Breeder Reactionaries

The "feminist" war on reproductive technologies

"59-Year-Old Woman Gives Birth to Twins on Christmas Day!"

Although it reads like one, that's not a headline from the National Enquirer. Earlier this year, reputable newspapers around the globe rushed to report that a 59-year-old British businesswoman had produced two healthy children from donated eggs which had been implanted in her uterus. She was soon overshadowed by a pregnant 62-year-old Italian woman, who wanted a baby to replace her only child, a son who had died in an accident.

Then a black woman gave birth to a white baby and the world confronted a host of new questions: Should parents be allowed to choose the race of their children? Or the sex? Should "designer" babies be encouraged? Or should the new reproductive technologies that allow such possibilities be banned, as several European nations are now attempting to do?

The controversial procedures causing such a flap encompass a number of fully achieved technologies as well as some still in the development stages. They include: sperm donation, by which a woman is impregnated with sperm from someone other than her partner; egg donation, by which one women conceives with an egg donated by another; sperm and egg freezing; embryo adoption, by which a donated egg and sperm are cultured into an embryo; embryo freezing; and embryo screening. The world has certainly come a long way since Louise Brown became the first test-tube baby in 1978.

The main appeal of reproductive technologies is that they give people more choices and more flexibility in a domain previously ruled by biological chance and limits. And, sensational headlines notwithstanding, the typical beneficiaries of reproductive technologies are individuals in their child-bearing years. Still, the proliferation of new options means that the social implications of the new reproductive technologies are staggering. By the year 2000, for instance, more than 2 million children will have been born as a result of artificial insemination, estimates Roxanne Felshuch of IDANT Laboratories. Essentially, women can reset their biological clocks at will. Instead of having children during their peak career years, women can wait until retirement to raise a family. A single infant can now have more than two parents, all of whom might die of old age before he or she begins to teethe. If recent experiments on mice are an indication of things to come, a woman could abort a female fetus and, using its ovaries and eggs, later give birth to her own grandchild.

The prospect of such a reproduction revolution raises important and vexing ethical questions. For example, with two possible sets of "parents," how should the courts adjudicate custody claims? What will prevent governments from commandeering this science to produce "better" citizens? Will women be pressured to abort "defective" fetuses? Who will define a defect?

And, because they often utilize donors and surrogates, the new reproductive technologies also raise many serious questions about individual rights and contract law. Does a donor or a surrogate have any rights beyond sharply delimited contractual obligations? Is it possible to contract out motherhood--or fatherhood-- itself? Congress and the courts have begun to address these questions and, if 1987's "Baby M" case is any indication, the final answers are certain to be long and hard in coming.

These are the sort of questions that will alter the reproduction debate in the next decade. Indeed, they promise to alter reproduction itself. Women can now choose to have children when, where, and with whomever they want.

Such fundamental change inevitably inspires champions and detractors and, in the cacophony surrounding the new reproductive technologies, you would think feminists would be among the staunchest advocates for freeing a woman's body from the restrictions of nature. This, after all, has been one of the main goals of the feminist movement since its inception. As Shulamith Firestone wrote in the 1970 feminist classic, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case For Feminist Revolution, "The first demand for any alternative system must be...The freeing of women from the tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available ... "

The new reproductive technologies, like effective contraception and access to legal abortion, seem to provide women with the "choice" central to virtually all brands of feminism. So aren't they part and parcel of the "reproductive freedom" that was so hotly contested at the United Nations' International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo? You would think only the pope and other reproductive traditionalists could be critical of such technologies. And you would think feminists would shout with joy now that their long-time rallying cry--"A woman's body, a woman's right" --is on the verge of fulfillment.

But you would be wrong. When high-profile feminists have commented on the topic at all, they have been outspoken in their attacks on new reproductive technologies ranging from innovations in birth-control methods to refinements of in vitro techniques. Consider the words of Janice Raymond, professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts and author of Women as Wombs. Raymond disparages the technologies as "reproductive abuse," a product of the "spermatic economy of sex and breeding" or "spermocracy," and "medicalized pornography."

This rejection has nothing to do with the ethical questions posed above. Critics such as Raymond are radical feminists who consider men and women separate political classes, with interests that dramatically-- and necessarily--conflict. Within the radical feminist ideological belief system, anything developed within the "patriarchy"--the "seamless web of male oppression" that radical feminists say characterizes our world-- must be condemned, regardless of the apparent benefits for women.

The radical feminists sometimes call themselves "post-Marxists," but it is not clear just how far they've moved past Marx--or Engels, for that matter. Like Marx, they tend to single out capitalism as a particularly exploitive system and, like Engels, they see it as the root of all gender injustice. More important, radical feminists rely on a Marxist "base/superstructure model" of analysis. In traditional Marxist analysis, a particular economic base (i.e., capitalism) creates a particular superstructure or culture which simultaneously camouflages and perpetuates the economic base. The process is subtle enough that people within the system don't even understand they are part of it, much less being exploited by it. That's why workers need to be organized; "class consciousness" is suppressed by the superstructure. And because the superstructure is determined by the base, any attempt to alter the superstructure without fundamentally changing the base is meaningless. Hence, raises in wages and benefits may seem progressive but, because they placate workers, actually work to shore up an evil system.

Radical feminists have taken this basic argument and substituted gender relations for economic ones. In place of capitalism, there is patriarchy (of which, it should be noted, capitalism is a manifestation); in place of class exploitation, there is gender exploitation. Developments apparently benefiting women--such as longer lifespans, birth-control pills, increased access to property, wealth, and education--actually maintain the patriarchal status quo.

Patriarchy, say the radical feminists, is a cancer rooted so deeply in our culture that even the language with which we speak and think reinforces male dominance: The word history rather than herstory is merely one obvious example among many. For radical feminists, then, the new reproductive technologies are particularly abhorrent for two reasons. First, they are a creation of a "male science" which seeks to dominate nature rather than remain open to it. Already convinced that the medical establishment is out to control women, radical feminists insist that the new, ostensibly liberating procedures are actually another attempt to exploit female reproductive functions and turn women into baby factories under male management. Second, the legal grounds on which the new reproductive technologies will be implemented stand on notions of individual rights, enlightened self-interest, and contract law--all of which radical feminists see as extensions of an inherently exploitive capitalist system.

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