The 1984 edition of The New Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS), included an entirely new chapter by Ruth Hubbard and Wendy Sanford on “New Reproductive Technologies.” The birth of Louise Brown, the first baby produced using in vitro fertilization (IVF) in 1978, ushered in a remarkable era of rapidly expanding reproductive technologies with which the authors of OBOS grappled. Medical and fertility professionals originally provided reproductive technologies like IVF to women with diagnosed gynecological disorders. By the early 1980s, reproductive technologies opened up to a wider set of women (most often white and middle class) struggling with idiopathic infertility and able to pay to access fertility services. Feminists like Hubbard and Sanford were skeptical of the transformative power of reproductive technologies in ways that unwittingly aligned them with conservative voices associated with the Reagan era New Right.
Hubbard and Sanford felt obligated to inform the OBOS audience of the major reproductive interventions available at the time—donor insemination, surrogate motherhood, IVF, and sex preselection. In the end, perhaps surprisingly, they strongly advised against using all options with the exception of donor insemination. While Hubbard and Sanford acknowledged that reproductive technologies might be able to help women have biological children (a choice they supported as feminists), these untested methods carried too much risk. Reproductive technologies had startlingly high failure rates, were designed and controlled by white, male medical professionals, and threatened to reinforce the retrograde idea that women could not be fulfilled without achieving their “natural” biological destinies as mothers.
OBOS, first published in 1970 as Women and Their Bodies, A Course, was one of the central texts of the US women’s health movement. Its view of reproductive technologies offers an important insight into mainstream feminist perspectives on health and biotechnology. The women’s health movement emerged out of the radical feminist movement of the late 1960s. It fought to challenge male-dominated medical authority and reimagine health care for women grounded in their own agency and responsive to their own experiences. OBOS was one of many feminist self-help endeavors, including DIY cervical exams, feminist health centers, and community-based preventative care networks. Regular revisions to OBOS content marked significant social, cultural, and medical developments related to gender, sexuality, and health. In this case, Hubbard and Sanford’s chapter engaged with a long simmering conflict that had intensified within the feminist movement and, in particular, in relation to women’s health activism. What was the best way to navigate biological difference—particularly related to women’s health, childbirth, and motherhood–in the face of the ongoing political fight for full equality independent of sex?
Feminist attitudes on the use and abuse of reproductive technologies fractured around this question. Some radical feminists, including Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex, foresaw reproductive technologies as the answer to liberating women from a biologically driven “sexual class system.” Others argued that artificially enhanced reproduction and the creation of “test-tube women” offered yet another example of a sexist medical system eager to control women’s biology with little regard for the consequences. In the 1960s and 1970s, contraceptive technologies like the Pill, Depo-Provera, and the Dalkon Shield had been rolled out to great fanfare only for the public to realize they had significant and often severe side effects. In addition, contraceptive technologies functioned as tools of state-sanctioned violence against women. Coercive sterilization programs targeted poor women, immigrants, and women of color. Racialized Cold War ideologies about population control underwrote the development of contraceptives like the Pill and exposed deep global inequities in terms of access to health care and reproductive rights.
Images of “test-tube babies” circulating in the media in the 1980s did not reflect progress for all feminists. Ruth Hubbard, a biochemist-turned-feminist activist, questioned the rationale behind the general use of reproductive technology, a position she brought with her to OBOS. As early as 1978, Hubbard publicly opposed research into IVF for technical and ethical reasons. She argued that human reproductive biology was too complex for researchers to develop rigorous controls or reliable animal models. In practice, this meant that fertility practitioners had to treat each woman and her future child as guinea pigs, or individual “special” cases. More philosophically, investing in IVF research reinforced gender ideologies that associated womanhood with the primacy of biological mothering. “It is not worth opening the hornet’s nest of reproductive technology,” Hubbard wrote, “for the privilege of having one’s child derive from one’s own egg or sperm.” In a world with scarce resources, Hubbard concluded, IVF research funding should be reallocated to efforts to improve the overall health and safety of mothers and children.1
Along with other self-identified radical scientists, Hubbard worried that the hasty adoption of reproductive technologies could naturalize a cascade of medical interventions during pregnancy, some of which have become standards of care today. In the feminist magazine Sojourner, Hubbard cautioned against the expansion of genetic counseling, amniocentesis, and ultrasound imaging, which threatened to turn childbirth into a process of technology-mediated risk assessments.2 Amniocentesis, for instance, carried risks of a second trimester abortion and raised important ethical questions about the choice to have a child with disabilities. Genetic counseling offered probabilities that could be misconstrued as hard truths. Routine ultrasounds not only might carry uncertain fetal risks (like those previously posed by X-ray), but also might usher in unintended methods of fetal surveillance. These technologies contributed to a narrative of technological confidence that was not reflected in the data. In 1989, by some measures, technologies like IVF had a less than 10 percent success rate in producing a child. Hubbard and many others determined that cultural hype around test-tube babies had the potential of convincing women that since there might be even a small chance of producing a biological child then they must endure cycles of hormone therapy, egg harvesting, and embryo implantation to the possible detriment of their own well-being.3
The evergreen American discourse about women’s roles as “natural” mothers and threats to motherhood and the nuclear family in the age of test-tube babies found a flashpoint in the “Baby M” case. In the 1987 “Baby M” trial, a surrogate mother, Mary Beth Whitehead, refused the terms of her surrogacy contract to give the baby up to William and Elizabeth Stern. Eventually a New Jersey Supreme Court ruled the contract void but determined that the Sterns should still be given custody on the basis of the best interests of the child. The feminist community split in its response. Antisurrogacy feminists argued from a variety of different perspectives: surrogacy exploited women, threatened their rights as mothers, offered a step in the direction of baby selling, and/or violated the “natural” bonds between mothers and children. Other groups of feminists maintained that women had the right to make reproductive decisions as they saw fit (including entering into surrogacy contracts) and that essentializing biological motherhood interfered with the political fight for equality. Hubbard, writing in Sojourner, adopted both positions. She supported a woman’s right to bear a child on her own terms but opposed surrogacy contracts as “baby-selling,” and in the case of “Baby M,” upheld a birthmother’s unique connection to her biological child.
Antisurrogacy feminists found unlikely allies in Reagan era conservative movement politics. Emphasizing women’s biological difference and hard-wired fitness for motherhood dovetailed with the social conservativism of the New Right. Religious resistance to abortion rights buoyed “pro-life” activism across the country, motivated by Protestant and Catholic hostility to abortion as threatening traditional family structures. Around the same time as the “Baby M” case, the Catholic hierarchy issued Donum Vitae, “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day.” This 1987 teaching on biotechnology opposed reproductive technologies on moral and spiritual grounds. In the case of heterologous artificial fertilization and surrogate motherhood, they were in contrast to “the unity of marriage, to the dignity of the spouses, to the vocation proper to parents, and to the child’s right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage.” In this formulation, antisurrogacy feminists and the religious Right viewed reproduction in conflict with technology in ways that reaffirmed essentialist visions of the female body and motherhood.4
These debates took place during an era of antifeminist backlash. The radical feminist project of remaking the social order in the 1960s and 1970s gave way to new forms of social, cultural, and political resistance led in part by the rise of the New Right. Within the feminist community, Shulamith Firestone’s visions of abolishing the sex-gender system was subsumed by strains of cultural feminism that celebrated female difference and forms of individual, rather than societal, awakening. Fertility politics had a place at the center of this backlash. Susan Faludi connected the dots between the media obsession with an “infertility epidemic” among professional women in the 1980s and a targeted effort by “family-values” conservatives to shame feminists for ignoring their “biological clocks” and putting their careers over their family life.
The intensity of feminist responses to reproductive technologies changed shape in the 1990s, a circumstance reflected in how OBOS decided to revise Hubbard and Sanford’s original chapter. In the 1992 volume of OBOS, editors maintained the chapter’s ambivalence but softened the forceful language and excised a whole section that seemed prescient at the time but was deemed too fantastical less than a decade later. In it, Hubbard and Sanford had speculated about future technology-supported possibilities like cloning or artificial parthenogenesis, the process of a woman producing a child “entirely by herself.” In some ways, this would be the true, literal act of “reproduction,” which offered a tidy conceptual way out of having to address the complex racialized and transnational body politics of the late twentieth-century fertility market. In other ways, it too evokes the religious or sacred iconography of Virgin Mary, once again tying feminist biotechnological fantasies of the future to the biological idea of Woman.
Ruth Hubbard, “The Case Against Test-tube Babies,” The Boston Globe, November 29, 1978.↩
Ruth Hubbard, “Implications of Pregnancy Intervention,” Sojourner, May 1981.↩
Ruth Hubbard, “Test-Tube Babies: Solution or Problem,” Technology Review, March/April 1980.↩
Sophie Lewis has shown how some antisurrogacy feminists associated with the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering (FINRRAGE) have connected anti-reprotech activism with transphobic politics.↩