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Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Double Issue 9.1-9.2: Fall 2010/Spring 2011
Critical Conceptions: Technology, Justice, and the Global Reproductive Market

Assisted Reproduction as a Queer Thing
A Review by Gwendolyn Beetham

Assisted reproduction is a queer thing, or at least it can be. That is both the fear behind many critiques of reproductive technology (i.e., that it will subvert the "natural" family, women's bodily power, commodify life, and so on), and also the promise that many utopian visions have pinned on technologically-reshaped conception and gestation. Assisted reproduction is also, as the many pieces in this issue attest, embedded in real-world power relations, and can't simply be lifted out of them with utopian dreams and progressive intentions. But surely a critical eye and political integrity helps? As a feminist who hopes to have children and will probably need some technological intervention to make that happen, I wondered what I might learn from others with the same wary hope that I might build a really "queer" family this way, rather than a normative one. So I went looking for first-person accounts from people who have used various reproductive technologies with a critical awareness of the way those technologies are enabled by, and further entrench, the structural and very personal conditions of stratified reproduction.[1] In other words, I looked for a record of "critical adopters" of reproductive technologies.

In the spirit of recognizing the "personal and political," a theme that recurs throughout this review, I want to offer a brief personal reflection on how my scholarly interest in "Critical Adoptions" came about. As a queer woman, and someone who desires children, "assisted" reproduction in some form—likely via sperm donation or adoption—is something that I seriously contemplate. The larger political questions that I examine in this review are therefore very personal questions and, as such, it is impossible to suggest that affect played no role in my analysis. Indeed, the fact that queer parents have to think about the hows (in addition to the whys and whens) of baby making out of necessity is a reoccurring theme in essays and academic research on the topic (though, as I will explore below, we should not equate queerness with awareness of privilege). As a bisexual woman, however, I can also relate to the narratives often found in heterosexual women's accounts of infertility—I am not sure that using technology if I want to biologically reproduce will be in the cards, and sometimes it feels as if technology will be thrust upon me due to forces quite outside of my control (a theme that comes up frequently in heterosexual accounts of using reproductive technologies to address infertility). While in more radically queer/feminist moments I take pleasure in "subverting" the intended use of reproductive technologies to create my family, I am also reminded that the ability to create a family in this way is a privilege. The questions surrounding my reproductive present/future have drawn me into feminist activism and scholarship to look for answers and explore possibilities surrounding the political economy of reproduction.

This piece is an excerpt of a larger search for narratives by and about "critical adopters." Here, I focus on the theme of assisted reproduction as "queer"—both in the ways that the turn to technology incites a newly critical, outsider status in many infertile heterosexuals, especially single women, and in the ways that technology allows many queer people to pursue family-building in ways that have been unavailable to us until recent years.

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]

Queers Reproducing and Queering Reproduction

Personal accounts of queer reproduction, though not as voluminous as heterosexual accounts, are still rather abundant. While there are many "how-to" guides and web-based resources on LGBTQ family building, few of these offer critical perspectives on larger issues of the political economy of reproduction—after all, the sentiment seems to be, queers would not be able to reproduce at all without some type of assistance.[9] Still, there are critical approaches to be found in the queer parenting memoir subgenre. In particular, memoirs provide first-person accounts of many of the ways in which LGBTQ people are routinely denied the right to parent through discriminatory adoption and foster care laws, legal and extralegal discrimination in custody disputes over biological children, exclusion of gay men from sperm donation, and other practices. At the more subtle end of the critique spectrum, queer parenting memoirs can point to the assumptions and routines that naturalize some families and forms of reproduction, while underscoring others' distance from "normal." These assumptions and routines are part of the scaffolding of reproductive injustice.

Two books, Harlyn Aizley's edited 2006 collection Confessions of the Other Mother and Amie Klempnauer Miller's 2010 memoir She Looks Just Like You include personal reflections on the ways in which framing parenthood as a biological imperative affects lesbian mothers. Klempnauer Miller's use of "resemblance talk" in the title itself points to the angst also discussed by many of the essayists in Aizley's collection. While non-biological parenthood may sit quite easily with their own understandings of kinship relationships, many of the lesbian mothers who contributed to the collection describe being challenged by others' perceptions that their (non-biological) ties to their families mean that they are not "real;" and rightly so, given the shifting of gay parental rights on a state-by-state and sometimes city-by-city basis. "Resemblance talk," as well as assumptions made about feminine and masculine-presenting women who carry children, are frequently discussed in the queer pregnancy and parenting blogosphere, including the aptly titled, "Butch ... And Pregnant."[10] The power of "resemblance talk" can therefore be seen to penetrate queer relationships as well as straight, and the literature is full of accounts of lesbians who seek sperm donors with physical attributes similar to the non-biological parent. However, as Amy Agigian's 2004 study of lesbians' experience of alternative insemination found, the quest for resemblance should be viewed differently than in the context of heterosexual couples, as in the queer context these decisions sometimes reflect "... a conscious attempt to reinforce the legally vulnerable tie to a lover,"[11] rather than an attempt to reinforce the biological/nuclear kinship structure. (Of course, this doesn't change the legal vulnerability of the relationship, but tapping into the affective strength of "resemblance" between parents and children might make it less likely that a challenge to the relationship would be made in the first place.) While recognizing that distinction, neither book included exploration of the larger political economy of reproduction in any significant way: donor selections are brushed over in rather uncritical ways, the class implications of access to reproductive technologies are mentioned briefly (if at all).

This is not to say that complex issues related to reproductive justice are not broached: discrimination against same sex parents by medical staff during pregnancy and delivery is enragingly recounted, and encounters with estranged homophobic parents of one or both partners are heartbreakingly described. And difficult decisions do spring up constantly in both accounts (what will each mother be called is a commonly cited lesbian-specific decision; how/when will the non-biological parent negotiate maternity leave is another). As Klempnauer Miller states: "Accidental pregnancies are not a big problem in our community. We generally have to seek out parenthood if we want it to happen .... As with adoptive parents or infertile couples, our children must be chosen and pursued." If the paths chosen and pursued in these books tend to be "non-traditional," it is only, as in the case of many of the stories of heterosexual single women who seek out parenthood, because of an absent father. Both the contributors to the Aizley collection and Klempnauer Miller stick fairly within the confines of the normative, single-family structures (we're a family just like you!), rather than push the boundaries for recognition of alternative kinship formations.[12]

Queering Kinship

Several recent collections have attempted to explore some of the complex ways in which kinship building happens outside the norm, including One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk about Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love[13] and And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.[14] These collections offer critical and diverse contributions to parenting memoir writing—arguably signaling the arrival of a new subgenre of parenting literature that allows issues of the political economy of reproduction to be taken seriously. These collections offer self-reflective critiques of the use of ART and adoption, while simultaneously using them to build alternative kinship structures.[15]

The collection One Big Happy Family includes the perspective of a heterosexual male sperm donor in a piece recounted by an anonymous author (using the pseudonym Antonio Caya) who gave his semen to a single lesbian friend who later became pregnant. Although Caya gives little time to larger issues of the reproductive economy, his personal reflections on being a "known donor" are both rare and thoughtful. And Baby Makes More includes three essays from gay male donors who help with the creation of queer families. Their contributions to active parenting beyond sperm donation are varied, but the aspect of being a "known donor" is recalled as important to both the men involved and to the mothers who asked them if they might contribute. Their inclusion as gay male sperm donors is also important, with only one sperm bank in the U.S. allowing donations from openly gay men.[16]

More elusive than the gay male perspective is the transgender perspective, which is also included in And Baby Makes More. Here, Tobi Hill-Meyer recounts the process of deciding to store sperm prior to transitioning, and then reflecting on with whom she might use it or to whom she might donate it. The inclusion of a story from this perspective is important, as transgender people tend to be the most marginalized (or sensationalized, when we think of the recent moral panic over the "pregnant man," Thomas Beatie[17]) in discourses around reproductive technologies. A 2006 Mother Jones article on the fertility industry found that Geoffrey Sher, owner of one of the most profitable fertility franchises in the country, the Sher Institute, only turned down a few patients in 24 years of operation, "one being a woman who wanted to harvest her eggs, fertilize them, freeze the embryos, have a sex change, find a woman to marry, and then have his wife carry his babies." Apparently, such a trajectory fell outside of Sher's self-professed "no judgments" approach.[18]

Although all of the essays recounting the process of sperm donation question the role of biology in parenting to an extent, perhaps unsurprisingly, the essays that most clearly spell out the challenge that society's biological imperative poses to alternative kinship construction are by academics coming from feminist, critical race, and reproductive rights backgrounds. In And Baby Makes More, Damien Riggs, a lecturer in social work and the editor of the journal Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, recounts his experience as both a gay male adoptive co-parent and as a sperm donor. Regarding the latter, Riggs reminds people in his life (friends, curious by-standers, his own mother) that "biology ... did not necessarily equal kinship, equal family." While this is a product of his own experience with the creation of kinship via the non-biological route of adoption, his theoretical training certainly plays a part, evidenced by his statement that:

"I am ... aware of the cultural location of my own understanding of biology as a white, middle-class gay man, and that meanings of biology for indigenous communities, for example, may mean very different things when they are connected to sovereignty claims through the state's requirement in Australia to prove descent. Biology is thus, in my opinion, a set of meanings that are laden with both cultural and personal contexts."

Others' culturally and personally contingent understandings of biology, Riggs contends, sometimes impinge upon his own relationship to biology, with expectations, for example, that he is the "real" father of the children conceived with his sperm, and the "adoptive" father of children with whom he feels a strong kinship bond. "Resemblance talk" is summoned again in this context, as Rachel Warburton, a professor of literature and feminist and queer theories, contends. Although acknowledging, like Riggs, that others' understanding of the importance of biology does not intend to harm her, outsiders' insistance on using resemblance talk—suggesting that the children she parents with her female partner look "just like" their known sperm donor—"invariably works to erase [her] relationship with [her] sons." Despite the "threat of invisibility," Warburton stresses the benefits of a known sperm donor over the reduction of "the donor to a set of predefined, disembodied characteristics," as she contends happens with anonymous donors. The double-edged nature of using a known donor is also explored by Chloe Brushwood Rose, a professor of education who has also written on queer femininity, as she describes being made to feel "reduced to an incubator" when a mutual friend of the sperm donor (the donor, incidentally, also appears in the book) asks to hold "Bob's daughter." Like Warburton, who described her known donor as "kin," Brushwood Rose asked a "member of [her] chosen family to go 'biological.'" The use of the terms "kin" and "chosen family" are not accidental—they describe the kinship networks which members of queer communities have built for decades, as an alternative to—and in spite of—legal and political recognition. The importance of these networks are what make "resemblance talk" all the more complex.

In the end, while a celebration of these queer reproductions is definitely in order, I am left a little bit sad by what I didn't find much of in the narratives from "critical adopters": a serious accounting for the person's own privilege. In other words, queers and feminist straight women who use reproductive technologies have generated many insightful critiques of mainstream legal structures and social norms of "family," and perhaps more importantly have generated new forms of kinship. But the critiques are almost all limited to the ways in which the critic her or himself (and her or his "group") is marginalized. There's little attention, so far, to the ways in which reproductive technologies also facilitate privilege, such as the super-elite mode of parenting and ever-greater concentration of resources that might be encouraged by parent-to-child ratios that can exceed 4:1 in some of these families, or the naturalization of race that is achieved through the usually implicit decision to seek racially "similar" donors. It is a lot to ask of people who are already in such a tenuous position legally and socially; the right-wing is still working hard, after all, to associate LGBT people with family decay and child molestation. But it's worth hoping that the next phase of critical adoptions will go further, looking for ways to approach reproductive technologies as simultaneously tools of survival for marginalized people, and exercises of privilege that should be undertaken with ambivalence and wariness.


1. See Shellee Colen, "'Like a Mother to Them': Stratified Reproduction and West Indian Childcare Workers and Employers in New York," in Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp, eds. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995). [Return to text]

2. Amelia Jones, "Inside Infertility," in Domain Errors. Cyberfeminist Practices, Maria Fernandez, Faith Wilding, and Michelle M. Wright, eds. (New York: Autonomedia, 2002). [Return to text]

3. Meisha Rosenberg, "The Scarlet I: Has the Advent of Assisted Reproductive Technology Lessened the Stigma of Infertility—or Added to It?", Bitch Magazine 40 (2008). [Return to text]

4. "Infertile Revolutionary." [Return to text]

5. This blog alerted me to the fact that the New York State Department of Health ran an "Infertility Demonstration Program" helping to cover the cost of infertility services to low-income persons. (There is no information on whether or not the LGBT community or SMCs benefit from these services.) [Return to text]

6. See Cynthia R. Daniels and Janet Golden, "Procreative Compounds: Popular Eugenics, Artificial Insemination and the Rise of the American Sperm Banking Industry," Journal of Social History 38.1 (2004): 5-27. [Return to text]

7. Amy Harmon, "First Comes the Baby Carriage," The New York Times 13 October 2005. [Return to text]

8. Jennifer Egan, "Wanted: A Few Good Sperm," The New York Times 19 March 2006. [Return to text]

9. That said, two popular guides for lesbian parents: Suzanne M. Johnson and Elizabeth O'Connor's For Lesbian Parents and Kim Toevs and Stephanie Brill's The Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy and Birth, do contain sections weighing the pros and cons of different forms of conception: from anonymous donor, known donor, co-parenting, etc. [Return to text]

10. "Butch and Pregnant." [Return to text]

11. Amy Agigian, Baby Steps: How Lesbian Alternative Insemination is Changing the World (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004): 121. [Return to text]

12. One could (and people do) certainly argue that same sex parenting itself is an alternative kinship formation. A similar argument can be found regarding same sex marriage. [Return to text]

13. Rebecca Walker, One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk about Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love (New York: Riverhead, 2009). [Return to text]

14. Susan Goldberg and Chloe Brushwood Rose, And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families (London, ON: Insomniac Press, 2010). [Return to text]

15. I would also include Rachel Epstein's Who's Your Daddy? And Other Writings on Queer Parenting (Toronto: Sumach Press, 2009), as part of this nascent subgenre, although I was not able to get access this book in time to include it in the review. [Return to text]

16. Cited in Daniels and Golden: that bank is Rainbow Flag Health Services. [Return to text]

17. I did not include Thomas Beatie's autobiography, Labor of Love: The Story of One Man's Extraordinary Pregnancy (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008) in this review. Beyond the sensationalized accounts in mainstream media, Beatie's book provides a personal account of the severe discrimination faced by transgender males in the medical system, and by society towards transgender parents more broadly. [Return to text]

18. Elizabeth Weil, "Breeder Reaction," Mother Jones July/August (2006). [Return to text]

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