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Merve Emre rejects the concept of “the natural” in the realm of human reproduction. She also challenges the reader to look beyond gendered binaries to think about the human experience of reproduction in an expanded way—one that includes single individuals, same-sex couples, and trans and gender-nonconforming people—for a maximally inclusive feminist solidarity.
I appreciate this undertaking even if Emre’s rejection of the “natural” is not new. Feminist anthropologists, such as Sylvia Yanagisako and Jane Collier, have long critiqued ideas of “natural sex,” gender binaries, and “natural” male and female procreative roles. It seems to me though that Emre’s dictum, “all reproduction . . . is assisted,” may unnecessarily limit what can be meant by a term as capacious as “natural.” One could contend, for example, that it is natural for a lesbian couple or single woman without a partner to conceive with the help of a donor sperm. As one woman I interviewed told me: “Of course we used a sperm donor. How else would a lesbian get pregnant?” It is likewise natural for a person who faces difficulties conceiving to pursue whatever technology is available to help with having a child. It is natural for a trans woman to both want the body that matches her gender identity and to go off hormones to create a child with her own gametes, whether on her own or with her partner. There is perhaps nothing more natural for anyone who wants to reproduce than to avail themselves of every possible advantage in order to do so. This is why so many fertility patients stumble down the rabbit hole of ever-increasing technological interventions.
Reframing the natural may be a start. But the anthropologist in me is not satisfied with this approach, as “natural” still feels essentializing. To achieve a maximally inclusive feminist solidarity, rather than limiting our perspective to expanded views of “assisted” or “natural,” we may be better served by casting off both. The assisted/natural dichotomy will always be stuck in outmoded notions of binary oppositions. A feminist future must move forward without these limitations.
Questions more germane to envisioning a feminist future include: How do uses of reproductive technologies (RTs) reinforce or upend societal standards and stigmas? How do RTs lead to new formulations of family? How does our vision of reproductive justice for all families account for the welfare of third-party providers of eggs or wombs, who expose themselves to medical risk out of financial need and wind up alienated from the children produced through their reproductive labor?
In my new book, Romancing the Sperm: Shifting Biopolitics and the Making of Modern Families, I explore how reproductive technologies originally intended for use by married heterosexual couples have revolutionized the meaning of family and the means by which family is created. When I first started researching in the 1990s, I was interested in how single women and lesbian couples accessed donor sperm and fertility treatment, at a time when unmarried women were often denied access to care. Many people I interviewed perceived their decisions to conceive a child with a sperm donor—whether on their own or with a female partner—as fulfilling a “natural” desire that also just happened to be politically and socially subversive.
The process of selecting genetic material for one’s future child takes account of ethnicity, race, nationality, and a host of other factors that we would in most other instances find to be uncomfortable. Individuals have their own beliefs about genetics and social value that influence how they choose a donor—a set of biases I refer to as “grassroots eugenics.” For example, one lesbian couple I interviewed decided against a sperm donor with German ancestry because they did not want to have a child whose ancestors could have any ties to Nazi Germany. They ultimately chose a medical student who drank coffee and played basketball, because he seemed like someone they could relate to. These choices were idiosyncratic, rooted in private values about what kind of people, community, and world they wanted to create and live in. At its most virtuous, grassroots eugenics can be thought of as individual reproductive rebellion against racist, sexist, and classist patriarchal models—particularly among people whose families are created outside heteronormative configurations. In this context, donor selection is a kind of embodied micro-politics that confronts the biopolitical order, but not without controversy.
Much has changed in the realm of technological reproduction and family formation since I first embarked on this work. While emerging technologies offer new options, as Emre notes, few offer unambiguous improvements in the lives of women. For example, egg freezing is often presented to healthy young women as offering the freedom to pursue a career and reproduce on one’s own timeline. However, as a company-provided benefit, it is not evident that women are the chief beneficiaries of these services. Indeed, such benefits could be construed as coercion to prioritize the needs of the company over a woman’s desire to have a child. New technologies create new possibilities, but they also present us with these kinds of feminist paradoxes.
New freedoms created for some also often come at the expense of new or worsening oppression for others. While sperm donors do not expose themselves to medical risk, egg donors and gestational surrogates do. In my most recent research with egg donors, for example, some reported serious complications as a direct result of providing eggs. Some former egg donors also later face their own infertility, and due to cost are rarely able to benefit from the services they earlier sold to others. Gamete donors and surrogates may also have complicated feelings about the children they helped create. Some may feel regret years after their donations because they long to meet the children born from their eggs or sperm and cannot. Third-party providers can feel like they are treated as products in the reproductive enterprise. Their voices need to be heard—and their humanity seen—in order to better understand the consequences when some bodies are conscripted to the service of others.
I appreciate Emre’s call for an inclusive feminist future that embraces the family-building needs of all people, but I am troubled by the silent voices of paid third-party reproductive providers who help bring some of those families to life. To achieve an inclusive feminist future, and reproductive justice for all, we need to consider how to balance the rights of all people to create and maintain their families—regardless of gender, race, class, or sexual orientation—with the health and human rights of women who provide eggs and wombs to help others or out of financial need.
Diane Tober is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Health and Aging, University of California, San Francisco, and author of Romancing the Sperm: Shifting Biopolitics and the Making of Modern Families.
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