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Reproductive Technologies – A Feminist Analysis

Photo zoomed in on a pregnant woman's belly, which is unclothed. Her hands rest at the top and bottom of her belly.

In the last two decades the use of reproductive technologies[1] (RTs) has become an inevitable and often indispensable part of women’s lives. The increased knowledge about and availability of a wide range of RTs  – both old and new – has redefined ‘traditional’ notions of conception and procreation. The introduction of each new device or technique has contributed to a growing flux in the way reproductive choice is understood and practiced. The right to bodily integrity – defined as the inalienable right of women to have control and autonomy over their bodies – has been central in the feminist understanding of choice. Women’s expanded access to RTs, including abortion, is an essential corollary to realising this right. Access to certain types of RTs has dramatically expanded choices women and girls have with regard to their sexuality and reproductive decision-making. However, there is a continued need to evaluate the role of RTs in gendered terms and examine their role in providing women with real choices. This becomes particularly acute in the face of the growth of the non-medical use of RTs to satisfy individual and sociocultural needs.

The feminist discourse on reproductive rights rests on the notion of procreative liberty defined as the right to reproduce (positive right) and the right to avoid reproduction (negative right). Both these rights carry with them an implicit assumption of first, bodily integrity and second, a recognition of the need for varied RTs as a way to exercise this control. For example, the negative right to avoid reproduction can be achieved through contraception and abortion. However, the rights based claim of procreative liberty needs to be examined in a relational context. In India, for example, women’s health and rights activists have often emphasised the need to define reproductive rights and choice in gendered terms so that its fulfilment is not dependent only on the availability of technical choice and information. It is indeed important to argue that RTs cannot be viewed as a magic bullet that will help alleviate women’s reproductive ‘burdens’. When this is done with little or no effort to change the often-oppressive arrangements for reproduction, the result can be a reinforcement of gender-based inequality. Over many decades feminists have contributed significantly to this analysis and have been able to demonstrate the gendered context within which these technologies are often used and to challenge the view that RTs represent neutral scientific progress that helps improve women’s and girl’s health and well-being and increases reproductive choice. Some scholars have pointed to the fact that the same factors, e.g. technologies that are seen to fuel modernisation, often do not transform society or unbalance the status quo particularly with regard to gender and power based inequities but help perpetuate traditional norms.

The debate on science and technology is often framed around two broad issues – that of political control and of morality and ethical standards. Often the feminist demand for regulation, for example in the case of the use of ultrasound to detect sex of the foetus, has stemmed from a recognition of the overwhelming political control that the medical community exercises over the use of RTs as well as the absence of moral or ethical standards that guide that control, resulting in misuse. The power that medical professionals have in overseeing conception and procreation and what were seen previously as immutable processes of family and kinship building needs to be understood. The rapid growth and introduction of RTs has made the task of creating regulatory norms both a dynamic and complex process. In addition, framing a social problem in the language of law while helpful in identifying key actors who contribute to the problem and thereby help create awareness about the problem cannot in of itself address the deep-rooted systemic factors that mediate discrimination and gender inequality. At best they can create better standards for the practice of medical ethics. It is also important to note the larger industry that has sprung up around reproduction of which doctors are only a part.

The urgent need to continue to challenge this perception and advance non-exploitative understandings and definitions for the use of RTs has to be part of the feminist project to advance sexual and reproductive rights. It is inevitable that these technologies and the ‘choice’ they offer represent the only power base for women from which to negotiate the terms of their existence.  Our critique of the use and harmful impact of some of these technologies therefore needs to be located within a framework that responds to the process of technological advance as a whole rather than be about isolated procedures or methods. It is, for example, important to be able to illustrate the way the RT industry has built its profits on the basis of reconstituting reproduction into varied ‘pathologies’, often through reinforcing gender based stereotypes and inequalities.

Reproduction continues to remain mediated largely through sociocultural principles, and notions of bodily integrity and individual autonomy are at best aspirational goals for the reproductive justice movement. With the availability of a wide range of RTs, reproductive decision-making has become an even more complex terrain which women have to navigate. RTs, or rather some like medical abortion and emergency contraception, have the potential to alter the balance of power between individual men and women, as well as between women and institutional control – in ways that are liberating. It is also evident that the growing use of RTs to fulfil socio-cultural prescriptions that are gender discriminatory such as sex selection currently outweighs the potential that RTs have in being a liberating force, and how they can serve to further principles of choice and autonomy.

The deterministic role that RTs play in women’s lives, and the fact that a woman’s body is often the site for this technological advance, is an irreversible fact today. Furthermore, as pointed out at the beginning of this article, it is important to note that the wide range of RTs have the power to directly impact social relations that govern procreation and conception. For example, sex selection has dramatically redefined both conventional notions of biological reproduction and kinship building, as well as altered the way women experience pregnancy and motherhood. It is also an undeniable fact that in a culture which can only be described as being extremely antagonistic to women there is often gross misuse of RTs under the guise of offering `choice’. Certain questions have to be asked: Is there a qualitative difference between various technologies? If so, how does one identify it and if not, how does one evolve criteria by which a distinction can be made to support those technologies that are desirable and appropriate?

However, none of the above should deter or undermine efforts to evaluate the potential of technologies in making real improvements in women’s lives. Feminist activism should come together to undertake the collective task of developing a holistic vision of RTs that can advance transformative goals to address women’s reproductive well-being.

Note: This article has been adapted from a previous article published by the author: Reproductive Technologies in India: Confronting Difference published in Sarai Reader: Shaping Technologies.

[1]           For the purpose of this article the term reproductive technologies (RTs) is used in its broadest sense to indicate the wide spectrum of devices and techniques that facilitate fertility control, abortion, and the wide range of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) for conception (including sex selection).

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