Twenty-five years have passed since Kennedy published Eve Was Framed, the groundbreaking precursor to her latest work. And while there has been some change – much of it initiated by Kennedy herself – progress has been halting and deep-seated reform is still urgently needed. “The smell of the gentlemen’s club permeates every crevice of the Inns of Court,” writes Kennedy. And it stinks.
Rape complainants are let down by a largely pale, male, stale judiciary that has struggled to keep up with changing sexual mores – don’t expect a conviction if you’re raped on a Tinder date, warns the QC. Kennedy points out that the opinion of a court (that saying “fuck me harder” while having sex on all fours constituted “unusual sexual behaviour”) “said a lot about [the judges’] own sexual experience and their lack of familiarity with contemporary pornography in which this behaviour is standard”. She also makes the fascinating and chilling observation that porn has radically changed “the repertoire in rape cases” since she first started in practice. “It is increasingly rare for women not to be penetrated anally as well as vaginally and orally.”
Women – whether criminals or victims – are still subject to the most antiquated of double standards. “It is hard to get across the idea that a woman is entitled to have sex with the whole of the football team, but draw the line at the goalie,” writes Kennedy, with characteristic bite. Rape victims have their compensation reduced if they were drunk. Meanwhile, girls are being institutionalised (unlike adult courts, youth courts can sanction behaviour that is not technically criminal but may harm a child’s development) for behaviours that in their male contemporaries would be dismissed as “boys will be boys” but in girls are seen as evidence of dangerous moral turpitude.
It’s a similar story in the adult courts, where there has been a “shocking escalation in the numbers of women being sent to prison” despite the already low proportion of women committing serious offences falling over the same period. The trouble is, says Kennedy, there are “no separate sentencing guidelines for women offenders, and the existing guidelines make next to no mention of gender-specific issues”. This leaves even the more enlightened judges with “a limited range of possibilities” – a problem that has been drastically exacerbated by sustained budget cuts”. Women’s centres have been closed. Curfews for women given community sentences save costs on probation officers “but can leave women vulnerable to domestic violence for the 12 hours per day that they are confined to the house”.
But it’s not just about cuts. It’s also about failing to design the justice system around women’s unpaid work. Little attention is given, writes Kennedy, to things like scheduling probation appointments during school hours, and research has revealed that “women’s childcare responsibilities are impacting on their ability to comply with their community sentences”. And women who fail to comply often end up in prison – “even where the original offence would never have merited a custodial sentence”.
There are far more intended parents waiting to be matched with a surrogate than there are women available to carry these pregnancies, yet surrogates are taught to view themselves as disposable laborers. A doctor at a clinic in India adds that “for the surrogates it’s mostly the character of the womb that we are interested in. We make sure the surrogates know that they are not genetically related to the baby, they are just the wombs.” … The doctor superimposes a single body part (the womb) over the personhood of the surrogate as a whole being, effectively eliding her subjectivity.
The surrogates that Pande interviewed referenced their own contributions to the pregnancy, contrasting the level of effort that they were putting into the pregnancies to that of the intended mother, who contributed “only an egg.” The surrogates were thus justified in making kinship claims to the future child … When one surrogate was told that she would have to “reduce” her pregnancy from triplets to twins, she insisted that she would keep the third baby if the intended parents did not want it because it was her blood, if not her genes … While blood does not circulate between the pregnant woman and fetus, the placenta is built from both maternal and fetal blood cells that can migrate between the two, lingering in various organs of the body and potentially impacting a variety of future conditions for the child, such as cancer risk and immune disorders.
This biological connection, however, is often downplayed because it is not genetic. In the Assisted Reproductive Technology industry, genetics are privileged over gestation, and thus the role of the surrogate is cast as that of an incubator who will not affect the appearance, intelligence, or personality of the child. This strict compartmentalization assures intended parents that their choice of surrogate will not impact the quality of their carefully selected genetic material, thus legitimizing cross-racial, cross-class, transnational surrogacy arrangements in ways that benefit the consumers of reproductive technologies. […]
Daisy Deomampo found that the intended parents she interviewed became very attached to the Indian “origin story” of their children, regardless of whether the child was conceived using Indian gametes. Parents returned from Indian with emblems of the country, “flattening out” the specificity of India and its historical and political contexts. [She] argues that parents “conflated the geographic space of India – and the attendant orientalist discourses that construct “Indian-ness” as exotically opposite to Western sensibilities – with the embodiment of the child’s identity through its gestation by an Indian surrogate mother in India” … Simultaneously Other[ing] Indian women’s bodies while incorporating romanticized and potentially colonializing notions of Indian identity or origins for surrogate-born children.
The idea that reproductive tourists can tap in to the natural resource of Indian’s fertility is also raised … [Despite] India’s birth rate or “fertility surplus” [being] deemed a demographic problem, [it is implied] that the purported “excessive” population, bodies, and fertility of India are always an available commodity for the foreign tourist … An estimated 8-10% of Indian women suffer from infertility and most surrogate mothers have been permanently sterilized … [But] rather than addressing the health care needs of Indian citizens, foreign economic pressure and state intervention have aimed at limiting the fertility of the poor at the same time that the image of fertile Indian surrogates is used to draw in reproductive tourists.
Laura Harrison, Brown Bodies, White Babies: The Politics of Cross-Racial Surrogacy
To this extent the stymied liberatory potential of reproductive technology is no different to the stymied liberatory potential of any other form of technology. Products and processes are made by the rich, for the rich, liberating those who are, in relative terms, already free. It’s not just that poorer women and women of colour have reduced access to abortion and contraception, or that some members of these groups have endured forced sterilisation, that is, reproductive technology actively used as a means of oppression. Egg donation, IVF, womb transplants and global surrogacy all now mean that wealthy white women can, should they so wish, outsource the very roots of sex-based oppression to their less privileged sisters.
Of course even this only works to a certain degree. Patriarchy remains invested in maintaining a stranglehold on the means of reproduction.
Consider this – if you accept that being biologically female is compatible with having an inner life, you have to apply this universally. Under such conditions no reproductive injustice – denial of abortion or contraception, forced sterilisation, economic coercion regarding having/not having children, disregard of maternal mortality – is justifiable. Forced pregnancy or sterilisation is always barbaric. Therefore, if you are to justify such barbarism where convenient, you must also promote the relative dehumanisation of everyone born with a womb (or a vagina, with the associated assumption that one might just have a womb).
Even if womb transplants and artificial wombs become everyday possibilities, the bodies of those already born with wombs will remain cheaper (providing we continue to place a low value on such people’s lives). It’s entirely plausible to see a world in which reproductive technologies increase the options of the privileged – gestate if you want, rent a surrogate or an artificial womb if you want – while doing nothing to raise the status of the most marginalised.
IVF, the pill, sterilisation, womb transplants and artificial wombs are not inherently anti-female; the problem is that economic and political power lies mostly with men, and with only a small proportion of highly privileged women. Of course the privileged will ask “what’s in it for me?” Of course their priority will be to use these things to their advantage. The priority for feminists needs to be to hang on to these possibilities while continuing to challenge the idea that those who (potentially) gestate are in all other ways inferior beings.
It’s easy to present feminists who want to talk about reproduction as luddites. They “reduce women to their biology, just like men’s rights activists”. Quite obviously we are more than our wombs. There’s a whole thinking, feeling, acting, unique person who just so happens to have been born with a uterus. But we still need to talk about the relationship between our social status and our potential reproductive role, not least because it’s of fundamental importance to a truly intersectional feminism. The regulation of female reproductive bodies has been used to maintain not just gender, but class and racial hierarchies. It needs to end.
Edna Adan Ismail is a midwife and campaigner. As a 12 year old growing up in British Somaliland, her dream was to build her own hospital. It took her some 50 years and all her savings to realise her ambition, and the state of the art hospital she built is a testament to her passion and dogged determination.
Nursing and midwifery have been her life since she won a scholarship to study in the UK in the mid-1950s, when she cycled to appointments in her black raincoat to deliver babies all around London. Married at one time to the prime minister of Somalia, she juggled the high profile role of First Lady with shifts at her local hospital. “I was born with this desire to fix things,” she says.
As her country’s first female foreign minister, she broke deep-rooted taboos by publicly condemning the widespread practice of female genital mutilation – FGM. Her opposition stems from personal experience – she was only eight years old when she endured the invasive procedure herself.
Now 80, she lives on site at her beloved hospital, where more than 22,000 babies have been born since it opened in 2002.
Woman on the Edge of Time was first published 40 years ago and begun three-and-a-half years before that.The early 1970s were a time of great political ferment and optimism among those of us who longed for change, for a more just and egalitarian society with more opportunities for all the people, not just some of them. Since then, inequality has greatly increased.
At the time I wrote this novel, women were making huge gains in control of their bodies and their lives. Not only has that momentum been lost, but many of the rights we worked so hard to secure are being taken from us by Congress and state legislatures every year.
But we must also understand that the attempt to take away a woman’s control over her body is part of a larger attempt to take away any real control from most of the population. Now, corporations and the very wealthy 1% control elections. Now, the media are propaganda machines and the only investigative reporting is on Comedy Central, HBO, or the web.
The powers that be have allowed for certain social rather than economic gains. We’ll soon finally have legalised marijuana and gay marriage in every state – but unions are being crushed and the safety net of the New Deal and the Johnson era is being abolished one law at a time, while women are forced into the back-alley abortions that once killed so many. We have made some social gains and many economic losses. The real earning power of working people diminishes every year.
During the heyday of the second wave of the women’s movement, a number of utopias were created (Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, James Tiptree’s Houston, Houston Do You Read?, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Elisabeth Mann Borgese’s My Own Utopia from The Ascent of Woman, and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground among them) and now they aren’t. Why? Feminist utopias were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable. Utopias came from the desire to imagine a better society when we dared to do so. When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in.
Writing about a strong community that socialises children and integrates old people is a response to women living in a society where a mother is often alone with her children and old women are treated just a step better than the excess pets executed daily in pounds and shelters.
We are ever more isolated from truly intimate contact with one another. Many men prefer pornography to actual sex, where they have to please a woman or must at least pretend to try.
I also wanted Woman on the Edge of Time to show an ecologically sound society. The lives and institutions and rituals of Mattapoisett all stress being a part of nature and responsible for the natural world. In imagining the good society, I borrowed from all the progressive movements of that time. Like most women’s utopias, the novel is profoundly anarchist and aimed at integrating people back into the natural world and eliminating power relationships. The nuclear family is rare in feminist utopias and banished from this novel.
I projected a society in which sex was available, accepted and non-hierarchical – and totally divorced from income, social status, power. No trophy wives, no closeting, no punishment or ostracism for preferring one kind of lover to another. No need to sell sex or buy it. No being stuck like my own mother in a loveless marriage to support yourself. In the dystopia in Woman on the Edge of Time, women are commodified, genetically modified and powerless.
I am also very interested in the socialising and interpersonal mechanisms of a society. How is conflict dealt with? Again, who gets to decide, and upon whose head and back are those decisions visited? How does that society deal with loneliness and alienation? How does it deal with getting born, growing up and learning, having sex, making babies, becoming sick and healing, dying and being disposed of? How do we deal with collective memories – our history – that we are constantly reshaping?
Utopia is born of the hunger for something better, but it relies on hope as the engine for imagining such a future. I wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete – that was the real genesis of Woman on the Edge of Time.
Marge Piercy, from her introduction to the new edition of Women on the Edge of Time (longer version here)
QotD: “The World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them – own their bodies”
[All] feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.
According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:
“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”
It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.
I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.
I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.
There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.
In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.
This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.
Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.
“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?
Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.
The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.
QotD: “For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free?”
For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.
QotD: “Paid surrogacy makes disadvantaged women into walking wombs – an unacceptable solution to infertility”
ast week, a national newspaper ran a piece on the shortage of people in the UK willing or able to sell a kidney.
“It’s terrible,” said one interviewee, a stockbroker forced to buy his kidney from an organ farm in Mumbai. “UK regulations need to change so we can have this service closer to home.”
Another customer agreed.
“It’s very distressing to know that if someone over here sells you their kidney, they can change their mind. The ownership documents aren’t worth the paper they’re written on as long as your kidney’s still busy filtering waste products in the body that grew it.”
A lawyer specialising in cases such as these confirmed that this was a problem:
“The UK has a long way to go in catching up with other nations, some of which have even built dedicated hostels to prevent donors – or living incubators, as we call them – from departing in possession of body parts which are reserved for those with more money.”
Of course, no such piece was actually written.
Wealthy people in this country are not permitted to harvest the bodies of poor people elsewhere. While a shortage of organ donors is a recognised problem, it is widely understood that the exploitation of extreme wealth inequalities is not the solution.
We cannot allow ourselves to reach a point where certain people, born at the wrong time, in the wrong place, have the same status as the clones in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
Unless we are talking about international surrogacy. While no one may be publicly complaining of the difficulties of purchasing organs from abroad, the Guardian recently published a highly sympathetic piece on “childless UK couples forced abroad to find surrogates”.
The piece focused on two barriers to finding surrogates: the cost (“attempts to keep costs down have seen the creation of ‘hybrids’, where an egg is fertilised in one country, often where the commissioning parents reside, and then implanted in a woman in a developing country”) and the risk of a surrogate changing her mind (celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi, whose own child was born to a surrogate in the US, claims it is “definitely time the laws were adjusted to allow people to sign legally binding contracts here”).
Throughout the piece, the difficulties are portrayed almost entirely from the perspective of those wanting easier access to rentable wombs. That surrogates are people too, not property on an unstable market, would be an easy thing to miss.
We shouldn’t miss it, though. There is something horrendously dystopian about the growing acceptability of trans-national surrogacy, involving an industry which places poor women of colour in closely monitored residences and treats them as potting soil for the planting and growing of children for wealthier, usually white clients.
While radical feminists have long been critical of the practice, mainstream liberal feminism, which claims to be more aware of intersections of race, class and gender, has remained surprisingly silent on the topic. This is the most literal example we have of women being treated as walking wombs, yet it appears that it would be bad manners to point it out.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we are dealing with competing social justice narratives. While one can feel sympathy for someone needing an organ transplant, there is nothing politically sexy about being restored to health in this way.
Finding alternative ways of understanding and creating family units is, on the other hand, exciting. It feels – and often is – a way of challenging traditional, repressive beliefs about how people should be allowed to live, love and raise their children. Feminism should support such objectives.
For too long, the idea that families are created when women submit to their husbands and give them children has been used to dehumanise anyone who is not a fertile heterosexual adult male.
However, discomforting though it is to see a different side to this story, we need to ask whether all alternatives are better alternatives. In particular, we need to examine the cost of maintaining a belief in continuing one’s genetic line, even as all other beliefs in what makes a family are dismissed as outdated and harmful to others.
If you want a baby to be genetically “yours”, the alternative to being a person who bears it yourself is not going to be finding it under a gooseberry bush. Someone has to gestate that baby. In ways that we may neither wish nor be able to define, that baby is theirs, too.
The status of the surrogate as an actual human being rather spoils the neat, non-patriarchal narrative we may be trying to construct. You may not live with her. She may not have promised to honour and obey you. She may support you in railing against the petty squeamishness that leads people to oppose IVF and other positive developments in reproductive technology.
Still, she will be going through a pregnancy that places her autonomy on the line, compromises her health and changes her mind and body forever. Still, you will be attempting to assume ownership of something that cannot really be sold: her relationship with, and feelings for, the baby she is going to bear.
Liberal feminism has painted itself into a corner from which it is very hard to launch a coherent critique of surrogacy. Two effective but dangerously simplistic slogans, “work is work” and “my body, my choice”, make it almost impossible to claim that what is happening is wrong.
A woman can, it is suggested, rent out any part of herself. To question this would be a denial of her agency. The logical conclusion of such a line of thought is that nothing that is mutually agreed and paid for can be deemed abusive or exploitative, regardless of the gendered, class-based and/or racial conditions under which the agreement is made (which seems to me the antithesis of an intersectional approach).
Even worse, we seem to have reached a situation whereby the more physically or sexually intrusive gendered work is, the more it is seen as anti-establishment and therefore beyond criticism. Thus one woman employing another to clean her house is seen as more abusive than a man employing a woman to gestate, bear and relinquish a child. I can see how we got here but it does not look much like feminism to me.
There is nothing wrong with wanting a family of one’s own. Those who mutter about selfishness and over-population should, but rarely do, have as much censure for people like me, for whom reproduction was straightforward, as they do for those for whom the route is more difficult. But paid surrogacy, involving the exploitation of those disadvantaged by sex, race, class and global inequalities, is not an acceptable solution to infertility, regardless of whether the cause can be connected to other forms of structural oppression.
I’d like to think the problem is not that our restructuring of the family is too radical, but not yet radical enough. If you can convince yourself that a woman’s ties to the baby she bears can be contractually relinquished, why is it so hard to convince yourself that the child you raise need not have any of your genetic matter? Why is the body so important as an idea, but not when it involves actual flesh, blood and pain?
What it comes down to is always the same thing: some people are seen to count more than others. And fine, we can outsource the not-counting to other people, other bodies, other countries. But is this really as far as we want to go?
Since the disgraceful Baby Gammy case last year, in which an Australian couple left a twin boy with his birth mother when it was discovered he had Down’s syndrome, Thailand has banned foreigners and same-sex couples from accessing surrogacy services. Now only married heterosexuals are allowed to use surrogates, with at least one of the couple required to be Thai. No one is allowed to gain financially from the transaction.
But will this shift in legislation put an end to the inherent abuse in what can be described as womb trafficking? I doubt it. In order to put a stop to this increasingly normalised practice, we need to understand the reality of what surrogacy entails.
Commercial surrogacy breeds exploitation, abuse and misery. Although the poster girl of surrogates is typically a white, blonde, smiling women who is carrying a baby in order to make a childless couple happy, the truth is far less palatable.
Women in the global south are often pimped by husbands and criminal gangs into renting their wombs to rich western couples. For women in India for example, this is a particular problem. I have interviewed rich, white British gay couples who told me they chose India for surrogacy services because it was considerably cheaper than the US (where the surrogacy business is booming), with one couple admitting it was reassuring that the women are required to live in a clinic for the duration of the pregnancy so they can be monitored by the “brokers” throughout.
Gestational surrogates are required to take Lupron, oestrogen and progesterone medication to help achieve the pregnancy, all of which treatments can have serious side effects.
Class and racial divisions between surrogates, egg donors and the intended parents are often stark. Surrogates tend to be working class and to have already had their own children, whereas the egg donor will likely be a college graduate from an upper-class background who is considered bright and attractive. They generally earn significantly more than the surrogates.
While the gestational surrogates tend to be poor women disadvantaged in many ways, egg donors are often chosen (from catalogues) for their “strong genes” and lack of mental and physical ill health in their lineage. The process is not that far removed from eugenics.
Many agree that it is unethical to buy and sell pregnancy but support what is known as altruistic surrogacy. This is where a friend, relative or kind stranger bears a child for an infertile woman or couple simply out of the goodness of her heart.
The argument goes that if we do not accept altruistic surrogacy and put measures in place to regulate it, we will drive commercial surrogacy underground. But the opposite is true. The legal sanctioning and social acceptance of this practice, even where no money changes hands, will further perpetuate the notion that the wombs of poor women can be used as a service.
As in Thailand, the law has been changed in India, another popular spot for British couples seeking commercial surrogacy. Now it is required that prospective parents looking to engage a surrogate must be a “man and woman [who] are duly married and the marriage should be sustained at least two years”.
Alongside many feminist and human rights campaigners, I wish to see an end to commercial surrogacy and a serious, honest discussion about the ethics of all forms of outsourcing pregnancy, particularly in a world awash with unwanted and neglected babies and children.
We also need to pose a challenge to the increasing numbers of gay men who think it perfectly acceptable to use the womb of a desperate woman in order to reproduce. Indeed, this method of making babies is fast becoming the number-one option for gay men, which means the practice will become more normalised, and be seen even as a “right” for those who cannot conceive in the traditional manner.
However, the Thai and Indian ban on same-sex couples from accessing surrogacy is nothing short of discrimination and anti-gay bigotry. An end to this harmful practice in all but private, one-to-one circumstances would be what true equality looks like.