Rethinking Choice: Potential Pregnancies, High-Tech Mothering and Reproductive DemocracyPerin Gürel
If Spar's study takes the product (the child) as its frame of reference, Hertz is much more interested in the consumer (the woman) and the extended network of social relations that must be negotiated after the closing of the reproductive deal. What happens after the product is chosen and purchased? Hertz asks. The answers illuminate the ways in which choice, agency and compromise continue even after the baby is brought home. This apparently is a market that never quite disappears out of the lives of its customers (mothers) and products (children). Mothers must now negotiate between a society that still runs on the "master narrative" of the heterosexual couple and the reality of their own family (102). The children of single mothers, on the other hand, develop their own narrative coping strategies, adopted children pointing to a country as their father or stating they have two mothers.
Hertz's basic thesis appears simple but is in fact quite radical: she argues that single mothers are slowly modifying, and embodying a change in, the definitive core of the American family, displacing the heterosexual bond between the husband and wife with the "mothering" bond between a woman and her children. As sex and romantic love are divorced from reproduction through the help of The Baby Market, it seems, we find ourselves in an era where mothering and nurturing become the definitive markers of a family. This change, if present at all, is certainly in its early stages, more easily apparent through statistics than in individual perceptions. Most of the heterosexual women, as Hertz notes, hope to eventually secure relationships that will provide them with a parenting and romantic partner in one person and all actively strive to make their children "fit in" with the existing system (193).
There are many blocks on the road to a single woman's decision to conceive or adopt outside of marriage, from discriminatory adoption rules to an under-regulated reproductive market that makes it difficult to trace genetic kin or keep "bad" relations away from the "mother-child dyad" (139). Hertz depicts these women as active agents, choosing between alternate modes of conception and policing access to their children. These specific first-person accounts of the ways in which women learn to maneuver through "the language of sperm banks, adoption agencies and legal contracts" provide a balancing nuance to Spar's depiction of reproductive technologies as, essentially, replacements for one another (xvii). Choosing between a known donor and an anonymous one apparently holds an enormously important distinction at the level of the individual. The women also create new kinship ties on the Internet by registering on online registries and seeking "half-siblings," sired by their children's donor, identified only by a number. In fact, Spar's vague, regulatory "we" finds a face in these mothers-to-be. They push The Baby Business to regulate itself by exerting financial and legal pressures on it, such as their encouragement of open donor programs in which children may meet their donor after turning 18 by choosing to purchase sperm from "'yes' donors" (68). It is also interesting to note how some of the younger women skirt The Baby Market, choosing, for example, to conceive by purposefully neglecting to use birth control. It is to be hoped that a more detailed study will be forthcoming on what motivates the choice of one technology over another, including and going beyond obvious economic and biological reasons. The internet, online sibling registries, support groups and guidance resources would certainly have to play an important role in such studies; as it seems that, with the rise of cyberculture, reproductive knowledge is once again shifting towards the vernacular, becoming de-medicalized as well as hypermedicalized.
Together, these two books provide great insight into the politics of reproduction at the turn of the century. Marketed to an educated lay audience as well as professionals, they also make informative yet lucid reads. However the best work on reproductive technologies remains Charis Thompson's 2005 Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies, which more than pays back any serious engagement with its tight, theory-ridden language and complex, analytical structure. While both Hertz and Spar remain safely grounded in their respective fields, Thompson's multilayered treatise on what she calls "the biomedical mode of reproduction" is multidisciplinary, chronicling the diverse ways in which reproductive technologies direct and are dialogically directed by the personal, political, and technological meanings of human reproduction (276). As she notes, reproductive technologies themselves are ontologically nebulous, grafting biological and technological parts and calibrating time in complex ways, and call for epistemological complexity (9). In this book, Thompson combines over a decade of participatory experience in assisted reproductive technology (ART) clinics with her academic grounding in science and technology studies, feminist theory, and historical and ethnographic research. It is therefore not surprising that Making Parents begins with three separate introductions. The first one, in which Thompson describes her project, the background research and her own intellectual and moral standing also serves as a short summary of the development of assisted reproductive technology in the U.S. The next two chapters are tightly-packed introductions to the field of science and technology studies and to feminist responses to assisted reproduction, exploring two academic disciplines with which Thompson is equally at home.
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.