Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

"Your Mother's Always with You": Material Feminism and Fetomaternal Microchimerism

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

"Your Mother's Always with You": Material Feminism and Fetomaternal Microchimerism

Article excerpt

This article considers fetomaternal microchimerism in light of important theoretical interventions that entreat feminists to take biological materiality into account. Researchers describe fetomaternal microchimerism as the persistence after pregnancy, in women and their children, of cells acquired through two-way traffic during pregnancy. The present discursive framing of the phenomenon is suspect from a feminist perspective: it naturalizes mother-child bonding to the exclusion of fathers and non-genetic parents, and it implies that women's proper individuality is compromised perpetually in the wake of childbirth or abortion. Despite these reservations about how microchimerism is being materialized, its ineffable reality invites feminist reflection: What does it mean for women and for feminism if we really do embody one another at the cellular level?

Introduction: Feminist Materialisms in Technoscience Studies

During pregnancy, intact cells move between a mother and her fetus. In the mid-1990s a team of researchers at Tufts University found that these cells can outlast pregnancy and give rise to a whole lineage of cells that are genetically and immunologically distinct from the body (mother or child) in which they reside. Despite their initial surprise that these "foreign" cells survive, investigators in a handful of laboratories have been assiduously finding these cells and trying to sort out what they are "doing" in women and their children. The phenomenon they study is called "fetomaternal microchimerism" or fetal cell trafficking. In this article, 1 consider fetomaternal microchimerism as a biological happening that is provocative for feminists to think about.

In light of constructivist insights in science studies, I appreciate and contend that the biologists and clinicians who specialize in microchimerism don't simply study, describe, or reveal the phenomenon, but rather they usher the phenomenon into being--in particular ways and not others--through their imaginations, practices, and language. This bringing into being, though, is not a one-sided affair in which the researchers, their techniques and their words wield exclusive agency in determining what sort of thing fetomaternal microchimerism is. Instead, the ontology of this phenomenon derives from an entanglement of discourse and materiality (Barad, 2007). In other words, biological entities such as cells have a "say" in the matter, though it is not the only say.

In the past several decades, many scholars, feminist and otherwise, have shown us the thoroughly cultural content of scientific knowledge, including, and perhaps especially, the "facts" of women's biology (Birke, 1986; Bleier, 1984; Hubbard, 1990; Keller, 1985, 1992). Given the patriarchal move to tether women's possibilities to their biological bodies, critical challenges to the objectivity and neutrality of scientific accounts of those bodies were (and are) both understandable and necessary. However a number of feminist theorists, some of whom are also scientists, have increasingly articulated the worry that we postmodern scholars have become so well versed in critical deconstruction that we have rendered nature invisible or passive in our accounts (Barad, 1998, 2003, 2007; Grosz, 2005; Haraway, 1991; Hekman, 2008; Wilson, 1998). Anti-essentialism has become so rampant that the cost to feminism, these scholars suggest, is high: so phobic are we of "nature" and "reality," we lose out on a resource for thinking liveliness, change and complexity:

Biological discourses are no more "dangerous," "ideological," "biased," or "misleading" than any other discourses or models; we ignore them only at the expense of our own disciplinary discourses and political models, only at the expense of our own growth and serf-transformation. (Grosz, 2005, p 28)

Serious attention to materiality--of nature, bodies, biological processes --is an intervention by these feminist authors intended as a corrective to the overzealous social constructivism characteristic of much critical social theory. …

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