S&F Online
The Scholar & Feminist Online is a webjournal published three times a year by the Barnard Center for Research on Women
BCRW: The Barnard Center for Research on Women
about contact subscribe archives links
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

Transbiology: A Feminist Cultural Account of Being After IVF

Sarah Franklin

This article is a rewritten version of a keynote lecture given 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 Sarah Franklin's keynote lecture.
Listen to a podcast of Sarah Franklin's keynote lecture.

The 2009 Scholar and Feminist Conference coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first experimental fertilisation of a human egg, in 1969, and thus offers a timely moment to examine the cultural legacy of IVF. A good place to begin is the enormous, and largely neglected, feminist literature on new reproductive technology—or NRT. Even without Google Scholar, the most cursory search of this literature will confirm that NRT is one of the major themes of post-war 20th century feminist scholarship, and a field that is as rich in equivocation as it is impressive in its erudition. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands of books and articles have been written by feminists on reproductive technologies—old and new.

Artificial insemination, surrogacy, surgery, and hormonal enhancement of fertility, as well as contraception, can all be counted as forms of technological assistance to reproduction, or what are known as 'new' or 'assisted' reproductive technologies. But it is the rapid expansion of IVF technology, and its evolution as a platform for genetic as well as reproductive intervention, that gives rise to the acronyms ART and NRT from the 1980s onwards. The feminist scholarly literature that developed during this period is highly diverse and unusually international.[2] One of the most prominent strands of debate associated with this vigorous early period is the denouncement of new reproductive technologies from prominent radical feminists during the 1980s, including Maria Mies, Janice Raymond, Gena Corea, Renate Klein, Jalna Hanmer, and Robyn Rowland, among others. This group is also associated with the formation and leadership of FINRRAGE, the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering, founded in 1986.[3]

To the extent that there is a 'trademark' or 'generic' radical feminist position in this period, it can be characterised by its presumption of an identity between new reproductive technology and patriarchal culture. According to this view, new reproductive technologies encapsulate, enforce, and intensify the core values of patriarchal culture. IVF is the unadulterated offspring of patriarchal science, or, following Mary O'Brien, the manifestation, or even proof, of a masculine desire to colonise and control the female reproductive process.[4] Within this political framework, female consumers of NRT were perceived by some radical feminists, such as Renate Klein and Gena Corea, as not only victims of exploitation, but as collaborators with a male dominated medical establishment. This 'mirror theory' of new reproductive technology, and its accompanying rhetoric of female exploitation, victimisation, and collaboration, arguably did not always show feminist radicalism, scholarship, or politics at their very best.[5]

However, the emphasis on only one version of radical feminism in this period, and even the representation of it as dominant, are, like many retrospective accountings, both superficial and somewhat misleading. Like the feminist literature on NRTs more broadly, the 'FINRRAGE position' was somewhat more complicated.[6] Already, in the 1980s, the 'NRT = patriarchy' position, and its corresponding view of women who had amniocentesis or IVF as being, in Renate Klein's infamous phrase, 'dupes,' was resisted by many feminists—including other radical feminists, and large sections, if not a majority, of the FINRRAGE membership. Some feminists were motivated by alternative views of mothering, such as in the writings of Adrienne Rich, which differentiated between motherhood as a patriarchal institution and as a potential source of radical empowerment. Others, such as Naomi Pfeffer and Anne Woollett, sought to empower women to use new reproductive technologies to their advantage. Pfeffer and Woollett's sympathetic account of female infertility, published in 1983 by the London feminist publishing house Virago, was partly motivated by opposition to the 'feminists against women' who denounced women IVF patients as victims complicit with patriarchy. Similar studies exploring women's experience of IVF and infertility were generated from within FINRRAGE in the mid 1980s in response to the 'hard line' against NRTs, which increasingly, to some, resembled a caricature of radical feminist goals. Studies of women's reasons for choosing IVF were undertaken from the mid-1980s onward by FINRRAGE members Christine Crowe (Australia), Lene Koch (Denmark), Marte Kireczyk (The Netherlands), Linda Williams (Canada) and myself in the UK.[7] Conflict arising from these and other challenges to the FINRRAGE 'hard line' of complete opposition to all forms of reproductive technology led to the decline of the network from 1989 onwards.[8] These early FINRRAGE studies of women's experience of IVF in several countries, and the pioneering work of Margarete Sandelowski in the United States,[9] have since become part of a tradition of feminist studies of IVF that has been continued by Judith Lorber, Gay Becker, Charis Thompson, Marcia Inhorn, Karen Throsby and many others.[10] This comparative empirical tradition of feminist literature on IVF, largely focused on women's ambivalent experiences of it, is now a well established and rapidly expanding area of research, yet one that is rarely used to address questions of biotechnology more broadly.

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8                Next page

© 2011 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Critical Conceptions: Technology, Justice, and the Global Reproductive Market