It is often assumed that the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, liberalism and progress through science are aligned with the liberation of women. Reproductive technologies, as part of medicine are also assumed to be an unalloyed benefit for women, giving them reproductive choice and control over their lives. Although there is truth in this, there is a darker side of the liberal agenda, which can be traced to the origins of modern science in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century. This revolution marked a shift in fundamental worldviews throughout European society, and the establishment of technocratic capitalist modernity.
The Medieval World
In the medieval worldview, as in nearly all previous cosmologies across the globe, the earth/nature was seen as female and as an inherently alive and inter-connected whole. There were different shades of this philosophy, including the alchemists’ view of the world as a unity of opposing and equal male and female principles. While the male principle is active, the female was thought of as passive and nurturing. For example, it was thought that the heavens were masculine and fertilised the earth through rain (semen).
For many hundred years, the feudal order, however unjust, maintained an ecological balance that maintained social stability. As the medieval order broke down in the 14th and 15th centuries, this began to change. The medieval worldview played a significant role in restraining all-out exploitation of natural resources. For example, in the medieval worldview, our distinction between organic and inorganic substances did not exist: metals were thought to be formed by the secretions of the earth’s womb. As the market economy emerged and with it the demand for minerals, there were major debates in the 16th century about the acceptability of mining, with opponents portraying it not merely as the sin of avarice but as the rape of Mother Earth. Proponents responded by portraying nature as wicked stepmother who refuses to nourish her children.
Organic metaphors also permeated political thinking, with the image of the ‘body politic’ being taken very literally. While the nobility subscribed to hierarchical philosophies stressing the active rule of the head, vitalist thinkers like Paracelsus viewed activity and change as immanent to nature, which translated into a radical, democratic politics which led to his persecution by different states of Europe. In the transition period, in which the stability of the Medieval order was breaking down under the pressure of nascent market capitalism, the relationship between metaphysical ideas about nature, gender, politics and questions of political power were very significant. The break-up of the old order and accompanying social turmoil created widespread existential angst, with fears of chaos, anarchy, and even a crumbling of the laws of nature. The destructive side of nature (plagues, famines, tempests) began to be emphasised and this was linked to male fears of the unruly and dangerous force of female sexuality.
Thus the Judeo-Christian idea of the dominion of man over nature and women began to be emphasised, and was allied to a backlash against women who were attempting to escape from their medieval roles and carve out a place for themselves in the new commercial economy. These politics can be seen clearly, for example in Milton’s Paradise Lost. On the elite political stage, the conflict was played out in John Knox’s First Trumpet Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a polemic against the three Catholic Queen Marys of Scotland and England which emphasised the Aristotelian orthodoxy that the male principle of spirit should rule over the female in order to maintain order in the cosmos. For women of the lower orders, the male backlash took the more violent form of the witch persecutions, which pitted the hierarchy of the Church against the old, pagan and more democratic religion.
The Birth of Technocracy
The emerging mechanical and scientific philosophy of the 17th century crystallised first in the writings of Francis Bacon, who as Lord Chancellor of England was personally involved in the witch trials. Bacon’s major contribution was the idea of the experimental method of science and a strict insistence upon inductive reasoning, i.e. reasoning from observations about nature and the results of experiment, rather than the abstract logical theorising that had dominated the philosophy of the Middle Ages. Bacon, who was a great enthusiast for the new ‘mechanical arts’, first coined the mission statement of technocracy – ‘Knowledge is Power’. Criticising Aristotle’s natural history approach to discovering facts about nature, Bacon stressed that nature would not reveal the secrets hidden in her womb and bosom unless she was ‘vexed’ through the interventions of the scientist, which he often likened to the techniques of prosecutors and inquisitors. He often refers to nature as a harlot who must be forcibly subdued through science. In his utopia, The New Atlantis, he describes a fully-fledged political technocracy (i.e. a society ruled by scientists), ruled by the Father of its scientific institute, ‘Salomon’s House.’
Bacon’s philosophy was echoed by the aristocratic founders of the Royal Society. In 1664, for example, Henry Oldenburg, the Society’s secretary, stated that its intention was to, ‘raise a Masculine Philosophy…whereby the Mind of Man may be ennobled with the knowledge of the solid Truths.’ Despite their view of nature as merely dead matter, such writers continued the identification of nature as female. Robert Hooke, for example, viewed matter as the, ‘Female or Mother Principle,’ which was, ‘without Life or Motion, without form, and void, and dark, Power in itself wholly unactive, until it be, as it were, impregnated by the second Principle, which may represent the Pater.’
These scientists were clear that the scientific approach to nature must be vigorous, and their writings are full of sexual metaphor. Bacon proclaimed that men must make peace amongst themselves in order to turn their, ‘united forces against the Nature of Things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds’. Instead of remaining in the, ‘outer courts of nature,’ Bacon exhorted his followers to ‘penetrate further’…’, ‘into her inner chambers.’ John Webster, a slightly later writer, argued that such an approach would be needed in order to, ‘unlock her Cabinet’, and Oldenburg echoed this tone, arguing that scientists must ‘penetrate from Nature’s antechamber to her inner closet.’ Although modern scientists do not openly express themselves in such terms, examples can be found in the writings of scientists throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries.
During this period, male doctors began the first of many waves of displacing women midwives from the management of childbirth. However, their scientific confidence was not matched by their understanding of how human reproduction worked. Echoing the inherited patriarchal assumption that the active principle was in the male ‘seed’, these writers insisted that the egg and the womb were no more than passive receptacles for the seed that made no contribution to the child’s characteristics. It is rather ironic that my copy of Carolyn Merchant’s ‘The Death of Nature’, the classic description of the misogynist philosophy of the Scientific Revolution, is described by its publishers as a ‘seminal’ (rather than ovular) work.
In Bacon’s model of nature, as in that of the other key philosopher of the Scientific Revolution, Rene Descartes, matter is essentially passive and only moves or changes in response to external forces identified as the principle of spirit or God. This follows the earlier aristocratic models of society and the cosmos: it was no accident the first scientific society was named the Royal society. In the mid 17th century, with the work of Isaac Newton and the founders of the Royal Society, a ‘billiard ball’ or clockwork model of nature came to dominate scientific thinking, in accordance with Descartes’ and Bacon’s mechanical model of the universe. It was this ‘disenchantment’ of nature that legitimated the technocratic drive for complete control and the capitalist projects of exploitation of natural resources without limit.
At the root of the scientific attitude to nature is a distancing of the perceiving subject from his object (nature), a severing of relationship between the scientist and nature, which is precisely what scientists describe as necessary in order to obtain ‘objectivity’. In the 1660s, this gendered difference of approach was reflected very concretely in the famous experiments on the vacuum in which scientists placed a bird in a bell jar, and then evacuated the air, killing the bird. According to contemporary accounts, women observers protested vehemently against this, forcing the men to conduct the experiments in the dead of night after the women had gone to bed. It is this distancing of subject from object that, in the second wave of the women’s movement in the late 20th century, feminists identified as the ‘male gaze’, through which men objectify women.
The technocratic project of control of nature did not get to grips with human reproduction until the beginning of the 20th Century, where it emerged in the form of the eugenics movement. In this period, technocracy was an open political movement of scientists and engineers, who argued that the problems of administrating industrial society were too complex to be left to democratic processes, and that the running of society should be entrusted to their ‘apolitical’ stewardship. The eugenics movement was closely allied to the technocracy movement, and contrary to the idea we have inherited of eugenics as an extreme right-wing phenomenon, most eugenicists saw themselves as progressive and humanitarian. Eugenics was part of the overall managerial tendency in politics that arose as a result of the failure of 19th Century laissez-faire capitalism to deal with the social turmoil of industrial mass society. At its centre was the technocratic concept of social control through control of nature, in particular the randomness and mess that arises from human sexual reproduction. Eugenicists would always begin by asking, “How can we devote so much attention to the breeding of our farm animals, yet do nothing about human breeding?” But its target was women’s bodies and reproductive capacities, not those of men.
The gender politics of eugenics appear contradictory unless it is understood as a form of technocracy, fundamentally aimed at the rational control of reproduction. Some aspects seem very clearly anti-feminist and oppressive of women, for example the tendency to sterilise unwed mothers. It is not an accident that in the classic eugenic study of a poor white US family, the Jukes, which supposedly demonstrated that four generations of the family were criminals, ‘feeble-minded’, prostitutes etc, the ancestor from whom all these burdens on society were descended was a woman, Ada Jukes. If only she had been sterilised, the eugenicist argued, society would have been spared the burden of the following generations. Likewise the Supreme Court case, which established the right of US states to sterilise people without consent involved a woman, Carrie Buck.
On the other hand, the eugenics movement (which was always composed of a large proportion of women) presented benefits to women: it was eugenicist women, notably Margaret Sanger in the USA and Marie Stopes in England, who pioneered birth control for women, and who founded the Family Planning Association, for example. Stopes and Sanger always argued that they were relieving women of the burden of multiple pregnancies and caring for huge families, yet it was also very clear that their efforts were targeted at the ‘lower’ classes.
The integration of eugenics with the technological control movement of the 20th century (Fordism) is best captured by Aldhous Huxley’s 1930s novel Brave New World. It is most remembered for its vision of artificial wombs and artificial class differentiation through dosing the bottled foetuses with alcohol. In that world, the word ‘mother’ is a term of abuse indicating something disgusting, whilst women are simply not permitted to refuse sex.
After World War II, when eugenics had acquired an extremely bad name, the efforts of eugenicists switched to population control in the Third World. Here again, whilst control of their fertility was undoubtedly a genuine benefit for many women in those countries, the targeting of the reproduction of black women, who were supposedly creating a world population problem, and the coercive nature of many population control programmes reveals the eugenic character of that movement. In the 1970s and 80s the targeting of poor women and women of colour with dangerous long term contraceptives such as Norplant and Depo Provera continued these policies. Although it is often assumed that racist and coercive sterilisation programmes are a thing of the past, recent scandals in Israel and the USA show that this is not the case.
Throughout the 20th Century, whilst overt eugenics has declined, human reproduction has become an increasingly technologised process, in which pregnancy and childbirth have become increasingly medicalised and hospitalised and obstetrics and gynaecology have become the domain of mainly male doctors, with midwives performing an increasingly subordinate role. Technological interventions in reproduction have included hormonal contraception and fertility drugs as well as the disastrous experiences of drugs such as DES and thalidomide. Technologisation of reproduction has created its own logic of quality control, through the development of ultrasound and other prenatal screening programmes. In 1979, IVF was first achieved by Robert Edwards, a committed eugenicist and board member of the British Eugenics Society.
The response of feminists to reproductive technologies has varied depending on their relation to technocracy. Thus, for example, in the early 1970s the radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone, tried to develop a kind of Marxist approach in her book The Dialectic of Sex, which argued for the use of technology to liberate women from the burdens of reproduction as the only way to achieve equality for women. Most notoriously, Firestone argued that as in Huxley’s Brave New World, scientists should develop ectogenesis, i.e. artificial wombs for growing babies outside the body.
In contrast, in the 1980s an international network of feminists calling itself The Feminist International Network for Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering (FINRRAGE), developed an eco-feminist critique of reproductive technology, arguing that it is part of the patriarchal attempt to appropriate and control women’s bodies. Some of these writers theorised that this drive to control women’s fertility originates in fundamental male insecurities stemming from men’s marginal role in the reproductive process, and argued that the technologisation of reproduction was leading to the removal of the last truly woman-centred aspect of human life from female control. Further generations of feminist writers and scholars have continued to struggle with the contradictions of technocratic progress, control and choice, and women have fought against medicalisation through the natural birth movement for example.
Some Current Gender Issues in Reproductive Technology
IVF; Although IVF has now been practised for over 30 years and millions of women have undergone it, there is still a lack of research on the long-term health consequences for women. IVF is a stressful and invasive procedure with significant short-term health affects, notably Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome. This condition, in its mild form, can affect up to 30% of women, and there is no clear consensus about how many women are affected by the medium and severe forms, with figures ranging from 1 to 8%. In these cases, blood vessels become leaky leading to the collection of a large amount of fluid in the abdomen. Although figures are unclear, there may be one death per year from OHSS in the UK, but there is no systematic monitoring of the condition. Feminist critics have argued that the standard IVF approach, which uses large hormone doses to produce 10 to 15 eggs, many of which will be of poor quality, imposes unnecessary risks on women. It is sometimes suggested that these high doses are used in order to create a supply of surplus eggs, which can be used in research.
Egg donation: These concerns about hormone treatments are especially sharp for women who are donating eggs to other women, since they are not themselves aiming to become pregnant. Such women undergo significant risks and there have been major controversies about the exploitation of women in egg donation. For example, in the 1990s and 2000s, a commercial egg trade operated in Europe, with women from Eastern European countries donating eggs in return for small payments to “fertility tourists” from Western European countries. In some cases the clinics, which were making large profits from this trade, subjected the donors to extremely high doses of hormones, with resultant damage to the donors’ health. There is some evidence of overlap between the criminal networks that traffic in Eastern European women and the egg donation trade. In 2009 the UK changed its policy on egg donation, allowing payments of £750 to egg donors, with the aim of encouraging UK women to make up the shortfall in supply in the UK. Critics such as the No2Eggsploitation Campaign argued that these financial incentives were likely to lead to women on benefits and students with large debts taking the risks of egg donation, for purely financial rather than altruistic reasons.
Surrogacy: In the UK, commercial surrogacy is not permitted (although substantial ‘expenses’ payments can be made). As a result, an international surrogacy trade has developed centred on India and the Ukraine, with many of the same concerns as those raised by the trade in eggs. In India, whilst clinics are making large profits, surrogate mothers are paid only a small proportion of the overall fee, and often have to sign contracts stipulating that the clinic is not responsible for any damage to the woman’s health as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. The women are often coerced into surrogacy as a source of income by their husbands or fathers (in India, such work is seen as similar to prostitution, and are obliged to reside in dormitories at the fertility clinic during pregnancy.) In essence, the situation seems little different from baby-farming, and is a particularly unpleasant example of the exploitation of people in developing countries by wealthy Westerners.
Sex Selection: The development of ultrasound scanning in the 1980s has enabled the widespread abortion of female foetuses, particularly in India and China. These practices, driven by traditional patriarchal preference for sons as well as complex social factors, have extended the traditional phenomenon of female infanticide and death by neglect of young girls. The result is that in some parts of India the ratio of boys to girls can be as high as 125 boys for every 100 girls, and it is estimated that over 100 million women are missing from the world population as a result of sex selection. In turn, this is leading to significant social problems, including large numbers of men unable to find wives and the resulting increase in trafficking of women into these areas. In the 1990s, India legislated against prenatal sex selection, but the law has never been properly enforced, and the large sums of money to be made in this industry has meant that the problem continues to grow. It appears that the practice has now spread to some Eastern European countries, such as Georgia.
The purpose of this post has been to relate issues in reproductive technologies to the overall regime of technocracy, which has been a central element of capitalist modernity. Technocracy, which began in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century and was based upon the views of male scientists and philosophers, is based on principles of control and authority over the unruly female that are closely similar to those of traditional patriarchy.
These fundamental dynamics of technocracy have been played out in the development of reproductive technologies under the banner of eugenics in the 20th Century. The overall trend towards growing technological medical control has followed from the obvious offence that unregulated human reproduction represents to a technocratic social order.
But this is not to say that control of nature is always a bad thing or that it never brings concrete benefits to individual women; such is the contradictory nature of technocratic progress. Millions of women are grateful for IVF and hormonal contraception, for example. It is also often argued that these technologies give women more choice (that great shibboleth of consumer capitalism), and it cannot be denied that, in some ways, they do. But like all technologies, they also control us by controlling what the options are, and through the social pressure of a society which thinks that high-tech and control are always best. No-one has to be forced by the state to undergo pre-natal testing and the result – the termination of 90% of pregnancies involving Down Syndrome, for example – is a foregone conclusion, without anyone having to take responsibility. One thing that placing these developments in an overall framework of technocracy does allow us to understand, however, is that these benefits are often technofixes – technological solutions to social/political problems that fail to address the real causes of the problems.
Provision of contraception to Third World women is a case in point. The suffering of women under the burden of so many children is caused by a combination of patriarchy – men’s insistence on their sexual rights within marriage and producing children – and poverty which makes it a rational strategy to have many children. Instead of addressing these issues, the population control movement of the mid 20th Century descended upon these countries with its technology – contraception/sterilisation, often applied coercively.
A consistent feature of technofixes is that they seen sensible within the overall technocratic order, and so perpetrate that order and the interests that benefit from it. For women in industrialised countries, contraception may have reduced the risk of unwanted pregnancies and sexually liberated them, but it also created a situation in which it became an expectation that they should always be ready to have sex with men who wished to, rather than genuinely putting women in charge of their sexual lives and reproduction.
One simple thing we can say about the whole process of development of these technologies (as has often been said about technology-led development of Third World countries) is that it is hardly driven by the express wishes of its intended beneficiaries. Rather, it is driven by the logic of technocracy, which may sometimes partially help women in certain ways. It is hard to know which of these technologies would be in real demand in a feminist, post-technocratic world. Perhaps women would take control of them – this is the promise of utopias such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Bodies of Glass.
In the current social order, however, there can be little doubt of the trajectory of perpetual reproductive and genetic control technologies – not merely the free-market eugenics that is developing right now, but a world in which sex is separated entirely from reproduction so that both may serve as forms of social control, as Huxley predicted. Ultimately, as the ‘transhumanists’ hope, both may become entirely redundant as humans finally achieve the masculine dream inherent in technocracy from its beginnings – the escape from the material, from embodied existence altogether, as we become entities of pure spirit running in computers. That vision is not merely anti-female, but anti-human.
Posts on this blog represent the views of their authors, not of Breaking the Frame, unless otherwise noted.