Techno-Maternity: Rethinking the Possibilities of Reproductive Technologies
Nadia Mahjouri
In 1972, Shulamith Firestone championed artificial reproductive technologies as a way forward for feminism – arguing they could provide the means to meet her revolutionary demand for “the freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction by every means possible” (193, italics in original). In her utopic vision of an egalitarian future, child-bearing would no longer fall to a woman by virtue of her biology, but rather would be taken over by technology, thereby leaving women free to enter the male-dominated public sphere, and enabling a social change that would encourage men to share the difficult responsibilities of child-rearing.

Just six years later, Louise Brown, the first ‘test tube baby’ was born in England, and in 1980, the second, Candice Reed, was born in Australia. By the end of that decade, prospective parents had access to a wide selection of commercially available reproductive options: embryos could be conceived in petri dishes and frozen in order to be thawed out at a more appropriate time; infertile couples could employ surrogate mothers to bear their children; lesbian couples and single women could have children using donor sperm, and grandmothers could give birth to their own grandchildren (by having the fertilized egg taken from their grown daughter implanted into their uterus).[1] By the start of the new millennium, the development of genetic screening technologies made it scientifically possible for women to decide whether or not to carry a foetus with an ‘undesirable’ gene to term, and in December 2002, the space-alien worshipping sect, the Raaelians, claim to have cloned the first human baby, whom they named Eve. In 2003, Stanford University’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology web site posited “it is only a matter of time before ectogenesis [gestation in an artificial womb] becomes feasible” (para 1) and a Sydney Daily Telegraph headline proclaimed “Meet Stephanie, A Designer Baby” (Apr 28 2003:1). With the rapid pace of reproductive technological development, it seems possible that Firestone’s demand will be met – ‘natural’ reproduction could indeed become a thing of the past.

Yet as reproductive technologies developed, feminists began to notice several problems with the way these technologies were being implemented. Far from freeing women from the ‘tyranny of reproduction’, new technologies seemed to be enforcing the need for women to reproduce – creating a reproductive imperative that held that motherhood was the natural state for all women, whatever the cost.[2] Furthermore, according to the anti-technology argument, women’s bodies were becoming experimental sites, being subjected to new and untested procedures that both exploited women’s bodies, and reinforced the classist, racist, and heterosexist beliefs of patriarchal ‘technodocs’ - white, middle aged, middle class men – who, in an attempt to play God, restricted access to technologies to women imagined to be ‘proper’ mothers – namely white, wealthy, married women (Albury 1984). In 1986, FINRRAGE, the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering, was born, arguing unequivocally that reproductive technologies were bad for women. As the FINRRAGE manifesto boldly states:

We, women […], declare that the female body, with its unique capacity for creating human life, is being exploited and dissected as raw material for the technological production of human beings. For us women, for nature, and for the exploited peoples of the world, this development is a declaration of war. Genetic and reproductive engineering is another attempt to end self determination over our own bodies. (Klein 258)

Reproductive technologies and their eugenic potentialities were condemned by the members of FINRRAGE on the basis that they divided, fractured, and separated the female body into distinct parts for its scientific recompilation, thereby disrupting reproductive continuity and fragmenting women’s identity. Further, they allowed for the “take-over of our bodies for male use, for profit making, population control, medical experimentation and misogynist science” (Klein 259). Reproductive technologies, far from being tools of liberation, were in fact seen as tools of oppression, providing yet another means by which the patriarchy could erode women’s control over their own bodies and lives.

At the same time, in a slightly different forum, however, other feminist theorists were critiquing the assumptions that underlay both positions. From this perspective, the female body was neither a hindrance to be overcome, as is implicit in Firestone’s position, nor a natural site of feminine power to which women could return, as it was understood by the members of FINRRAGE. Instead, this broad group of feminists argued that the investigation of body itself ought to be at the centre of feminist inquiry. Theorists such as Luce Irigaray, Moira Gatens, Gayatri Spivack, Hélène Cixous, and Elizabeth Grosz, (known either as ‘sex difference’ or ‘corporeal’ feminists)[3] set about providing an analysis of the sexed body as it is lived and experienced arguing that the body is not a brute, passive, or inert object merely inscribed by social forces, but rather that it is actually created through the workings of prevalent social systems of representation, meaning, and signification. The ongoing work of these feminists can be characterised as an attempt to theorise beyond the problematic binaries of mind/body, sex/gender, culture/nature, reason/passion, which have lead to the association of men with the privileged terms (mind, reason, culture) and women with the devalued (body, passion, nature). Adopting such an approach, the body is seen as central site for feminist inquiry – the key to understanding women’s experience in a gendered social world. As Grosz puts it, for corporeal feminists, “the body can be seen as the crucial term, the site of contestation, in a series of economic, political, sexual and intellectual struggles” (Volatile Bodies 19).

Arising in the context of corporeal feminism, this article presents an investigation into reproductive technologies through analysis of the female bodies at the centre of their implementation. As such, the questions surrounding these technologies are reconfigured from “How do reproductive technologies affect women’s bodies?” (Do they liberate or oppress them?) to “How do reproductive technologies effect women’s bodies?” (What form are these bodies caused to take? How are they experienced and lived?). Looking at how reproductive technologies themselves create and produce specific bodies allows for the recognition of the complexities inherent in the proliferation of reproductive technologies, and challenges feminist theorists to investigate questions of agency, desire, power, resistance and politics. In this article, I interrogate three of the multiple types of techno-maternal bodies, created when reproductive technologies meet pregnant flesh – the maternal body as a body ‘at risk,’ as an ‘in/visible’ body, and as a ‘commodified’ body.

Techno-Maternity as a Body At Risk

The historical construction of the female body as the medical object par excellence has led in its contemporary manifestations to the conceptualisation of the female body as a body ‘at risk.’ Everywhere women go, from the public toilet to the doctor’s surgery, there are reminders that by virtue of the ‘unique’ female biology, women’s bodies are at risk – of breast cancer, cervical cancer, or osteoporosis,[4] to name but a few of the specific women’s health problems targeted by the medical establishment.[5] Metaphors of chance, likelihood, and probability abound, and nowhere more than in medical discourse relating to the maternal body, as will be highlighted in the following section. As soon as pregnancy is diagnosed, an array of previously safe behaviours suddenly become ‘risky’ for the pregnant woman intending to continue with the pregnancy – from eating blue cheese, or pre-prepared sandwiches (which carry a risk of listeriosis), to drinking alcohol (foetal alcohol syndrome), changing the cat litter (risk of toxoplasmosis), lifting heavy loads, overexercising, and even walking down stairs (risk of trauma induced miscarriage or preterm labour).[6] This terminology frames and enforces what Foucault (1977) in Discipline and Punish calls ‘technologies of surveillance’ – the risk of miscarriage encourages pregnant women to take extra care to conform to the techniques of disciplinary power, through both external and internal practices of surveillance.

Internal practices of surveillance (self surveillance) are, in Butler’s term, performative, and serve to construct the body in terms of the dominant narratives of motherhood, with care and responsibility being key terms. Pregnant women are expected to monitor their diet, their alcohol and drug intake, their weight, and/or the number and nature of foetal movements against medical models, and make decisions based on the notion of risk, deciding within this framework what level of risk they define as acceptable for themselves and their potential children. Through this performance of maternity in which appropriate risk management equals appropriate maternal responsibility, maternal bodies and maternal identities are fabricated. Women who refuse to adequately self-survey, or those who fail to modify their behaviour to fit dominant medical risk paradigms, such as the woman who continues to smoke, drink, or use drugs throughout her pregnancy, is able to assume only a deviant form of maternal identity.[7] By the notion of performativity, however, I am not arguing that all women make a conscious, or arbitrary, decision to perform their pregnant embodiment in one way or another – there are multiple factors that may affect each situation, including, among others, class, education levels, and ethnic background. Rather, following Butler, self-surveillance practices adopted by the pregnant woman can be called performative “in the sense that [they] constitute as an effect the very subject that [they] appear to express” (24). As made clear by Shildrick and Price, “performativity is the process of becoming […] that is the very condition of embodiment” (414). It is not possible to ‘be pregnant’ without somehow performing pregnancy, and it is through this performance that maternal identities and maternal bodies are constructed.

Performing the maternal body as a body at risk is the (perhaps unintended) outcome of the mobilisation of the notion of risk central to the operation of the Maternal Serum Screening Test – an optional blood test offered to most pregnant Australian women when they are between 15 and 20 weeks pregnant. This test is explained to prospective parents as “a first test to see whether or not your unborn baby is likely to have a neural tube defect or Down Syndrome” (“Information for Parents,” 1, emphasis in original).[8] The Maternal Serum Screening test cannot definitively show whether or not a foetus has either of these conditions, but rather, places the pregnant woman in one of two categories – ‘increased risk,’ i.e. her baby is more likely to have one of these abnormalities, or ‘not at increased risk,’ i.e. her baby is less likely to be abnormal in these ways. In this case a woman maintains base level risk. Interestingly, no pregnancy is ever considered risk free. From this information, a woman must decide whether or not to have further testing. In this scenario the language of probabilities is central. According to the same brochure, a “maternal serum screening report which says not at increased risk means that there is only a very small chance (less than 1 chance in 200) that your baby has either a neural tube defect or Down syndrome” (3, emphasis in original). Alternatively, a report saying increased risk means

there is a greater than expected chance that your baby has either a neural tube defect or Down syndrome. It does not mean there is definitely something wrong with your baby. It is only a guide saying that something may be wrong. About 29 pregnancies in every 30 reported as being at increased risk will produce normal, healthy babies. Only 1 baby in every 30 reported as being at increased risk will actually have a neural tube defect or Down syndrome. (5, emphasis in original)

A woman receiving a diagnosis of ‘increased risk’ is directed to make a second set of risk calculations. Firstly, secondary testing by ultrasound scan is recommended. However, ultrasound can only positively diagnose neural tube defects and not Down syndrome, and so, for conclusive testing for both conditions, amniocentesis is recommended. Yet amniocentesis comes with its own risks – a one in 200 chance of the test causing damage to (a most likely normal) pregnancy that may lead to miscarriage.

The notion of risk presented here is highly individualised. Each woman has a very specific risk level, based on her age, childbearing history, education levels, habits and behaviours, and genetic makeup, and particularly her race. Indeed, as Rayna Rapp points out, the notion of risk in pregnancy is intimately tied to dominant racial narratives. Medical discourse singles out women of particular non-Anglo Saxon races as being more at risk of various disorders: sickle cell anaemia among people of African descent, Tay-Sachs disease is prevalent among those of Ashkenazi Jewish background, and thalessemias are blood disorders most common in Mediterranean and Asian populations, whilst diseases common to those of Anglo-Saxon descent (such as cystic fibrosis and Down syndrome) are presented as diseases of the community in general (Rapp 72). Furthermore, the aversion to having a child with Down syndrome (previously known as ‘mongoloidism’) can perhaps be traced back to eugenic conceptions, in which not only were races immutably ranked, but also Anglo-Saxon infants with disabilities were understood as racial ‘throwbacks’ that reflected the lower racial orders. As Rapp details, “Down’s description of ‘Caucasian idiots’ as akin to African, Malay, American Indian, and Oriental peoples, reflected his belief that they represented an atavism towards a more ‘primitive’ type of individual” (54). Seemingly objective tests such as the Maternal Serum Screening Test can be read as both highly political and as entirely located within a dominant narrative of Caucasian superiority.

Nevertheless, the benefits of the Maternal Serum Screening Test are that it allows women to make choices about whether or not to continue a ‘risky’ pregnancy. As such, this, and other similar tests are actively sought out by women in a number of categories – older women, those with a genetic (or racial) predisposition to these conditions, women who have decided they do not want to raise a child with a disability, or women who would continue with the pregnancy but want a chance to prepare properly for the arrival of a disabled child. Feminist theorists must therefore be wary of dismissing them as oppressive or unhelpful to women. Nevertheless, tests such as these do work to produce a particular maternal body – a body that is ‘at risk,’ which itself can be analysed in terms of the nuances it lend to the experience of maternity.

In the discourse of the Maternal Serum Screening Test, metaphors of risk, chance and likelihood construct a maternal body and an experience of pregnancy that can be likened to a game. Maternity becomes a matter of hedging bets and taking chances, and the maternal body acts as the table – the site at which and through which these gambles take place. The maternal body in this scenario is produced as an object to be tested, quantified, and gambled upon (often by the mother herself), and a healthy child becomes the prize for making a good bet in a dangerous game. How much a woman feels she is laying on the table is intimately connected to a woman’s social positioning, and life experience. A woman who has previously given birth to a number of healthy children may feel a 1 in 180 chance of having a Down syndrome baby is negligible – as one mother of three put it “It’s almost like gambling – you aren’t likely to hit the jackpot” (qtd. in Rapp, 69) whilst a first time mother at age 42 said “Why am I having amniocentesis? I’m 42. I think at my age I’d be foolish, anyone would be foolish, not to have this test” (qtd. in Rapp, 1). Metaphors of chance and gambling solidify the notion of risk – a woman’s risk level (the odds) are assessed by the medical profession, and from this information, women are forced to lay their bets, by choosing one path of action (or inaction). Notably, one form of resistance to this risk paradigm, for the older woman confronted with high chances of delivering a disabled baby, could be the conscious decision to remain childless.

Similar metaphors of chance risk and gambling are utilised in the discourse surrounding IVF (in vitro fertilization), as pointed out by Mentor, in his article “Witches, Nurses, Midwives and Cyborgs: IVF, ART and Complex Agency in the World of Technobirth.” As he argues, IVF technologies are often approached as a ‘last chance’ measure for infertile people, having exhausted all other avenues. Yet, IVF has a notoriously low success rate, less than 30% in most clinics, and is an expensive and emotionally exhausting procedure. Detailing his own experience with IVF, Mentor says of his visit to the specialist

What did he say? I can’t remember; all I remember is the gambling metaphors. The last chance; the last roll of the dice; betting it all emotionally. And this gambling is the highest stakes I’ll ever play; after a certain point, you have to pay $8K to stay at the table, and to win you bet against a House that holds 70% odds (at least). This gambling metaphor tends to obscure others: “will you win the lottery” rather than the emotional costs of buying all those psychic tickets every day… IVF today can resemble a slot machine with Latour’s actant technologies inside: at a certain point in the discussion of fertility odds the doctor casts the shadow of an oddsmaker, a blackjack dealer calmly stating the odds to the next player/mark. (75-76)

He goes on to say that the rhetoric of gambling combines in IVF with the rhetoric of medicine, such that bodies and technologies merge and are narrated as a gamble. It is in this way that maternal bodies are produced as bodies at risk. Reproductive technologies narrate maternity in terms of a series of choices that are quantified in terms of chance and probabilities – the techno-maternal body is the object of a set of ongoing risk/benefit analyses, from pre-conception to post birth.

Yet, while the techno-maternal body is the object of the risk/ benefit analysis, it is not always the subject. Indeed, in a large number of cases, the foetus, and not the mother, is the subject of these analyses. Furthermore, medical discourse often depicts an either/or situation in which risks to the mother can entail benefits to the child, or vice versa. The creation of foetal subjectivity is a result of another set of reproductive technological innovations – the medical imaging technologies – which allow sight of the foetus at the expense of the visualization of the maternal body.

Techno-Maternity as In/Visible Body

As numerous feminist critiques have pointed out, the first ever pictures of a living child in utero, published in Life magazine on April 30 1965, heralded the emergence of a new player in the process of maternity, and particularly in the debates surrounding abortion – the foetus. Before this development, pregnancy was understood as ‘woman with child,’ and, although it was understood that a developmental process was occurring, this process was epistemically situated within the maternal body – all access to the drama that constitutes ‘life before birth’ was necessarily accessed through the (solid and opaque) woman’s body. The foetal subject, divorced from the mother and displayed on screen, did not exist. However, visually displayed with unprecedented accuracy, the foetus developed a force and legitimacy as a ‘life’ itself that enabled anti-abortionists to frame the debate in terms of the foetal ‘right to life,’ a right which according to anti-abortionists took precedent over a woman’s right to make choices about her own body and life. This is not to say that there were not foetuses in the scientific sense of the word before the technological innovation that allowed their visualization, but rather, as Addelson argues, that before this point they had not been members of the ‘ensemble casts’ that determines how we understand our lives. As she explains

Science is a social, cultural institution, and if any of it ‘works’ to cure suffering, it does so by entering into the construction of participants and their collective activities …. Foetuses and microbes were introduced as participants in ensemble casts at certain times and places (and perhaps will exit the stage at others). To say they existed before they were ‘discovered’ is to make a historical judgement. Foetuses (the biomedical participants) obviously exist now. (37)

The foetus today is the focus of a large amount of reproductive technological intervention, from the routine use of ultrasound to diagnose foetal abnormalities to the groundbreaking area of foetal surgery. In both biomedical discourse and also contemporary conceptions of maternity, the foetus figures as a player – as a child with rights, or as one’s son or daughter. Further, it is commonly attributed personhood, and subjectivity, to such a degree that it is not uncommon to find the printed 18 week ultrasound scan taking first place in baby’s first photo album. As Maher points out “Pregnancy now appears to serve only as a conduit for the foetal subject, labour as a foetal transitional state” (140). As a new actor in the ‘ensemble cast,’ the foetus has taken centre stage.

The centring of the foetal subject has changed conceptions of the role of the maternal body in the process of pregnancy, most particularly in relation to notions of maternal responsibility. Recognising the foetus as an entity with subjectivity and at least potential personhood has meant that the pregnant woman is now not only responsible for maintaining her own health and making choices about her own body but also, must consider the (perhaps opposing) interests of the foetus she is carrying. These opposing interests are framed clearly in anti-smoking paraphernalia distributed by Quit Australia, which graphically depict a smoking pregnant woman complete with smoking foetus in utero – the mother inhales yet the foetus inside breathes out the smoke. The unequivocal message is “if you refuse to quit for your own health, please do so for the sake of your living (if not yet breathing) child.” A more extreme example of this is cited in both Addelson (38) and Balsamo (120): the case of South Carolinian woman Cornelia Whitner, who was convicted of criminal child neglect and sentenced to eight years in prison for using cocaine during pregnancy. As detailed by Addelson, “On appeal, the state’s high court stated that a viable foetus could be considered a person under the state’s child neglect statute” (39), a statue that has now become federal law in the US, and has led to over 30 women being prosecuted for manslaughter and murder of their embryos. Whilst Addelson goes on to make an ethical (political) statement about these issues, stating “It is urgent to take a stand and put up a fight over issues like this” (39), I intend to investigate them through a focus on the unique nature of the maternal body.

The emergence of the foetus inevitably leads to questions regarding a woman’s autonomy, and constructs the maternal body as a unique case of a subject/subject relation that blurs the boundary between self and other. On this understanding, the pregnant body is often understood as embodying two, sometimes contradictory, subjectivities. In what way do these contradictions produce particular maternal bodies and how do they construct the experience of maternity? As many feminist theorists have pointed out, the emergence of the foetus through medical imaging technologies comes at the expense of the visualization of the maternal body. According to Barbara Duden, in her book Disembodying Women, medical imaging technologies work effectively by ‘skinning’ the pregnant woman, bypassing a woman’s own phenomenological experience of her body by the privileging of scientific observation. And, as Maher points out, whilst feminist theories have varied in the way in which they analyse the emergence of the foetus, feminists such as Hartouni, Adams, Daniels, Condit, Petchesky, Richard, Roberts, Franklin, and Strathern, all agree on one point; that in the “competitive framing arising in a ‘visible’ pregnancy (i.e. a pregnancy involving the use of imaging technologies), more foetus [equals] less woman” (Maher 139). Similarly, according to Lauren Berlant, the emergence of the foetus via ultrasound relegates the maternal body to the “fuzzy, unfocussed part of the picture, throwing her body into a suspension of meaning and value” (qtd. in Michaels 119). In these accounts, medical imaging technologies that make it possible to visualise the foetus construct the maternal body as both an in-visible body, as it can be looked into, and an invisible body, as this looking through occurs only by virtue of the maternal body’s disappearance, or transparency. In both ways, the maternal body itself is read as a body rendered meaningless, doomed permanently to pale into insignificance in the face of its highly visualizable inhabitant.

Yet this is not the only way to understand the phenomenological experience of the technologically mediated pregnancy. Indeed, paying close attention to the way women describe the experience of pregnancy suggests that the visualization of the foetus has not led to the disappearance of the maternal body, but rather to a more fluid conception of what the maternal body is, an understanding that reconfigures notions of bodies and subjectivities from a unified, coherent model (one body = one subject) to a fractured, shifting model, in which one body may encompass multiple subjectivities. Recognising the foetus as an actor in the drama of pregnancy does not necessarily undermine a woman’s bodily experience, nor does it constitute a permanent or mortal threat to her bodily integrity – the relationship need not be conceptualised as a contest between woman and foetus, in which benefits to one comes at the expense of the other. Instead, the relationship can be understood as fluid, permeable, and shifting, as is made clear when the maternal body is placed at the centre of this debate.

As Maher points out, the “rich and intricate” corporeal landscape of the gestating body provides a way to contest reductive readings of pregnancy, and allows theorists to reintegrate the divided pregnant body through a “new framework of exchange” (141). Medical imaging technologies were developed in order to facilitate the viewing of the foetus in the process of gestation, necessarily located within, and connected to the maternal body, as opposed to previously when the only access was through the study of expelled or aborted foetuses (Maher 141). Understood this way, medical imaging technologies suture the maternal body at the same time as they appear to divide it. For example, Adrienne Rich, in describing her pregnancy, says “The child I carry for nine months can be defined neither as me or as not-me” (64) and Karen Carr details:

As I look at my foetus, floating within the sound hollow of my womb, I am, in a sense, re-sutured even as I am being fragmented. My uterus, on display, lit up like some video game, is, paradoxically, the means to my fragmentation as well as my access to “wholeness.” (para 8)

If feminist theory were to focus on this aspect – the indivisibility of the maternal body by imaging technologies – a new framework of interaction between woman, foetus, and technology would become apparent.

In this new framework, the foetus is inextricably linked to the maternal body, through a bodily exchange relation that complicates Cartesian narratives of body and mind, but is not a separate entity, with the rights and subjectivity that the attribution of personhood claims. On this model, the maternal body can be understood as an agent, actively involved in the process of reproduction, but cannot be held responsible for the health and wellbeing of the foetus as a competing subject. Rather, pregnant women’s subjective framework is dependent on their own location and positioning, an outcome of their own unique experience of pregnant embodiment. The subjective awareness of the pregnant woman is neither wholly with or entirely separate from that of the foetus. Rather, in a fluid and fractured experience, it shifts at will from themselves to the foetus – at some times they are aware of it as other (when its foot lodges between their ribs or it appears on an ultrasound screen), yet at other times it presents as aspects of self (when the women crave particular foods, for example). To take this notion further, as Helen Marshall argues, the “experience of pregnancy is ‘not ongoing and unified’ since the pregnant woman may ‘leave’ the pregnant state on occasion, constructing her subjective identity through other matrices than the body project of pregnancy” (qtd. in Maher 144). Pregnancy thus constitutes neither a stable nor a unified subjectivity. The in/visible maternal body read in this way then does not present as a body rendered meaningless, but rather forms a site from which previously taken for granted notions of bodies and subjects can be challenged and reproblematized. The commonly held feminist argument that imaging technologies permanently divide pregnant subjectivities is undermined here – it is less a case of ‘always two, never one,’ but rather, ‘always one, yet sometimes two.’

Techno-Maternity as a Commodified Body

Finally I investigate the potential of this fractured maternal body to reconfigure binary notions of production/reproduction, through the investigation of the techno-maternal as a commodified body, primarily discussing the practice of commercial gestational surrogacy made possible by IVF. To quote Weinbaum,

With surrogacy, we have entered an age of bio-technological reproduction in which the erosion of the divisions between public and private accompany the rupture of the production/reproduction binarism. (102)

The maternal body as it is produced at the intersection with reproductive technologies is to some degree a fractured body, as through the use of these technologies, what has previously been seen as a ‘natural’ and ‘unified’ process can be divided and separated into three parts - genetics, gestation, and social mothering. Each of these aspects may involve different players in the reproductive process, and in the process of the birth of just one child, multiple female bodies may be involved – the egg donor, the surrogate, the social mother. Which, if any, of these women, can claim maternal embodiment, and which of them become mothers? Each would seem would have some variety of claim arising from their part in the reproductive process – the egg donor shares genetic codes and biological material, the surrogate shares bodily fluids, nutrition and waste with the unborn child and suffers the inconveniences and delights of pregnancy, whilst the social mother assumes the responsibility for the lifelong development and nurturing of the resultant child. Yet as Goslinga-Roy points out, the professional language of reproductive technologies clearly designate motherhood, as an identity, to belong to the intended social mother, the consumer (as it were) of the reproductive process (113). So what becomes of the producer of the reproductive processes, the labouring worker? In this case, the maternal body is produced as a commodified body.

The commodification of reproductive body parts and the sale for money of women’s reproductive labour has attracted a considerable degree of comment from feminist theorists in this area, particularly from those feminists who take reproductive technologies to be instances of the inherently oppressive patriarchal appropriation of women’s ‘natural’ reproductive abilities – notably radical feminists such as Gena Corea and Andrea Dworkin. As Dion Farquhar comments, these writers propose a ‘brothel’ model for the theorization of the effects of reproductive technologies, comparing the commodification of nonreproductive sex which occurs in pornography and prostitution with the commodification of nonsexual reproduction made possible by reproductive technologies (195). As Corea contends,

Just as the patriarchal state now finds it acceptable to market parts of a woman’s body (breast, vagina, buttocks) for sexual purposes in prostitution […] so it will soon find it reasonable to market other parts of a woman (womb, ovaries, egg) for reproductive purposes. (42)

This anti-technology/anti-sexwork position posits an essential female body, and female nature, and appeal to a ‘natural’ experience of both sexuality and reproduction, which somehow exists independently of, or prior to, the (patriarchal) appropriation of it as it appears today. As Farquhar points out, for these feminists, all pornography and reproductive technology providers and consumers can be understood monolithically – all providers are oppressive, all users/workers oppressed (188). Furthermore, the commodification of women’s bodies is denounced on the basis that to submit them to exchange relations and market conditions is to degrade them to object status, continuing a history of the objectification of female bodies for the male gaze. Yet, as Farquhar argues,

the experience of conception through heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse in a state-triangulated legal marriage without reproductive technologies is no more ‘natural’ than an institutional medically mediated conception in a laboratory petri dish with anonymous donor sperm. (195)

To argue that all users of reproductive technologies are necessarily oppressed is to ignore the multiple ways in which networks of power interact to produce bodies that actively desire to take part in the disciplinary practices of biopower, and to fail to recognise the potential for resistance and subversion inherent in all interrelations of power. In short, the mistake these theorists make is to conceive of power monolithically, as power of one group (the patriarchy) over the other (women), rather than understanding it in a Foucauldian sense as a network of interrelations.

Once power is reconceived in this way, it becomes possible to rewrite the commodified maternal body as a body that possesses an agency that allows it to subvert and reproblematize Marxist binaries of production/reproduction. For example, the practice of gestational surrogacy, in which a woman is paid to gestate a child with no biological relation to her, read through a radical feminist framework, is the exploitation of a woman’s ‘natural’ reproductive role, the appropriation of her biological capacities by patriarchal techno-docs. Taking a Foucauldian approach, from which power is understood to exist everywhere, a sense of agency becomes apparent, as she can be read as a woman who entered the labour market to sell her labour power as a commodity. As Alys Eve Weinbaum argues in her paper, “Marx, Irigaray and the Politics of Reproduction,” the growth of surrogacy can, for those willing to put aside moral outrage at the equation of babies with products, be read as “the entrance of numbers of enterprising poor women into a newly found cottage industry” (101). This reconfiguration of the dynamic between women and the practitioners of reproductive technologies allows us to conceive of women as agents who take advantage of the situation which presents itself, as opposed to understanding them as victims of their circumstance.

Furthermore, this approach allows us to recognise the complexities that lead to any woman’s decision to sell her reproductive labour, complexities that most often reach beyond financial gain (the payment for surrogacy is notoriously low) to include the desire to give someone who would otherwise be unable to have children the chance of parenthood. In this way, what Rosalyn Diprose terms “corporeal generosity” becomes apparent – there is a gift relation inherent in the giving up of a child gestated in one’s womb to another (Corporeal Generosity 45-58). For example, Julie Thayer, a commercial gestational surrogate whose surrogacy arrangement was followed by anthropologist Gillian Goslinga-Roy, explained her decision to become a gestational surrogate through a number of essentially benevolent lenses – she had twice narrowly escaped death by what she understood to be bodily intuitions, and had conceived naturally and without difficulty after being told she was infertile, and thus had a desire to repay to another the gifts she felt she had received. In addition, she worked as a counsellor in a late-term problem-pregnancy abortion clinic, in which her job was to counsel women after having lost very much wanted babies, and being a surrogate gave her the chance to give a woman “a baby she gets to take home” (120). Her decision to become a surrogate arose out of a culmination of these, and other, factors, and hence out of a complex interrelation of discursive power. Any approach that positioned her merely as a ‘breeder’ would necessarily neglect the complexities of her situation, the nature of her ‘gift,’ and the extent of her agency in the process.

Yet, as Diprose details in The Bodies of Women, other feminist theorists have questioned the degree to which a woman can act autonomously in a situation in which the final consequences of her decision, i.e. the emotional impact of giving up the resultant child, can not be known before the fact (112).This objection however can just as easily be (and indeed often is) made against abortion, particularly given the grief narrative that underlies much ‘women-centred’ anti-abortion literature. As Cannold explains “The woman-centred [anti-abortion] strategy focuses on pregnant women’s claimed lack of agency and consequent incapacity to ‘really’ choose… abortion” (172). According to this argument, the unforetold emotional distress caused by abortion is a compelling reason why women cannot or should not be able to legitimately choose abortion. If, however, as feminists, we want to hold that women can act autonomously in choosing whether or not to continue a pregnancy (despite the supposed potential emotional risks) so too must we accept that the surrogate can autonomously choose to enter a contractual agreement that requires taking both the supposed physical and emotional risks that contract pregnancy entails. Furthermore, to argue that women who agree to this process must in some way be coerced into it by the desperation of economic need is, as Diprose points out, to ignore the fact that this is the motivating factor for all labour projects undertaken in a capitalist society (112).

On my reading then, commercial surrogacy can be understood as a process undertaken not by an oppressed woman, but rather by an agent who, for a complex set of reasons, enters into a contractual agreement with a third party (a baby-broker) to produce a product that is then sold to a consumer (often the partner of the sperm donor) at a profit. With the advent of surrogacy, reproduction begins to function in a similar way to other forms of market production “subject to mechanisms of extraction of surplus value similar to those engaged by other forms of paid work” (Weinbaum 101). When it is reconceived in this way, surrogacy has the potential to reconfigure the way in which all reproduction is understood, as it challenges the division between production and reproduction, a divide which retraces the dichotomy between public and private. With the movement of reproduction from the private domain to the public, surrogacy challenges the majority of reproductive labour that appears to take place for free. As Weinbaum points out

As it stands, the reproductive economy is emerging as nearly synonymous with the productive one, highlighting not only the exploitation of the unpaid home-worker, but also that of the under-paid surrogate. (102)

When the labour of the maternal body can be quantified in dollar terms, all maternal bodies can be produced as objects of value, their labour quantified in order to be (at least in the realms of theoretical possibility) economically renumerated. Whilst at the moment this possibility appears to be a utopic feminist dream, the commodified maternal body as it is produced through the practice of commercial gestational surrogacy is a subversive site from which feminists can fight for the recognition of the economic value of re-productive labour.


Reproductive technologies are unlikely to disappear, and as such, the debate around reproductive technologies is not about to die down. Indeed, we will probably never return to an era in which the heterosexual union between man and woman is the only way to reproduce the species. On the contrary, as technologies such as cloning, stem cell research, and human genetic engineering develop, increasingly complex questions are being raised – questions that challenge not only feminist theorists, but society at large. These developments make it necessary for feminist theorists to negotiate the difficult ground between accepting women’s reproductive choices to use these technologies, and critiquing the discourses of the institutions that provide them.

In this article, I have argued that investigation of the techno-maternal body provides feminism with one way to do this. By focusing on the body as a product of the intersection between flesh and technology, the technology itself becomes embodied, and hence is given a voice to be heard, an affect to be seen, and an inscription to be read. The analysis of the maternal body at the centre of these contests over meaning and representation ensures that women remain central to this discussion – it places women’s multiple and various needs, desires and experiences at the forefront, rather than leaving them, silenced, in the shadows of these debates. As such, I have not read the techno-maternal bodies discussed as bodies of women overcome, or dominated by technology, nor as bodies of women liberated from their biology, but rather as bodies of agents - women who are negotiating their way through the difficult terrain that constitutes the reproductive process in a technological age. Further, as a premier example of Haraway’s cyborg – a hybrid figure synthesising biological and technological elements into a unitary “cybernetic organism” that is resolutely committed to “partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity” (151) – the analysis of the techno-maternal body presents a challenge to dichotomous thought and allows for new and innovative ways of thinking about the reproductive relation in a technological age.


1 For case studies of each of these processes – see Charis Thompson, “Strategic Naturalizing: Kinship in an Infertility Clinic.” back

2 See Klein, “Genetic and Reproductive Engineering – The Global View” for examples of this view. back

3 Listed in Grosz, 17. Sexual difference feminism is often associated with a psychoanalytic approach, whilst corporeal feminism takes the body as the crucial site of contestation. back

4 For a further discussion of the construction of the menopausal body through discourse surrounding osteoporosis see Ineke van Wingerden, “Post Modern Visions of the Menopausal Body: The Apparatus of Bodily Production and the Case of Brittle Bones.”back

5 Paradoxically, this focus on women’s health as a separate and particular issue beyond other health issues, is the result of campaigning by early feminists – such as the Boston Women’s Health Collective, who aimed to subvert medicine’s ‘patriarchal’ control of women’s bodies, and who launched ‘radical feminist’ publications such as Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book By Women for Women. Of course, male bodies are as much at risk of disease as female, yet women appear to live with and internalise this notion of risk in a way that men refuse to do, submitting ourselves to bi-annual pap-smears, performing regular self examination for breast cancer etc. Recently, a men’s health campaign at the University of Tasmania led to the placing of a poster on the entrance door to the School of Philosophy detailing the process required to perform self examination for testicular cancer, along with a graphic representation and the heading ‘Check Your Nuts.’ The poster was removed in less than 24 hours, and caused a stir of discontentment amongst both male and female students and staff – it was labelled “obscene,” “disgusting,” and “a bit in your face.” Nevertheless, across the hallway, a poster espousing regular breast examination has remained, unquestioned, for over 12 months. back

6 This information is found in most pregnancy manuals, and medical websites, such as Sheila Kitzinger’s Pregnancy Day By Day: A Unique Pregnancy Diary, Personal Planner and Information Packed Guide (1990) and “Fitness for Two” on the March of Dimes website: March of Dimes: Saving Babies Together []. back

7 As Karen Carr points out, the notion of maternal responsibility as beginning before the birth of one’s child has arisen through the use of medical imaging technologies that have lead to the notion of foetal subjectivity (para 6), discussed below. For a discussion of the specific effects of these screening technologies see Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture. back

8 Brochure given to patients at the Royal Hobart Hospital. back


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