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uman reproduction is mediated by many forms of technology, high- and low-tech. We usually understand reproductive technology as a category describing in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, cryopreservation of reproductive materials, and other forms of fertility assistance. To this list, we could add other forms of technology that differently relate to fertility, like devices for abortion and contraception. The horizon of reproductive technology is ever expanding, provoking complex political and ethical debates about how such technologies might alter our notions of gender, sex, and family. Clearly, these technologies also provoke serious questions for feminists.
Twenty-five years ago, the anthropologist Sarah Franklin made an observation about feminist studies of reproductive technology that still rings true today: feminists are rightly concerned with reproductive technology because of the rapid pace of technological change, the speed at which new technologies become routine, and the political implications that immediately follow from these technologies. However, the rapid expansion and diversification of reproductive technologies often leaves us with “a loss of certainty about pre-existing feminist strategies, slogans, and frameworks, particularly those grounded on notions of rights and choice” (1995: 325). Feminist debates about reproduction and reproductive technology still revolve around a set of questions that scholars have grappled with for decades: Is reproductive technology emancipatory for women or does it reinforce their subordination? Can reproductive technologies help to abolish the oppressive systems of sex and gender that structure our lives?
This review discusses two books, which use very different formats and styles to grapple with the above questions. Reproductive Geographies: Bodies, Places and Politics (2019, eds. Marcia England, Maria Fannin and Helen Hazen) is an edited volume that collects feminist geographical studies of reproduction and seeks to offer a research agenda for reproductive geography as a sub-field. It is not primarily focused on reproductive technology, although this is a major theme of the book. Xenofeminism (2018, Helen Hester) is a short manifesto and polemic written as part of the theoretical project of the Laboria Cuboniks collective. Reproductive technology and its relation to feminist action is the central focus of this book. Together these two works stage an important conversation about the relationship between feminism, technology, and reproduction.
Reproductive Geographies: Bodies, Places and Politics
Reproductive Geographies adds substantially to feminist geography scholarship by expliticly delineating reproductive geography as a new sub-field for feminist scholarship. It draws on the essential categories of feminist geography analysis, examining the importance of particular spaces and places to reproduction in order to set out a research agenda for future work. In the volume, spaces of reproduction are broadly conceived, including more and less familiar sites for the study of reproduction: the embryo, the body, the home, the clinic, the community, and the nation-state constitute the scales of analysis (Fannin et al., 2019: 7). The feminist geographical concern with the construction of public and private spaces runs throughout all the chapters; some use this binary as an explanatory framework and others seek to challenge our assumptions about the place of reproduction in each by exploring the different power relations that materialize in reproductive spaces. Reproductive geographies, the book argues, “seep into everyday lived experience” throughout the life course, not just during conception, pregnancy, childbirth, or other periods of time associated with biological reproduction (Fannin et al., 2019: 8). The books’ audience is likely to be an academic one: researchers and students in the field will benefit from the research framework it provides. Its conceptual framework is definitively geographical but the richness and variety of its empirical work will also be of interest to scholars from politics, sociology, anthropology, and health sciences.
In three sections, the book’s chapters examine I) reproductive and bodily materials like embryos, semen, and blood, and the social spaces to which they are assigned; II) the bodies of pregnant women and the spaces in which they gestate and give birth; and III) political spaces in which the biopolitics of reproduction are managed and constructed. Across the three sections, the chapters resonate with each other in interesting ways: Risa Whitson’s chapter shows us that giving birth outside of a hospital can be an act of resistance for women in Appalachian Ohio, while Robert Kaiser’s chapter demonstrates that hospital birth spaces are desired but deliberately denied to certain women in Hong Kong as part of a broader biopolitics of citizenship and race. Juliane Collard’s chapter raises concerns about the techniques through which embryos are diagnosed as ‘abnormal’ and categorized as commoditized tissue with a designated bio-value. By contrast, Dalia Bhattacharjee’s study argues for the importance of a political economy lens to understand commercial surrogates as reproductive labourers. This shows us how such labourers engage in deliberate forms of work, against the prevailing discourses that associate the commercialization of surrogacy with a simplified narrative of victimhood and exploitation.
The book covers a wide range of topics, with some repetition and exclusions (which its authors reflect on in the concluding section). The strength of the work comes from the breadth of its empirical scales and its use of consistent framing across chapters to ensure the relevance of each of the eleven chapters to its central themes. One minor issue in this volume is that its chapters are often too brief, giving us only a glimpse of much bigger studies, because chapters are structured with long introductions and methodology sections. As a reader, I was often left looking in the bibliography or the author’s online profile to find out where I could read a more in-depth account of their research findings. The book offers an interesting research agenda into reproduction, which has often been overlooked in geographical scholarship, although its conceptual framing retains the foundational framework of feminist cultural and political geographers. Its analysis could be enriched through more engagement with digital, economic, and more-than-human geographies, because greater engagement with these sub-fields might also broaden the scope of the work’s relationship to reproductive technologies. As Carolin Schurr’s recent work on economic geographies of assisted reproduction demonstrates, “technological development, the rise of cheap air travel, new communication and information technologies”, among other things, have effectively “sped up the trade of bodies, body parts, and babies across borders” (2018: 2). Feminist geographers are well placed to understand the “extensification and intensification” (Parry 2012: 215) of this global trade at multiple scales.Nonetheless, the authors of Reproductive Geographies frame the volume with explicit invitations for other scholars to expand the scope of this research agenda established in Reproductive Geographies: they have offered an exciting set of provocations that will certainly encourage more work in this field.
Xenofeminism is a polemic-manifesto that argues for a new feminist orientation to technology and gender. In this book, Helen Hester offers an “anti-naturalist” account of “emancipatory technofeminism” which, in essence, sees technology as an opportunity to engineer the abolition of our current sex and gender systems (2018: 11-3). Conceptually, it draws on cyberfeminism and queer theory, especially in its anti-naturalist stance and optimism about the possibilities for future technology to transform our lives and societies. Its view of reproductive biology and technology is inspired by a feminist self-help ethos derived from second-wave reproductive health activism. The feminist self-help health movement emerged from women’s sense of exclusion in the formal health system: they sought to “reclaim the body from patriarchal control” by organizing their own health clinics, technologies, and training, among other things (Murphy 2012: 35). Hester’s work is inspired by, but also critical, of this second-wave ethos, which has been widely critized for the ways it centred white, middle class American women (see Murphy 2004; Davis 2007).
Empirically, Xenofeminism explores two examples of technologies for reproductive liberation: the Del-Em device for self-managed abortion used by feminist groups in the 1970s and the contemporary GynePunk collective who create self-help medical technologies for trans* and genderqueer people. These technologies pose a challenge to established modes of understanding gender, agency and authority in the medical system. The book similarly challenges us to queer our thinking about the family, advocating for a greater range of practices to make families and communities beyond biological/ genetic links. Hester offers a cautious and critical endorsement of Donna Haraway’s call to “make kin, not babies” (2016: 162). Such a reproductive justice account of kinship practices has also been elaborated by Sophie Lewis (2019) in her recent book on surrogacy: this emergent strand of technofeminism addresses longstanding feminist concerns over the sexed division of biological and social reproductive labour by arguing for a greater diversity of family and community structures that do not prioritize blood relations as their organizing principle (Hester, 2018: 65-6).
Xenofeminism makes an important contribution in our current feminist debates about the meaning of sex, gender, and womanhood: Hester offers an anti-essentialist account of the body that relishes our ability to use technology to gain control of and modify our bodies, as a means to challenge the structures of gender and sex that dominate us. To this end, the book beautifully captures the emancipatory core of transgender politics, emphasizing a point which is so often lost in the ongoing media debates about gender identity. In advocating for the abolition of the current system by which gender and sex is categorized, Xenofeminists and the queer theorists who inspire them hope to usher in more than the “beautiful blooming of a hundred drop-down menu options” to categorize more and more gender labels: their aim is, instead, “the stripping away of the social ramifications associated with the current heterosexual matrix” (2018: 31). Welcoming a wider array of gender categories and the biotechnologies that allow greater autonomy over the body are the first steps towards denying sex and gender the explanatory power they currently have.
Hester’s Xenofeminist manifesto is an exciting read for those of us who work in feminist theory or activism, although it assumes a high level of familiarity with the language and concepts of these theoretical debates which might make it inaccessible to a wider audience. As a feminist manifesto for a new era, the book is full of bold claims to inspire and dedicates much less time to the practicalities of organizing for political change. I welcome Hester’s efforts to theorize feminist activism today from feminist self-help politics of the 1970s. Nonetheless, as Hester acknowledges in the conclusion, grassroots organization around innovative technologies which are designed to operate outside of the control of medical gatekeepers can never eliminate the need for an egalitarian system of reproductive healthcare provision. Xenofeminism’s tech-utopianism is invigorating but ultimately shows us that we must use intersectional feminist principles to transform our politics, rather than engineer alternative spaces of xenofeminist reproductive healthcare.
Feminism, Technology and Power
Reproductive Geographies and Xenofeminism ultimately advocate for a reproductive justice- inspired account of reproductive health, understanding health to be the product of numerous social, economic, political, and technological structures. The main point over which they disagree is the relationship between technology and feminist progress. Their approaches to this question can be broadly characterized as such: Xenofeminism is aligned with a cyberfeminist optimism about technology and its potential to blur boundaries, open up spaces, and construct new identities. Reproductive Geographies exhibits a general scepticism towards reproductive technology, reflecting the legacy of radical feminist critiques of biomedicine and biotechnology as masculinist institutions through which women are “controlled by ever more sophisticated and intrusive technologies” (Wajcman, 2010: 146). Throughout Reproductive Geographies, we see how pregnant people often equate medical spaces, prevailing medical knowledges, and medical systems with disempowerment and loss of autonomy, seeking out alternative spaces for reproductive activities from artificial insemination to childbirth.
Upon closer reading, it seems this disagreement over the nature of gender and technology comes from different definitions of the issue. In Xenofeminism, feminist self-help networks emerge in response to the harms caused by formal medical systems and medical gatekeepers. By way of example, Hester reminds us that the feminist collective behind Our Bodies Ourselves famously decided to write their book after they found they could not collectively compile a list of ‘good doctors’ in the area. Reflecting on their negative experiences in the formal medical system, “they finally decided that if they were not to be at the mercy of these doctors they would just have to get information about their bodies themselves” (Davis, 2007: 21). For Xenofeminism, the medical establishment that self-help networks circumvent are not constitutive of ‘technology’ as a whole. Hester’s understanding of technology is more closely linked to Michelle Murphy’s (2012) account of “protocol feminism” in which technologies are defined by their relational nature, adaptive possibilities, and organizational structure. Open-source, scalable devices that can be assembled in activist spaces are the technologies of xenofeminist focus.
By contrast, Reproductive Geographies has an ambivalent relationship to reproductive technology, primarily because its chapters tend to conflate reproductive technologies with biomedical paradigms of intervention and control in biomedical spaces, where reproductive processes are seen as risky (requiring medical supervision) and women are seen as risky bodies (rather than agentive actors). This is, in part, because of its feminist geographical framework, which uses concepts of public and private to understand the spatiality of reproduction and the social norms that govern reproductive spaces. Formal medical spaces are associated with masculinist forms of control and intervention, while private spaces are more associated with feminine control, autonomy and mobility. Risa Whitson’s chapter explains, for example, that hospitals as birth spaces are not neutral but function “as a technology of biomedicine”, thereby “challenging and marginalising the ability of women to materialise the birth process” in a more agentive and autonomous way (Whitson, 2019: 148). This is not to say that the book adopts a fully essentialist view of technology and medicine as inherently masculinist, but it understands reproductive biomedicine as constituted by broader political, cultural and economic relations that limit the agency of pregnant people, positioning them as subjects to be managed. Reproductive Geographies problematizes the public/ private binary and considers the operation of different power relations in private spaces, but it nonetheless maintains the following claims: that reproductive spaces under the “medical gaze” are characterized by surveillance and control (Bhattacharjee, 2019: 117) and that medicalized discourses of reproductive risk and responsibility work to regulate spaces outside of overt medical control (Hazen, 2019: 137).
Read together, these two works engage in a conversation about reproductive technologies and spaces. Their disagreement is not easily reconciled, but I suggest that they each provide something that can help us think more creatively and concretely about feminist reproductive futures – biological and social. From Xenofeminism, we should take the insistence on the transformative potential of technologies – no matter how ‘low-tech’ – to open up new spaces for reproductive healthcare, especially for people who are generally excluded by or alienated by formal medical spaces. Self-help reproductive healthcare is an ethos rather than a policy platform, and we can learn from its openness to alternative spaces, communities, and technologies of collective care. Learning from Reproductive Geographies, geographical research should embrace its creative multi-scalar examination of reproduction as comprising many spaces, places, and times. It must take to heart the argument that reproduction is a spectrum of activities that already exist in our lives, throughout the life course. In their contributions, both works show the substantial impact of Reproductive Justice scholarship and activism on this field: it is becoming widely accepted that reproduction comprises many different activities and is enabled or constrained by the same forces that shape other social relationships – gender inequality, racism, homophobia, economic inequalities, lack of access to healthcare, among others (see Ross and Solinger 2017). Feminist geographical scholarship on reproduction offers us the opportunity to see the intersection of the structural, the embodied, and intimate dimensions of reproductive activities. In this endeavour, we should bring a feminist curiosity about the kinds of collective practices and technologies that can reorganize biological and social reproduction.