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Double Issue: 9.1-9.2: Fall 2010 / Spring 2011
Guest Edited by Rebecca Jordan-Young
Critical Conceptions: Technology, Justice, and the Global Reproductive Market

Gwendolyn Beetham, "Assisted Reproduction as a Queer Thing"
(page 2 of 4)

Queered by Infertility?

Judging from the accounts I found, there seems to be a particular difficulty in recognizing (or at least writing about) ART from a critical perspective among people who, were they not infertile, are the "ideal" parents in dominant culture: heterosexual, economically comfortable, and white. In fact, "privileged" users who take seriously the political implications of reproductive technologies do exist. Though few and far between, I did come across explicitly feminist takes on infertility and the use of reproductive technologies in the heterosexual context. Amelia Jones,[2] Meisha Rosenberg,[3] and the blog "Infertile Revolution"[4] are notable for recognizing the biological imperatives and normative assumptions that structure the use of ART, while simultaneously challenging stereotypical portrayals of infertility in the public imaginary. "Infertile Revolution," authored by a heterosexually partnered woman using ART to try to conceive, connects the use of reproductive technologies to the larger political economy of reproduction, delving in to issues of sexuality, race, and class, including access to ARTs by low-income individuals,[5] the eugenic implications of Israel's IVF policy, and the racist undertones of the current U.S. immigration debate's account of reproduction. Jones begins her article acknowledging the above, stating that she is "well acquainted with the huge ethical, social and individual problems connected with the discourse of infertility and the industry it has spawned," but goes on to describe how, despite such knowledge, she "found herself caught in the throes of the most normative kinds of desire for children in the face of extended difficulties with infertility." Rosenberg is similarly "stunned" by her "own deep desire to be a mother"—an interesting twist on the language of shock and surprise used by heterosexual men and women who discover themselves to be infertile. Despite her difficult relationship with her own use of ARTs, Rosenberg is disturbed by the "barren-woman stigma" that continues to prevail in popular culture, and sees the infertility blogosphere as a space with the potential to dismantle these archetypes.

It is perhaps the case that justice issues are easier to skirt in the context of discourse that frames reproduction—especially for women—as a "biological imperative." Because they resist the "biological imperative" frame, critiques like those from Jones and Rosenberg, which focus on issues that are less directly related to justice, such as concerns about commodification of life, may nonetheless open up more ground for taking justice claims seriously, or for weighing them more heavily against one's own deeply felt, and normatively-shaped, desires for reproduction and parenting. For example, Jones argues against "defining our medical problem as purely biological" and therefore "surrender[ing] to a highly technologized medical industry." Instead, she and Rosenberg (and their blogger counterpart) are able to recognize the "inextricable and complex mixture of psyche and body" that governs our understandings and desires. These recognitions are present in the authors' nuanced accounts of ART, which blend their personal experiences into the bigger political picture, intersecting the personal with the political. As Jones states in the conclusion of her piece: "Those who have infertility problems must recognize at every step our participation in [the] commodification [of human life] and continually work to keep our bodies fully attached to our minds."

Accounts by single women who use ARTs tend, more often than those of their coupled counterparts, to recognize some of the thornier aspects of reproductive technologies, such as the eugenics implications of choosing donor sperm, and the inequalities inherent in adoption laws and health insurance policies. Partly, this is out of necessity—adoptions are often restrictive for single parents (gay and straight), and health insurance policies in some contexts are tied to a definition of infertility that requires a heterosexual couple to have tried to conceive for a year. Additionally, while eugenics has played a key role in the selection of sperm donors for heterosexual married couples since the AI method was developed,[6] the "eugenics" assumptions involved in sperm selection for single women using donor sperm may be more apparent. Take Fischel's description of the complicated and contradictory process of sperm selection:

My parents are holocaust survivors so the genetic engineering part of choosing felt particularly weird to me. Apparently tall, blonde donors are in high demand, and you have to pay extra for a donor with a PhD. I think we all want smart kids, but I don't really believe intelligence is mainly genetic. I actually find that idea and its implications a little terrifying. I think I just assumed my kids would be smart because they'd be raised in a house where people were talking to them and where they would be exposed to different ideas and experiences. That said, I do think looks and athletic ability are genetic, and I was clear that a donor having a history of mental illness wasn't a risk I was willing to take, even though I wasn't sure of a genetic link. I felt embarrassed about it, but I also felt like, if I'm going to pick, I'm going to pick someone who is good looking and athletic (because we're kind of klutzy in my family).

Still, at least in written accounts, it is not easy to find recognition of the problematic assumptions that are often folded into the choice of sperm donor. One woman profiled in an article in The New York Times described her "ability to select a 6-foot-2 blond, blue-eyed, genetic-disease-free donor as some consolation for not getting to fall in love with someone who would most likely have been more flawed."[7] Recounting the processes of several single women's selections of donor sperm, journalist Jennifer Egan describes one African-American woman who "wanted a Latino donor so that her child would have lighter skin and nonkinky hair;" a Jewish woman who, frustrated with the small selection of Jewish donors, who she described as "balding or their grandmother was diabetic and had heart disease," ends up going with a 6-foot-2 Catholic donor with blond hair and blue eyes; and a white German woman who "believes in multiculturalism" and in "improving the healthiness of the race" by selecting a donor of a different racial background.[8]

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