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Making Babies: Ideals, technology and politics

page three

No cut and dried answers

This glossy image offered up by the “celebrity mom” feeds into American society’s current baby making obsession. A recent issue of Good Housekeeping flouted actress Courtney Cox on its cover with a story inside about celebrities who overcame infertility. Many of those actresses kept their struggles private until they triumphed with a “precious miracle.” Never mentioned were actresses who continue to confront infertility. Michaels believes that Lunden represents the most egregious end of this spectrum. “‘Why should I be denied?’ people are asking, as if having a biological baby is a basic, inchoate right. Globally, to put so many resources and so much effort into a single child makes no sense.”

“While there was a knee-jerk response among feminists that reproductive technologies were bad for women,” Michaels recalls, “that was too simplistic.” Reproductive technologies run a wide gambit. Activists have long worried that singling out later abortions would compromise the right for all abortions. Similarly, feminists feared that to question surrogacy might compromise other, more simple interventions. Some feminists are among those reaching for help from technology in their personal struggles with infertility, making it even harder to raise pointed questions about its ramifications. Michaels says, “There’s this faux feminist argument about choice that you are expanding women’s choices, but this notion doesn’t take into account the perversion of some of these choices. If left untended, these so-called choices make pregnancy and family into commodities.” Marlene Fried, activist, professor and co-author (with Loretta Ross, Jael Silliman and Elena R. Gutierrez) of the book Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice also warns against overly simplistic responses to these complex questions. “Who would you find to regulate these technologies?”

The increasing precariousness of abortion access over the past quarter century has squelched feminists’ abilities to examine other reproductive health matters freely. Fried says, “Given abortion rights’ minimal security, it’s hard to look at reproductive technology without potentially jeopardizing those tenuous rights.” Yet, to keep abortion entirely out of the infertility equation is impossible. Infertility drugs and IVF elevate the risk of multiple pregnancy. Medical reduction, a euphemistic term for abortion, is a doctor-sanctioned procedure involving dissolution of one or more fetuses from a multiple pregnancy. These reductions occur for a range of reasons, from birth defects in one fetus to the fact that carrying three or more fetuses greatly increases the risk of premature delivery and sometimes compromises the health of the pregnant woman.

It cannot be disputed that extreme reproductive technologies raise the risk of devastating losses surrounding pregnancy and that the costs-in terms of dollars, emotional and physical health-are potentially enormous. A very short list includes a sharp rise in complications for premature babies, a direct result of the exponential rise in multiple pregnancies and the enormous toll infertility treatments takes upon women and their partners, sometimes regardless of whether they end up with a child or children or not. The myriad ways that others can now be involved in the creation of children opens the door for potentially complicated connections between strangers never before imagined. There are countless happy stories of the ways reproductive technologies have created families or assisted people in having healthier children. No cut and dried answer exists now that what’s possible and what might be possible in the future has rendered simple answers obsolete. Technology, moving at warp speeds, cannot be slowed, so we need to slow ourselves down in order to disentangle our questions and concerns from the enticing momentum of “progress.”

What seems clear in the meantime: a woman’s right not to have a baby is intricately linked to her right to try to have a baby or to help someone else to have a baby. To lose the right of one side of this equation is to threaten the loss of the other side. Sometimes, this might create uneasy alliances. At this juncture uneasiness may be called for— even welcome.

mmo : february 2005

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a former reproductive rights organizer turned writer, attempting to raise three fair-minded children in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Also on the MMO:

The Role of Motherhood in a Quest for Reproductive Justice
An interview with Loretta Ross and Marlene Gerber Fried, co-authors of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice
By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

In Commentary & Opinion:

The Post-Election Talk
My kids still have their entire adult lives ahead and I want to fortify them with the belief that they can help steer the world toward true peace and democracy. What brilliant hopes might I offer on a day that I deem so dismal?
By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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