engage, Spar emphasizes the necessity of drawing lines between legitimate and illegitimate practices, noting the urgent need for a bare minimum of rules that provide "market participants with a sense of order and predictability, with a set of norms that prescribes behavior and defines the limits of acceptability" (204).
Spar suggests ways in which this "imperfect market," which does not obey the regular laws of supply and demand, can be regulated by tracing similarities to other imperfect markets such as the trade in luxury goods or the market for organ transplants. However, she leaves the specifics of the regulation to an imaginary, democratic "we": following heated public political debates, "we can decide what we want to outlaw," she asserts, "and then – with exceptions, of course, and some bumps along the way- we can make these laws work" (227, italics mine). This somewhat fluid "we" dominates the rest of the conclusion. "We must have this debate, and we must make these choices," urges Spar; we must acknowledge and engage the market and imagine "how we can shape our children and secure our children without destroying ourselves" (233). The future of reproductive choice, as Spar sees it, is a communal one, to be directed by rational humanist subjects who debate the matter in public space.
This dramatic "we," a rational democratic community that is expected to take control of its own reproduction by reconciling personal eugenics, nation-state pronatalisms and international networks of commerce is regrettably abstract. It is hard to imagine how this kind of "sustained and explicit political debate" would take form. Similarly, the demand and supply dynamic Spar emphasizes in the workings of The Baby Market is tilted towards the supply side in terms of lucidity and detail. The reader will finish the book knowing, in detail, how people can buy babies; but not why, under which circumstances and in which particular communities they want to do so. While Spar expertly chronicles how certain scientific discoveries and new entrepreneurial options, such as the rise of open adoptions and surrogacy "brokers," meet the demand for babies, the roots of that demand remain essentialized and romanticized to the point of obscurity. She consistently takes for granted an underlying, uncontrollable lust for procreation. There is a "deep and latent demand" for fertility worldwide, she notes; couples are eager to pay "again, and again, and again" for procedures that might ultimately fail (28, 52). A woman who undergoes in vitro fertilization, we are told, is not looking for statistics, "she just wants the chance to have a baby"; this "desire runs deep" (56; 132). This amorphous and potent "desire" translates into "demand," which Spar depicts as more or less transhistorical and transcultural, influenced only in minor ways by socio-historical phenomena such as post-war pronatalism in the U.S. Not only is this an uncomfortably essentialist argument, it also contrasts with Spar's vision of the rational subjects who ought to objectively regulate the market. This instinctive drive for procreation, translated into "demand," also contrasts greatly with Spar's sober and detailed chronicle of the rise of supply.
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.