Aug 22 2005

My Mother The Aborted Embryo

Regular readers are aware that breaking news is by no means the forte of the professional spinster aunt. My views on John Roberts probably won’t congeal until sometime after Arbor Day in 2007 (although here are some preliminary findings: JVNNIVS ROBERTVS FVCTARDVS EST), and I couldn’t give a splat for the stunningly uncontroversial BTK killer. I try, but I cannot change my twisty-come-lately ways. Which is why this morning I read with some interest a four-month-old essay referencing a two-year-old newspaper article on, what else, “unborn mothers.”

That’s right. Unborn mothers. A concept with which the Doctor’s sophisticated readership is undoubtedly already familiar, but which, I confess, kind of startled me, yokel that I am.

The story so far: some dudes in Israel are — or at least they were in 2003; for all I know they could be running a sports bar by now — working on a method to harvest ovarian tissue from aborted human fetuses for the purpose of sprouting eggs for in vitro fertilization. The goal is to eliminate the middleman, i.e. the sentient egg donor–or as some sentimentalists may euphemize, the “woman”– who can cause problems down the line, in favor of an aborted fetus egg “donor” with no pesky legal standing. Pro-life hijinks ensue.

A 2003 Guardian article quotes the stern objections of several professional fetus-fetishists. The remonstrances fall into two categories. One, the procedure is “sickening” because the “dead baby” cannot give consent. Two, the offspring of an aborted fetal “mother” would “have enormous psychological problems.”

Lisa Guenther brushes aside these godbag gripes. Writing in the March/April issue of Radical Philosophy, she says (I pararphrase), “Forget about the children! What about the feminists?” She is understandably troubled by aborted fetal “motherhood” — for non-fetus-fetish reasons that I’ll get to in a minute — and is bummed by the insufficiency of feminist thought to address her concerns.

“Can we coherently defend,” she asks, “a woman’s right to terminate pregnancy without relinquishing a feminist position from which to critique the use of aborted fetuses in certain experimental procedures?”

Here’s her sticky wicket: suppose you are a pro-choice feminist in whom the idea of aborted-fetal-motherhood induces vomiting. How to argue against it? If you confer upon fetal tissues sufficient personhood to render them immune from egg harvesting–i.e., turn them into legally recognized entities from which consent for the procedure must be, but of course cannot be, extracted — do you not also weaken the case for abortion as an option for fully-realized adult human women?

Guenther, in pondering the biological and cultural status of “mother,” also attacks the whole woman = uterus = biological destiny thing, with satisfying results, one of which is this: using aborted fetal ovarian tissue for IVF ultimately undermines the choice of the woman who has made the decision to terminate said fetus. Her decision — or more broadly, her status as a human being — is made irrelevant if an instance of reproduction occurs as a result of this procedure.

Dr. B has argued that the reproductive state is the default for women. This notion is so distasteful to the spinster aunt ethos that I have resolutely dug in my heels on the opposite side, but lately I am finding this position untenable. Whether or not Dr B’s statement is biologically true is a discussion for people who did not snooze contentedly through Bio 105, but there’s no denying that it is culturally true; patriarchy places the burden of what Guenther calls “the much-vaunted ‘future of the species'” entirely on women as a class. She writes:

“The absence of viable eggs is only a shortage” and the shortage is only a problem “if women are thought to have natural rights and/or obligations to produce offspring. When considered in this light, the proposed procedure of growing eggs from the ovarian tissue of aborted fetuses collapses the meaningful distinction between woman and mother, which is otherwise maintained by access to a decent range of reproductive choices. In so doing, it reinforces the reduction of women to mothers and of mothers to their reproductive organs which feminists have fought so hard to contest.”

Man, if only there were a cure for reproduction. The sooner “mother” and “woman” go splitsville, the better.

[Cross-posted at Bitch.Ph.D.]


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  1. Amy's Brain Today

    Oh, but there IS a cure for reproduction–it’s called lesbianism!

    Unfortunately even a lot of lesbians these days don’t realize their good fortune…but I guarantee that lesbian sex isn’t leading to any unplanned pregnancies.

  2. ae

    Twisty, honestly, this photo is too much! Genius.

    And I’m w/ Guenther that fetal ovaries being tapped violates the rights of the “fetal donor,” or whatever you would call the woman whose genes would be spread hither and yon w/o her consent/knowledge/etc. This is deeply creepy, and the concept of a “fetal mother” has got to be the most patriarchally reductive biological determinism I’ve ever seen.

  3. res publica

    That photograph is my new favorite thing. Also, I’m carving “JVNNIVS ROBERTVS FVCTARDVS EST” over my bathroom door this evening. Great post, as ever, on an uber-creepy subject. The world is chock-full o’ people, and they all seem to be reproducing quite successfully. Even America is getting a little crowded. The future of the species certainly does not seem to be in question (at least not because of reproduction) So what possible motivation could be behind such research? I think you got it exactly right. The point is to allow men to do the one thing they have not heretofore been able to do on their own – namely, make other men. Imagine the bold new frontiers that would open up for patriarchy if they didn’t need bitches at all! All kidding aside, the implications are fairly horrifying. For those science fiction fans among you, think of the fate of the Tlielaxu women in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels: reduced to mere tanks for the manufacture of genetically engineered products by a highly religious patriarchal society.

    What I want to know is, who are these scientists who have apparently never taken an ethics class? Or, like, seen a Frankenstein movie?

  4. Kristen from MA

    Twisty, you are fabulous! I would so make out with you.

  5. John M. Burt

    Eggs shouldn’t be harvested from a fetus without the donor’s consent, same as any other use of fetal tissue. If she signs off for the fetus to be used that way, what’s the problem? If she doesn’t like the idea, let the fetus be cremated with all the others.

    If you knew you were conceived with a donated egg, would you care that it came from a fetus, as opposed to an idealistic volunteer, or an underpaid hired donor, or a cadaver? An egg is an egg, so long as it’s healthy. Same difference as with sperm for artificial insemination.

  6. Twisty

    1. The whole point of the Israeli research is to effect a situation where there is no consent.

    There’s a whole passel of remarks on this issue in the comments to this post at Dr. B’s (see cross-post link, above)

    2. Lesbianism doesn’t cure reproduction, alas.

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