Rethinking Choice: Potential Pregnancies, High-Tech Mothering and Reproductive DemocracyPerin Gürel
What Charis Thompson calls the "ontological choreography" of ART clinics—the dynamics by which technical, scientific, kinship, gender, emotional, legal, political, financial, and other matters are coordinated—emerges piece by piece in the body of the book. Thompson has been engaged in fieldwork on assisted technologies since 1988 and she uses this wealth of ethnographic data to address questions usually treated in the abstract, such as the interaction of gender, kinship, time and aesthetics in ART clinics. This is much needed grounding and provides interesting counterpoints to late 20th century cyborg feminist paeans to reproductive technology as well as cultural feminist Ludditism. An interesting example is the way in which spaces of technically progressive reproduction encourage conservative gender relations, driven by "the culture of [male] skill" (Chapter 3) and the couples' performance of their heterosexual fitness (Chapter 4). Similarly, Thompson notes how "artificial" in referring to insemination has fallen out of favor in a brief endnote to Chapter 2 (281). This minute point then indirectly works to support her extensive exploration of the rhetorical and performative methods of "normalization" of reproductive technologies and the "naturalization" of identities and kinship roles in Chapters 3 and 5.
Thompson observes a critical shift as the rhetoric of "reproductive choice" validates reproductive technologies, shifting from the potential child's "best interests" to the parent's "rights" (89). Thompson traces this rhetorical construction to how different American privacies (personal, scientific and commercial) and tropes have come to shape the cultures of assisted reproduction in problematic as well as potentially empowering ways. Market-based assisted reproductive technologies generate stratifications as well as public alliances between groups and individuals (207-45). With a boost from the state protection of privacy as a right and assisted reproduction as a matter of "choice," a mixed public sphere is forming around technologies that might otherwise seem monolithically de-humanizing and deeply undemocratic:[S]uch a marketplace of literally embodied practices uses rhetorical feed stocks - habits, tropes, and narratives of self, family and nature that come with locally specific historical baggage of preexisting meanings and hierarchies and that is fed into new practices of differentiation and stratification, as well as empowerment (243).
This depiction of assisted reproduction as the constantly shifting nexus of gendered, class-based and racialized interconnections and hierarchies culminates in Thompson's broad-ranging theorization of science and society in the final chapter, "The Sacred and Profane Human Embryo: A Biomedical Mode of (Re)production?". This is the only chapter title that ends with a question mark and Thompson herself identifies her finale as "bold" (11). The chapter does indeed read like the introduction to a 21st century Capital, not the least because Thompson advances the ambitious argument that "the biomedical mode of reproduction," while not spelling the end of the capitalist epoch, "has its own characteristic systems of exchange and value, notions of the life course, epistemic norms, hegemonic political forms, security, and hierarchies and definitions of commodities for personhood" (248). While Spar locates high-tech reproduction safely within global neo-liberal capitalism, Thompson suggests it is a different, through not mutually exclusive, bio-economy that de-centers production in favor of reproduction and modifies capitalist concepts of time, identity, and kinship in significantly new ways (249). Capitalism depends on the accumulation of goods, for example, the biomedical mode of reproduction is future-centered and "promissory." Even the concepts of industrial waste and disposal are radically altered when unused matter is the sacred and profane human embryo.
Just as Spar picks the final product (the child) as an ordering signifier and Hertz chooses "mothering" as her frame of reference, Thompson selects the human embryo as the "signature presence" that embodies her multivalent theory of biomedicalism, Thompson is not the only author to identify something significantly novel about high-tech reproduction: Spar defines The Baby Business as a unique market and Hertz suggests that assisted reproduction has changed the essential core of the American family. However, Thompson re-organizes and modifies such claims and the patterns she herself has observed in order to spell out a whole new "economy," perceived in the broadest sense of the term, which "we have recently entered" (250). Western ontology, chronology and conceptual binaries are all revised and rewritten. "The biomedicalization of U.S. society," as Thompson writes, brings with it different problems, modes of exchange and "notions of identity and kinship" (12). Without a full understanding of this new economy's variously connected aspects, she argues, any ethical intervention will be difficult. However, Thompson, true to the obvious influence of Harraway on her scholarship, imagines her interventionist force in a different vein from Spar's humanist "we." Instead, this is a multitude conceived at the crossroads of the "sacred and the profane" human body, replacing Marx's emphasis on labor with a note on biological ownership: "At this point, a certain expertise and standing is granted to all people just by being possessors of bodies" (italics mine, 276). This is a rather intriguing problematization of identity politics in the age of biopolitics and the neoliberal commodification of biological life. One wishes Thompson had been even bolder and traced the ways in which such a new politics of the body can allow us to re-think much of contemporary gender- and sexuality-neutral political theory, which continues to equate "bare life" with lack of political agency.
Whatever the specific technologies, personal politics of reproduction have clearly taken a turn for the positive (the right to reproduce or to "mother") as opposed to the negative (the right to terminate a pregnancy) in the early 21st century. Evangelical pundit Pat Robertson has infamously vilified feminism as a radical ideology that encourages women to "kill their children"; these books show that high-tech reproductive rights, to misquote Michel Foucault, encourage women to "make live" their children (Foucault 1975-6, 241). Bolstered by ideologies that tie women's reproductive acts to their economic sufficiency and the rise in compulsory motherhood for (white middle class) women of all sexual orientations and nearly all ages, reproductive "choice" has become an aggregate of generative choices that continue for a lifetime. If The Baby Business produces babies as Spar argues, it also makes parents as Charis Thompson puts it, and creates alternate families based on gestational, genetic and social kinship ties, as Hertz chronicles. Hertz's extension of her study beyond conception is, therefore, particularly useful, as is Thompson's theory of the momentous socio-cultural impact of assisted reproductive technologies.
All of these books, despite their obvious epistemological differences, show that in "the biotech age" (Thompson), in "a world of fluid boundaries and invisible trade," (Spar) with second-wave feminism in the cultural background (Hertz), reproduction and "choice" need to be re-conceived in complex, even communal terms that transcend the liberal rhetoric of individual "rights" and privacy. They also point to the necessity for scholars to engage biomedical reproduction with multidisciplinary tools and with a transnational focus. Assisted reproductive technologies touch many levels of human society and culture, including science, technology, politics, race, gender, sexuality and neoliberal globalization; their study is bound to necessitate many more conceptual shifts.
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.