March 22, 2011

Have feminists forsaken the future? - A SentDev Classic

Wow, I thought I had lost this article forever. I wrote it back in 2002 and misplaced every copy I had of it. I recently found it and am now reproducing it here.

It’s hard to decide which is more frustrating, the proposal or the lack of uproar from women’s groups.

On November 1, 2002, the World Congress of Bioethics will conduct a special session in Brazil entitled "Towards an International Ethical, Social and Political Accord on Human Cloning and Human Species-Alteration."

A memorandum sent out to conference attendees in advance of the session explicitly targets women’s groups. "Supporters of women’s health and reproductive rights have particularly pressing reasons for concern over human cloning and inheritable genetic modification (IGM).1 Human cloning and IGM could not be developed without unethical experimentation on women and children," it notes.

"These technologies would diminish women’s control over their reproductive decisions, and subject them to pressures to produce the ‘perfect baby,’" it goes on. "Some advocates of cloning and IGM are attempting to appropriate the language of reproductive choice, blurring the critical difference between the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and the selection of a future child’s genetic makeup."

After reading the memorandum, I was flabbergasted. Are the authors—Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, and Rosario Isasi, of the University of Toronto—actually suggesting that strict limitations and moratoriums on inheritable genetic modification will help women retain the rights necessary for reproductive choice and autonomy?

Few Feminists Fight

As far as I’m concerned, this is another affront to women’s entitlements to control their body’s reproductive processes. So why have so few women spoken out?

After seeing little feminist reaction to the Hayes and Isasi memorandum, I’m forced to acknowledge a dangerous vacuum in Transhumanist [one who believes human beings can be improved by science and technology] and progressive bioethicist circles: there are very few vocal feminists fighting for women’s rights to control the genetic makeup of their offspring.

The most well-known Transhumanist feminist I can think of is Donna Haraway, who in 1984 famously wrote "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s." In the manifesto, Haraway proposed that women use technology to further liberate themselves from limited and constraining biological processes. But only a few people jumped on board—such as Gill Kirkup, Linda Janes, Kathryn Woodward, Fiona Hovenden and Anne Balsamo.

Why such little interest in feminist bioethics? After thinking about the problem, I propose three possible reasons:

  1. Techno-culture: Transhumanism and other future-oriented movements tend to be dominated by educated white males that have been immersed in computer and related technology cultures. The dearth of women pursuing science and technology careers has contributed to this situation.
  2. Naturalistic focus: Contemporary feminism has been quite hostile and suspicious of futurists in general, preferring to celebrate naturalistic womanhood and female biological processes.
  3. Inadequate outreach: Perhaps most significantly, progressive bioethicists have done an inadequate job of reaching out to the feminist community. In many ways it is our fault—and not the fault of the feminists—that the use of future reproductive technologies has not become a feminist issue.

So, what should feminist bioethicists be concerned about? A quick run-through of the World Congress of Bioethics letter reveals several important issues and misconceptions that should be immediately addressed.

The Perfect-Baby Fallacy

The first is the perfect-baby fallacy. With human cloning and inheritable genetic modification, Hayes and Isasi are concerned that women will be compelled to have "perfect babies." In their mind, this would decrease women’s reproductive control and choice. In my mind, women should be more concerned about pressure from governments and misinformed special-interest groups that force them to reject progressive and beneficial health technologies. Through the extension and development of reproductive technologies, women will have more control over their bodies, not less.

Not only that, trying to achieve "perfect babies" is something women have always done, adapting new methods and technologies as they become available. Before and during pregnancies today, for example, women take folic acid to reduce the chance that their baby will be born with spina bifida. In addition, most women have prenatal screening, stop drinking and smoking, strive to eat a healthier and more balanced diet, take prenatal exercise classes, rest their bodies as much as possible and often take early maternity leave.

And even after babies are born, most women don’t stop wanting the best for them. They will read about the latest in parenting—in everything from psychology books to parenting magazines. They will also make efforts to socialize children as responsibly as possible, aiming to place their kids in the best available daycares and schools. And they will most likely have their kids vaccinated, see a doctor regularly for a checkup and see a specialist for any cognitive or physical problems.

Once more technologies are available to ensure healthy children, women using them will not be bowing down to social pressures to create "perfect babies." Rather, they will do what they have always done: they will endeavor to have the healthiest and fittest children as is medically possible.

Finding Little Difference Between Termination and Selection

The second thing feminist bioethicists should be concerned about is the distinction between termination and choice. Hayes and Isasi claim that there is a critical difference between the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and the selection of a future child’s genetic makeup. I am having great trouble trying to understand what this "critical" difference is.

Currently, couples have very little control over the makeup of their offspring. A child’s genetic characteristics are fixed at the point of conception, and prospective parents pray that he or she will be strong and healthy and won’t have genetic diseases.

If an embryo does show signs of disease, women can terminate a pregnancy. It seems only logical then that we should extend this right to the prevention of diseases in the first place—giving couples the control they have always sought but that to date has only been available in a crude form.

So despite what Hayes and Isasi claim, there is very little difference between termination and selection. They are on the same spectrum, and in some ways selection is merely a more proactive approach.

The Risks of an Outright Ban

Now, all this isn’t to say that I’m in favour of rampant cloning and genetic modification. As Hayes and Isasi rightfully point out, human cloning and inheritable genetic modification could lead to unethical experimentation on women and children. Also, both are grossly underdeveloped and even dangerous today.

But this is no reason to ban them outright. It is a reason for proper monitoring and development. An outright ban would only drive cloning and genetic modification underground, where it may hurt women in the same way as clandestine abortions.

Unless feminists get involved, however, a ban may very well be what we get, as conservative bioethicists use the veil of women’s rights to implement their agenda. The lack of vocal opposition gives the impression of agreement and support. Is this really in women’s best interest?


1. Human cloning involves the replacement of the DNA in a female egg with the DNA of another person. When this egg is implanted into the womb of the mother, as in in vitro fertilization, the embryo develops into a fetus and is born after nine months, just like any other baby. The cloned baby shares the same exact DNA as the person whose DNA was injected into the egg cell, not unlike identical twins. A couple that is unable to conceive and does not want to use the DNA of another person might choose to use the DNA of one parent; thus producing an identical twin of that parent. No case of human cloning has yet been officially documented. IGM alters the genes in early embryos. Parents who choose IGM may hope to prevent their child from inheriting a debilitating or deadly disease or perhaps even determine their child’s physical attributes such as hair or eye color.

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