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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

Globalized Motherhood: Assisted Reproductive Technologies in Context

An Excerpt from a Lecture by Wendy Chavkin

Wendy Chavkin offered remarks on "globalized motherhood" in the context of her remarks as a participant in the session "ART: Where are We Now?" a panel discussion at The Scholar & Feminist Conference 2009, "The Politics of Reproduction: New Technologies of Life," held on February 28 at Barnard College in New York City.[1]

Watch video of Dr. Chavkin's full talk.
Listen to a podcast of of the panel discussion "ART: Where are We Now?"

I want to suggest a context for us to think about the dramatic increase in use of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) over the last two decades, and to better understand not just how or why women in general use them, but to think about how different women are involved in these processes. I use the construct of "Globalized Motherhood" to think about this.

First, let's start with the fact that I was born at the tail end of the baby boom. Right after World War II, we had a high-fertility period. Death and destruction, followed by a period in which people had more children. At that time, the "Total Fertility Rate," which is the average number of kids each woman has in a given area, in a given time, went up.[2] The total fertility rate at which a population reproduces itself (meaning that its size will stay steady) is 2.1 kids per woman. That makes intuitive sense. Back in the days when you had two parents, if you had two kids, you were holding steady.

Well, since the 60s, shortly after the end of the baby boom, we see a dramatic decline in the number of kids per woman all over the world. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only part of the world that has not experienced this yet, although Northern Africa has, so the Total Fertility Rate has declined in Africa as a whole, too. If you look at every other part of the world, you see that there is this same consistent pattern, and of course, Europe is at the very lowest level, below the replacement level. The United States is at replacement level, and that may be part of the reason we are not participating in the very sophisticated policy conversations that are going on in Europe around this issue.

So you have this dramatic decline in number of kids per woman taking place over the last several decades. What's this about? I don't pretend to offer you a clear-cut explanation, but I can tell you several things that happened at the same time.

One is the advent of modern contraception and legal abortion. Another is women's education. There's also women's participation in the labor force, and delayed age of marriage. And when I say these things, I'm talking broad strokes; I'm not just talking United States, but all over Europe and in different swathes, in other parts of the world: both later age at first marriage and later age at first birth. The final common pathway that's going to link me back to Assisted Reproductive Technologies is later age at first birth.

Now, here's the mean Mother Nature bit of it all. Fertility, meaning your ability to get pregnant and carry a pregnancy to term—I'm sorry—it declines with age. It really does. I teach graduate students in public health and medical residents and they hate this, which is why I'm saying it so apologetically. In fact, I've had people tell me that they can't bear to take the course.

So, what we have seen is a dramatic increase in women getting educated,[3] women working,[4] and women deferring first birth.[5] There is a host of policy responses that one government could have to this issue. Again, in Europe there is pretty much consensus that you have to have what are called work/family reconciliation policies, meaning a whole bunch of policies that make it possible for women and men to be parents and to participate in the paid labor force at the same time. They include things like: paid parental leave, time off to take care of sick children, subsidized and high-quality child care; there's a whole bevy of them.

In the rest of the highly-developed world, there is consensus that this is a necessary part of how a society must address the decline in number of births per woman and the delay in maternal age. As you may have noticed, we are not having that conversation here. So what you see is the fact that our social realities and our biological realities are out of sync now, especially in the U.S.

However, even in places where they are having the conversation, the actual benefits that are being provided are quite uneven and vary in their ability to make people have comfortable and easy lives. I would say the two spots that we should look to and really study are the Scandinavian countries and France.

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