Saturday, June 10, 2023

Erasing Motherhood

 From Fairer Disputations:

In November 2022, philosopher Anna Smajdor published a provocative paper proposing that brain-dead women could be used to gestate other individuals’ babies for them. As Jennifer Lahl pointed out at First Things, this proposal is fraught with ethical implications. It’s a good reminder that just because we can do something does not mean that we should do it.

As a historian, I’m also reminded that no matter how innovative modern thinkers imagine themselves to be, there are generally historical precedents for even the most futuristic-sounding ideas. Smajdor’s proposal is merely the most recent example of scientific misogyny of the sort that we can see in both pre-Christian and post-Christian societies. What is most striking about this proposal is its attack on the mother as a parent to her own child. Such attacks on women’s biological roles were common already in antiquity.

One of the earliest and most poignant examples of such erasure occurs in the myth of Orestes, as retold in 458 BCE by the famed Athenian tragedian Aeschylus. The Oresteia is a trilogy of plays. In its final installment, The Furies, the god Apollo succinctly articulates the view that mothers are not true parents, but mere incubators.

Smajdor’s arguments for WBGD present a modern version of this same argument, as we will see shortly. She—like many proponents of commercial surrogacy—sees the work of gestation as utterly passive, nothing more than a “stranger nourishing a stranger,” as Apollo puts it. Yet the message is mixed: on the one hand, the work of pregnancy is essential for those who would like to acquire a child. On the other hand, this work is not valuable enough to justify the risk and danger of taking it upon oneself. Much better to risk the life of someone who is already deemed “brain dead” and thus nothing more than a husk, a shell maintained by machines, residing somewhere in a scientific limbo between life and death.

Such arguments not only devalue the dignity of the bodies of those proposed for instrumentalization. They are also deeply misogynistic in devaluing the beautiful work that is unique to women: pregnancy. (Read more.)

Who owns the human body? From First Things:

While the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery, prohibiting us from owning another human being, there are still many unresolved questions today regarding bodily autonomy and the commodification of human beings, their bodies, and their body parts. Once human beings and their respective parts become available for sale, we understand how this commodification leads to the exploitation of more vulnerable people. The rich can buy, but the poor will have to sell.

In recent years, this subject has become increasingly controversial. For example, cell lines have been developed and patented and used to develop new drugs and therapies. Can those who hold the patent profit off the discoveries they make using your body? Do you and your heirs have no legal right to any of that money? Stories like those of Henrietta Lacks and books like Deadly Monopolies by Harriet Washington have raised these issues in the public consciousness.

Twenty-three years after the Berkeley conference, the topics of body autonomy and brain death are newly relevant. In November 2022, Anna Smajdor, professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo, published a scholarly article titled “Whole Body Gestational Donation” (WBGD) in the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. Her argument is that women who have been declared “brain dead” could be used as “whole-body surrogates.”

Smajdor expands on an article published in 2000 by Rosalie Ber, in which Ber made the “novel suggestion” to use women in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) as gestational surrogates. Smajdor notes incredulously that “no jurisdiction has considered implementing Ber’s suggestion. This is surprising, given the degree to which surrogacy continues to provoke moral and legal controversy.” In Smajdor’s mind, her “adapted and extended version of WBGD offers a solution to the problems of surrogacy.” Perhaps Smajdor is making an ethical distinction between PVS and brain death, arguing that since brain death is not reversible (whereas it is possible to recover from PVS), it is more acceptable to use the wombs of brain-dead women for surrogacy. (Read more.) 

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