Reproduction in anthropology refers to the processes by which new social members are produced— specifically, the physiological processes of conception, pregnancy, birth, and child raising. In its larger sense, “reproduction” is used to encompass the processes by which societies are reproduced for the future. The term is thus fraught with biological, cultural, and political meanings; power is a central focus in reproductive studies, as those who have the power to influence the process of reproduction can control large populations for better or for worse.
The maturation of the field of the anthropology of reproduction was marked by the publication of Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, edited by Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp. This collection expanded the meaning of reproduction into the political arena and generated the interface of reproductive studies with wider issues in the politics of women’s healthcare. From a study of anti-abortion policies in Romania, to China’s one-child policy, to the displacement of thousands of women in India and Pakistan to “purify the national bodies” of both countries, the chapters in this volume called attention to the impact of national and global processes on everyday reproductive experience, most especially through the notion of “stratified reproduction,” which points to transnational reproductive inequalities based on gender, race, and class. In addition, Rayna Rapp’s long-term fieldwork on amniocentesis illustrates racial, class, and religious differences in how women make choices about this uncertain technology and demonstrates the linguistic power of genetic counselors to influence these choices in favor of the culturally approved choice of abortion for genetically defective babies.
Since the 1990s, most anthropological studies of reproduction have focused on what have come to be called “the new reproductive technologies” (NRTs)— technologies designed to intervene in human reproduction. From the birth of the world’s first test-tube baby in 1978 to the cloning of a higher vertebrate from an adult cell in 1997, the rapid expansion of the NRTs in the latter half of the 20th century dramatically redefined the parameters of biological reproduction. The NRTs include, among many others, birth control technologies such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and the birth control pill; assisted conception technologies such as artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization (IVF); screening technologies such as ultrasound, amniocentesis, and blood testing; reparative technologies such as fetal surgeries performed in utero; labor and birth technologies such as electronic fetal monitoring, synthetic hormones for labor induction and augmentation, and multiple types of anesthesia; and postnatal technologies such as infant surgeries and high-tech treatment of babies in neonatal intensive care units. All of these technologies are increasingly affected by developments in biotechnology, such as genetic engineering, which have major implications for the control and management of human fertility.
Like the obstetrical forceps developed by the Chamberlen brothers in the 16th century, the NRTs have double-edged implications for women and their offspring. While those early forceps did save the lives of babies who otherwise might have died, their overzealous and ill-informed application during childbirth by male midwives and obstetricians often left the mother’s body severely damaged and led to increased maternal and fetal morbidity. The NRTs have been equally problematic, often creating as many problems as they solve and causing as much damage as they repair. For example, maternal mortality as a result of ovarian hyperstimulation, and increased congenital abnormality due to multiple births, are but two examples of the “downside” of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).
Reproductive technology has affected every facet of the reproductive process, from preconception onward. To an extent, these developments respond to specific impediments to fertility: IVF, for example, was originally used to assist women with blocked ovarian tubes. Feminist critics, however, have rightly pointed to other, less woman-centered, influences shaping the development of these technologies. For example, Robert Edwards, the research scientist who helped to develop IVF, was trained in embryology and foresaw tremendous research potential from the ability to manipulate the human embryo ex vivo. This potential was extensively exploited in the rapid expansion of human embryo experimentation in the 1980s and the 1990s.
The encounter between a largely male medical and scientific establishment and women’s reproductive capacity is very pointed in the context of IVF, which is often represented as being a response to the “desperate” desires of infertile women, but can as readily be interpreted as a response to the irresistible scientific urge to “unveil” and indeed to redesign “the facts of life.” The tremendous value of early embryonic cells—both commercially and in terms of research— has made IVF an important source of human embryonic stem cells. This fact exists in uneasy tension with women’s demands for improved reproductive services. As in other historical periods, the neglect of women’s reproductive needs is most evident in terms of the kinds of services that will be developed and prioritized. While new embryo therapies are used to detect, and even to eliminate, genetic disease, other reproductive priorities remain devalued and underfunded. For example, while ever more sophisticated technologies are developed to deal with the complications of labor and birth, the normal physiological needs of laboring women remain understudied and unfulfilled. The scientific evidence that does exist supports simple technologies like eating and drinking during labor; woman-centered, supportive care; and upright positions for delivery as being of far more help to birthing women than high-tech machines.
Two major influences continue to shape the development of reproductive technology in ways that are not in women’s interests. One is the continuing, and indeed worsening, effects of global inequality that are borne most heavily by women and young children— especially infants. Adequate, or indeed any, access to basic contraceptive technology remains out of reach of the majority of the world’s female population (despite concerns about population growth, and largely as a result of U.S. anti-abortion policy). Consequently, resource intensive and largely private fertility care is provided to a predominantly wealthy world elite. Meanwhile, enduring tragedies of high maternal and infant mortality due to preventable causes (such as malnutrition and lack of a clean water supply); inadequate access to abortion or contraceptives; and limited, nonexistent, or ineffective reproductive healthcare are the main issues affecting the majority of the world’s women. In sum, proper sanitation, adequate nutrition, improved vaccination programs, access to culturally appropriate forms of birth control, access to community midwives backed by adequate transport systems, and above all, increased literacy and education rates among women remain the most important and life-saving “reproductive technologies.”
At the other end of the spectrum, at the cutting edge of 21st-century medical science, we note the resurgence of a new genetic essentialism. Reproductive technology is shifting its focus in the direction of germline gene therapies (therapies that can be genetically transmitted because they modify reproductive cells). Annexed to the project of mapping the human genome, reproductive science and medicine are increasingly aimed at both the elimination of genetic pathology and the effort to reengineer the genomes of humans and other life forms. In addition to existing means of technologically assisting conception, the effort to alter human genealogy is the single most important influence on contemporary reproductive technologies. This effort is driven by enormously competitive economic forces, and by an “if we can do it, we must do it” technocratic mentality, resulting in rapidly escalating and largely unregulated technological innovation.
While some commentators argue that reproductive technologies such as the freezing of eggs, cloning by nuclear transfer, germline gene therapy, and embryo biopsy will have a radical effect on gender roles and kinship definitions, the majority of evidence demonstrates a reverse effect: the restabilization of traditional and conservative family ideologies in the face of their potential disruption. At the same time, other influences, such as the lesbian and gay movement, the increase in transnational adoption, rising divorce rates, and greater economic independence for women, have proven more influential in the redefinition of family and parenthood. Consequently, although some uses of reproductive technology have created more parenting options, such as the use of artificial insemination by lesbians, the overwhelming pattern of access to NRTs is defined by the goal of enhancing conventional parenting arrangements by married, heterosexual, and middle-class couples.
Feminist concern about reproductive technologies in the 21st century will increasingly overlap with the criticisms of biotechnology and genetic engineering raised by environmentalists and the general public. Concern about genetically modified organisms in the food chain and in medical applications will increase, particularly as the human-animal border becomes ever more permeable. The extensive feminist literature on NRTs anticipates with great precision many of the profound social, ethical, and political concerns surrounding new forms of genetic and biological determinism arising out of the attempt to alter the human genome. In addition to the effort to redefine medical and scientific priorities in relation to women’s reproductive health worldwide, feminist anthropological scholarship will continue to insist upon the primacy of fully informed reproductive decision making, in its widest sense, as a fundamental component of human rights.
- Davis-Floyd, R., & Dumit, J. (1998). Cyborg babies: From techno-sex to techno-tots. New York: Routledge.
- Franklin, S., & Ragone, H. (1997). Reproducing reproduction: Kinship, power, and technological innovation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Ginsburg, F., & Rapp, R. (Eds.). (1995). Conceiving the new world order: The global politics of reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.