Overcoming Motherhood

Article excerpt

To invoke Prometheus, the figure of Greek myth who was punished by Zeus for stealing fire from Hephaestus and giving it to humans, has become a popular warning against scientific hubris in our new age of biotechnology and genetic engineering. But the second half of the Promethean myth offers a further warning: Prometheus's defiant act led Zeus to dispatch a woman, Pandora, to unleash her box of evils on the human race-and thus eliminate the power differential that access to fire briefly had given mankind.

Pandora's box of dark arts is an apt metaphor for human reproductive technologies. Despite being hailed as important scientific advances and having succeeded in allowing many infertile couples to have children, the next generation of these technologies offers us a power that could prove harmful to our understanding of what motherhood is. This new generation of reproductive technologies allows us to control not merely the timing and quantity of the children we bear, but their quality as well. Techniques of human genetic engineering tempt us to alter our genes not merely for therapy, but for enhancement. In this, these technologies pose moral challenges that are fundamentally different from any we have faced before.

Contemporary human reproductive technologies range from the now widely accepted practice of in-vitro fertilization (IVF), where physicians unite egg and sperm outside the woman's body and then implant the fertilized egg into the womb, to sophisticated sex selection techniques and preimplantation genetic diagnosis of disease and disability in embryos. Today, for-profit clinics, such as Conceptual Options in California, offer a cafeteria-like approach to human reproduction with services such as IVF, sex selection screening, and even "social surrogacy" arrangements where women who prefer not to endure the physical challenges of pregnancy rent other women's wombs. New techniques such as cytoplasmic cell transfer threaten to upend our conceptions of genetic parenthood; the procedure, which involves the introduction of cytoplasm from a donor egg into another woman's egg to encourage fertilization, could result in a child born of three genetic parents-the father, the mother, and the cytoplasm donor-since trace amounts of genetic material reside in the donor cytoplasm. Doctors in China recently performed the first successful ovary and fallopian tube transplant, from one sister to another, which will allow the transplant recipient to conceive children-but from eggs that are genetically her sister's, not her own.

The near future will bring uterus transplants and artificial wombs. Scientists at Cornell University are perfecting the former, while researchers at Juntendou University in Tokyo, who have already had success keeping goat fetuses alive in artificial wombs for short spans of time, predict the creation of a fully functional artificial womb for human beings in just six years. Cloning technologies eventually could fulfill even the most Utopian of feminist yearnings: procreation without men via parthenogenesis, something that excited the passions of Simone de Beauvoir in 1953. "Perhaps in time," she mused in The Second Sex, "the cooperation of the male will become unnecessary in procreation-the answer, it would seem, to many a woman's prayer."

De Beauvoir was correct to identify women's hopes as a powerful force in modern challenges to old-fashioned procreation, but these hopes also pose serious ethical challenges. Contemporary feminism's valorization of "choice" in reproductive matters and its exaltation of individualism-powerful arguments for access to contraceptives and first-generation reproductive techniques-offer few ethical moorings as we confront these fundamentally new technologies. In fact, the extreme individualism of the feminist position is encouraging women to take these technologies to their logical, if morally dubious conclusion: a consumer-driven form of eugenics.

The primacy of choice

Our biotech era has exposed a serious contradiction in feminist thinking: Feminists want women to maintain absolute control over reproductive decisions, but thus far their arguments have rested on a feeble hope that women will not choose to do detrimental things. …