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I am grateful to all the respondents for their thoughtful engagement with my essay. Part of the challenge I set for myself in writing this piece was to let the stories of individual women make palpable certain political and ethical binds, desires, fantasies, and ideologies regarding reproduction and reproductive justice. These binds, desires, fantasies, and ideologies become especially marked when women are confronted with systemic inequalities such as access to insurance, healthcare, and maternity leave, not to mention concerns about biologized claims to guardianship, physical safety, and bodily integrity. These inequalities, in turn, continue to go unnoticed when reproductive rights become synonymous with an individual woman’s choice not to reproduce, as is the case in much mainstream discourse about reproduction in the Western world.
It is a straightforward argument, a familiar argument to some, but not an especially well-rehearsed one. The impetus for my essay was my frustration with how many feminist techno-materialists advocating for universal access to reproductive technologies continue to occlude the gap between the personal and the political that Andrea Long Chu and Irina Aristarkhova discuss in their responses. There was, for me, a marked absence of specific, embodied accounts from these discussions. By contrast, embodiment is admirably modeled as a critical discourse in the writing of feminists of color, most recently in the extraordinary collection of essays Radial Reproductive Justice (2017), edited by Loretta J. Ross, Lynn Roberts, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples, and Pamela Bridgewater Toure. Yet in that collection, reproductive technology is presented as fully coextensive with eugenics. I was interested in thinking about how these two strands of thought—feminist technomaterialism and reproductive justice—can be brought into conversation with one another in a way that allows for a maximally inclusive feminism.
While I begin the piece by tracing the historical opposition between nature and technology in feminist manifestos, it is a misreading of my argument to assert that I choose one side over another; that would be an untenable and uninteresting position. (At one point, the working title of the piece was “Let Us Now Praise Artificial Wombs,” which I hoped readers would take as a tongue-in-cheek reference to James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, not a paean.) As I suggest toward the end of the introduction, the natural—as a normalizing but ever-shifting discourse of affective, temporal, and somatic practices that are defined and redefined through new iterations of technological intervention—reemerges at precisely the moments we believe we have transcended it. This was one reason for choosing to stage my argument through narrative rather than through a series of universalizing imperatives or polemics. For it is narrative that lets us move with an appropriate degree of ambivalence, humility, and sympathy from the specificity of an individual to political and ethical scales.
I do not think the women I interviewed would want us to read their stories as heartbreaking; it is too easy to dismiss heartbreak. I think they would want us to read them as one method of thinking and feeling politically about the desire to reproduce when all options appear compromised and anathema to one’s flourishing—a version of what Lauren Berlant has deemed “cruel optimism.” On the one hand, there is the exclusionary logic of naturalism in its consumerist, mass-mediated, and legally sanctioned guises; on the other, there are the classist, ableist, and racialized implications of technological intervention that Marcy Darnovsky, Miriam Zoll, Annie Menzel, and Chris Kaposy highlight in their responses. For this reason, I find especially helpful the responses that talk about the value of different versions of the natural from the ones I invoke at the outset of my piece: Chu’s wise, wild, funny, and immensely compelling assessment of the natural as an object of desire—a desire that is loosely threaded through all the stories I relay; and Tober’s smart argument that the natural can be used subversively to affirm marginalized identities—something I hinted at, but did not develop, in my reading of Spataro’s op-ed on trans fertility.
It is true that my argument was limited to the United States, and that I did not touch on the transnational market for surrogacy, which has been admirably documented in recent books by Anindita Majumdar, Sayantani DasGupta, Amrita Pande, and Sharmila Rudrappa. As several respondents point out, I did not speak to women who “donated their eggs for money”—a troubling oxymoron. I wanted to, but, for reasons of confidentiality and anonymity, it was difficult to find women who could talk or wanted to talk. This may not be a satisfying answer, but it is a true one, and it opens onto a larger point I should have emphasized in the piece: it is easier to find and persuade women to talk to you about fertility when they think they are producing and consuming reproductive material outside an explicit system of market exchange, a market that makes inequalities of race and class even more glaring.
At the same time, I think several of the responses are too quick to conflate access with privilege. Indeed, part of my point was to encourage feminists who make arguments based on access to think more carefully and granularly about the distinction between the two as it pertains to reproductive labor. I am not sure my argument would change were I to narrate the stories of women who were in more markedly disadvantaged situations; the basic point about assisted reproduction would remain the same even if the details of the cases differed.
Kaposy is right that reproductive technologies encourage many women to use the language of economic decision-making—optimization, just-in-time production, hedging, a whole list of acronyms only legible to the initiated—to orient themselves and their offspring to a new biopolitical reality. Individual choices, like genetic testing, are informed by technological constraints. In aggregate, these choices, no matter how individually agonizing or complex, amplify certain discriminatory ideologies. More important for my purposes is that the explicitness of their language makes visible the fact that gestation is work, as Sophie Lewis argues, and as work, it is unevenly distributed and unequally rewarded. This is true not only under neoliberalism, but in general since industrial modernity articulated the division between productive and reproductive labor.
I have been intrigued by Lewis’s notion of anti-work gestational labor since I started researching this piece, as I think it offers real political promise around realizing a positive right to reproduce. I am grateful to her and Menzel for adding necessary context to the argument that comes at the end of the piece: that feminists of color, scholar-activists, and queer families have been pioneers in modeling and theorizing assisted reproduction. I agree wholeheartedly, and I wish I had discussed my indebtedness to their work more thoroughly at the essay’s beginning and end. One of my favorite parts of Radical Reproductive Justice is Lynn Roberts’s “On Becoming and Being a Mother in Four Movements,” in which Roberts, who has raised two “chosen children” through adoption, highlights her sister’s decision to go “to great lengths and tremendous debt” to conceive through IVF. She points out that she and her sister have both raised children who were not biologically related to them—a challenge that seems to have deepened not only their family ties but expanded their kinship system. I think we see similar experiences of expansion in the uncompensated care work that gleams through several of the narratives: the women who care for B and help her pay for her IVF; the #ttc communities that K joins even when she feels like an “affect alien” in them; the Facebook group for trans women that shows cárdenas how to counter the myths of sterility. It is no accident that S, the person most caught up in the neoliberalization of reproductive technologies, is also the person who seems the most alone.
I was thinking about this in a roundabout way the other evening because, at the behest of my editor, I was reading Dr. Seuss’s 1940 picture book Horton Hatches the Egg to my toddler. It opens with a “lazy bird” named Mayzie complaining about the gestational labor she must perform. “I’m tired and I’m bored / And I’ve kinks in my leg / From sitting, just sitting here day after day,” she sighs. “It’s work! How I hate it!” Along comes an elephant named Horton who promises to sit on her egg so she can have a much-needed vacation. You can read his act of uncompensated trans-species surrogacy through any number of allegorical lenses—they all work—but what is more intriguing is why Horton does it in the first place. He does it because Mayzie “insists,” and he is “gentle and kind.” Ultimately, when I claim at the end of the piece that I want “the social to catch up with the technological,” what I mean is that we need to do a more instructive job of insisting, and we need a political system that is structurally organized to mimic the kindness of intimates and strangers.
Merve Emre is professor of English at Oxford. She is the author of The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing and Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America.
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