Reproductive technologies and
public culture

by Amy Beer

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 45-49
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006

Cultural Conceptions: On Reproductive Technologies and the Remaking of Life by Valerie Hartouni (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

"In the traditions of "Western" science and politics — the tradition of racist, male-dominated capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as a resource for the production of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other — the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination." — Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto."[1] [open notes in new window]

In the spring of 1997, the "border war," as Haraway characterizes it, between humans and technology erupted when a Scottish embryologist announced that he had successfully cloned a sheep named Dolly. Following this announcement, politicians, policy makers, the media and the public wrangled with the possible implications of sheep cloning for eventual human cloning. Predictions of biological nightmares included the creation of a race of discardable people, á la Brave New World; the use of cloning by parents to replace a dying child to avoid grief; and the selection of certain desirable traits to design unnaturally intelligent, or beautiful, or athletically gifted children.[2] In response to the uproar, President Bill Clinton banned the use of federal funds for human cloning, and he charged the newly-appointed National Bioethics Advisory Commission to prepare a report on the potential legal and ethical issues of human cloning. This Commission concluded that strict legislation should be enacted prohibiting the use of cloning to attempt to create a child.[3]

Until Dolly's birth, and particularly since the 1994 congressional elections, recent U.S. debates about human reproduction have centered on regulating traditional technologies such as abortion. In 1995, for example, Congress considered for the first time the "Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act," designed to prohibit abortions in the third trimester of pregnancy. Both houses passed the law, notwithstanding testimony affirming that late abortions are performed only after doctors determine that a fetus is unviable or that the mother's life is in danger. One woman told of undergoing an abortion after she learned that the brain of her fetus was forming entirely outside its skull. For her bravery in opposing the legislation, a committee member accused her of "not living in the real world" and of representing "part of the radical fringe." Other committee members referred to the woman's doctor as a "hired assassin" and to another woman opposing the law as an "exterminator."[4]

Clinton vetoed the 1995 law, but the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act was reintroduced in March of 1997, and both houses again have passed the bill. Most recently, in September of 1997, the Senate passed a new version of the "Hyde Amendment," a law that prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment. By requiring states to keep separate records for federal and state funds, the new law is designed to inhibit use of state funds for abortions that fall outside the federal guidelines.

Renewed legislative assault on abortion and our long history of cultural strife over the terms and rights of sexual reproduction make Valerie Hartouni's Cultural Conceptions: On Reproductive Technologies and the Remaking of Life timely and compelling. Feminist writings on the cultural significance of reproductive technologies often characterize the "border war" between humans and technology as either a simple struggle by men to control women, or as a celebration of the active historical agency of pregnant women.[5] Moving beyond these reductions, Hartouni offers a sophisticated interpretation of the stakes of historic and contemporary battles over the science and technology of reproduction.

Through close scrutiny of legislative hearings, legal decisions, scientific history, media representations and right-wing scholarly literature, Hartouni considers recent public controversies over reproductive technology and freedoms, showing how social institutions construct and maintain an ideology of the "natural" to manage social disturbances. Rather than seeing the media as a primary source of representations, Hartouni instead looks at how the media uses representational and discursive strategies developed by science and medicine to reflect and reproduce public discourse on biology and technology. Hartouni's reading of S'ALINE'S SOLUTION (Aline Mare, 1991), a video about the artist's struggle to come to terms with an abortion, for example, examines Mare's attempt to rehabilitate the choice of abortion by juxtaposing pro-life strategies with scientific representations. However, instead of rehabilitating abortion, Hartouni concludes, S'ALINE'S SOLUTION uses images in a way that reiterates a public understanding of abortion as a grievous and unnatural choice that opposes the interests of an innocent and autonomous fetus to those of the maternal body.

In her opening chapters, Hartouni looks at how new visions of the fetus result in a changed public understanding of "motherhood" and other family relations. Technological advances in ways of seeing the fetus changed first the way scientists described the fetus. Before the development of ultrasound imaging, for example, scientists imagined the fetus as a kind of parasite, dependent on the maternal host. As ultrasound enabled contemporary scientists to see the gestating fetus, they began to liken fetal activities to the playful romping of a toddler. This new scientific vision which came from ultrasound led to a reconsideration of the fetal/ maternal relation, so that the fetus came to be considered as an autonomous being with legal standing and rights independent of those of the maternal body.

New scientific visions of the fetus first surfaced politically in the 1981 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on fetal
life status, when testimony equated "children" to "post-natal fetuses." For Hartouni, these hearings precipitated public casting of abortion as the cancer at the core of U.S. culture. Infused with "scientific truth," discussions about reproductive technologies increasingly pitted the interests of an autonomous and interest-driven fetus against a maternal body, whose role appeared as biological rather than social. In the early 1980's, beginning with Ronald Reagan's presidency, public preoccupation with abortion mirrored increased preoccupation with women as a category. Portrayals of women and motherhood emphasized women's "natural" roles and drives, and everything from widespread unemployment to an "epidemic" of infertility was blamed on women's choice of the "unnatural" lifestyle of work outside the home.

The media, courts and policy makers affirmed this rhetoric, using the language of science to describe women's nature as a core collection of maternal drives activated by gestation. Abortion, instead of being seen as a technology that facilitated the exercise of women's rights to choose whether or not to become mothers, was cast as a means to undermine the very nature of woman. By presenting women with a legal means to reject their natural role, abortion appeared to threaten social unity and coherence by upsetting traditional gender relations.

Hartouni's reading of S'ALINE'S SOLUTION and her interpretation of viewers' responses to the video illuminate changed perceptions of the fetus and maternity over the last several decades. According to Hartouni, the video claims to be pro-choice. By using visual and rhetorical strategies of anti-abortion activism that represent the fetus as a free-floating, autonomous form, however, the video reinforces rather than destabilizes abortion as contradictory to "natural" desires and processes. Like THE SILENT SCREAM (1984), produced by the National Right to Life Committee, S'ALINE'S SOLUTION begins inside the body, appearing to depict a medical event. Unlike THE SILENT SCREAM, however, Mare tries to emphasize female agency by shifting between internal and external images and by juxtaposing images with sound, narration and written text to denaturalize bodily processes.

As Hartouni describes it, the three segments of the video represent a process of coming to terms with an abortion. In the first segment, Mare depicts moments of decision, alternating images of a woman's wet and distorted face behind glass with discrete moments in the reproductive cycle and with representations of choice reconfigured by reversals of images. A running text describes the medical procedure, imparting an aura of scientific veracity to the images. These images are counterpointed by a soundtrack of heavy bass drone that Hartouni interprets as implying suspense and foreboding. In the second segment, which depicts the abortion, Mare's organization of internal body images, the rapid pace of editing, and the images' "curiously alien character," Hartouni writes, foster a sense of unnaturalness and danger. This sense is heightened by the written text's references to violent contractions and to "salt destroyer" as the final step of the medical process and by the increased intensity of the bass drone, finally overcome by mournful groans.

At the end of this segment, Mare juxtaposes internal images of the body with sounds of a child's laughter and an image of the floating body of an eighteen-week old fetus, intact, as a voice says, "Sh, baby, baby, sh." In the third segment, images of a fetus (appropriated from a PBS childbirth series) alternate with images of the woman behind glass and images of sperm clustering around an ovum. The narrator's voice banters with a child and then speaks words of regret. In the final sequence of images, a baby emerges into gloved hands. Mare then reverses this image, apparently showing the body drawing the fetus/child back into itself, and then shows a woman writhing in pain, as the narrator's voice says,

"My body, my choice...my childlessness."

Hartouni explains that what appear to be images of the medical process of a saline abortion are in fact images of male ejaculation. Viewers have interpreted the video, however, as depicting the confusion, remorse, guilt and despair caused by medical disruption of "natural" biological processes through abortion.[6] Rather than rehabilitating choice, the video produces and reproduces cultural assumptions and depictions of abortion as an unnatural act of violence against an autonomous, free-floating fetus. The representation centers on a misconstrual of the fetus as the thing it represents — a baby — thus presenting pregnancies as naturally disconnected from women's bodies. This leads to abortion's portrayal as a matter that implicates fetal, rather than women's, rights. To refocus cultural debates over abortion, Hartouni writes, the fetus must be resituated within the female body, and the female body resituated in social relations. Without this reconfiguration of the relation between the maternal body and the fetal body, discussions of abortion will continue to tend to position women who choose abortion as rejecting a "natural," biological role rather than as exercising a legitimate social choice about reproduction.

Because of her discussion of public culture, it is surprising that Hartouni did not analyze one of the feature films or television documentaries she only mentions. As an independent video presented to a limited audience, S'ALINE'S SOLUTION seems not to be the most compelling example of how cultural conceptions of abortion are produced and reproduced in public culture through media representations. Aside from Hartouni's own suggestions, two recent films in particular portray abortion as contrary to natural roles for women. In IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK (1996), a made-for-HBO movie, abortion is presented as an inherently destructive option through the violent punishment of two of the three women who consider abortion a legitimate choice. One bleeds to death after an illegal abortion, and the other woman, a doctor who performs abortions, is fatally shot.

The dramatic feature CITIZEN RUTH (Alexander Payne, 1997) shows abortion as a conflict between extremist forces. Ruth, the main character, is an alcoholic, glue-sniffing, homeless, unstable thief who cannot care for her existing children. When she becomes pregnant, a religious, "right-to-life" group and a pro-choice faction struggle over her body. The film's pro-choice faction wants Ruth to abort as a political act, and the "right-to-life" faction opposes Ruth's abortion out of a religious faith that the film portrays as preposterous and extreme. For Ruth herself, abortion is first a means to escape from jail, and then a commercial venture, as the political and religious factions vie to increase her reward for doing what each wants. In the end, Ruth has a miscarriage, as does the third character in IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK. These acts of fate obviate any decision, underlining the maternal body's lack of agency in choices about reproduction, and affirming the practice of abortion as fundamentally opposed to "natural" female functions.

From her discussion of abortion, Hartouni turns to disputes about surrogate parenting, demonstrating how assumptions about natural roles underlie these debates as well. Surrogacy, once feared as unnatural, even monstrous, is now widely accepted, but Hartouni sees this acceptance as rooted in perceptions of maternity as a core drive that must be facilitated by whatever means possible. In legal disputes over the parental rights of surrogate mothers, however, a constellation of conceptions of natural social roles conflict. Surrogacy cases not only pit women with claims to maternity against each other but also involve claims to paternity. Also, assumptions about class and race often complicate these disputes.

In both the cases Hartouni analyzes, the courts chose to reconstruct the legal problem of surrogacy rather than to destabilize conventional understandings of gender, class and racial roles. In the "Baby M" case, the first legal battle over surrogacy, consistent with the rhetoric of the Reagan years, the trial judge construed infertility as a novel phenomenon caused by delayed childbirth. Nevertheless, instead of making new law, he resolved the issue of parental rights in terms of prevailing legal categories, cultural values and public standards. Weighing Bill Stern's contractual and biological claims against Mary Beth Whitehead's "incidental" claim of maternity, the judge upheld paternal authority and awarded custody exclusively to Stern.

In a brilliant insight into the persistence of history, Hartouni locates the roots of the decision in founding myths of Western culture, as retold by Aeschylus. Like Athena, born of Zeus, she writes,

"Baby M springs from the head of the man-god scientist and thus is as well 'a child as no [woman] could bring forth'" (78).

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the trial court's opinion, however, striking down the surrogacy contract and settling the matter as a custody dispute. In this light, the higher court decided, Whitehead was admittedly the "real" mother, and she acted as any "natural" mother would in claiming her child, but the stable, upper class couple of Bill Stern (the "real" father) and Betsy Stern (a pediatrician) could best meet the child's needs and provide her with a proper "family."

Both decisions in the Baby M case used biological facts to support class and male prerogatives, shaped by racial imperatives, to uphold a vision of a "natural" family. In the second surrogacy case Hartouni analyzes, the legal decision also endorsed traditional societal formations, but the issues were reconfigured. Here, biology, through the incursion of genetics, was used to contain racial categorizations. Anna Johnson, a black single mother, contracted with Mark and Crispina Calvert, a childless white man and Filipina woman, to carry Crispina's embryo, fertilized in vitro by Mark.

After the birth, Johnson sued for custody, claiming that she bonded with the child in the late months of pregnancy and that the Calverts had breached their contract. Hartouni sees the legal decision as principally turning on a conflict, complicated by race, between the "natural" drive of motherhood and a genetic claim to fatherhood. Although Anna Johnson had natural feelings of a maternal bond, the court saw them as the product of a kind of "false consciousness," promoted in part by her ultrasound visions of the fetus. The court, challenged to contain "what signified as excess within the context of conventional understandings of parent and family," and "to (re)naturalize and (re)authorize extant forms of life against other possible forms and formations," found a genetic connection to be paramount, making and sustaining the "family unit" (97). Also, the court prioritized the business nature of the relation between Johnson and the Culverts over any maternal bonding. The fetus, from the moment of fertilization, was the Calvert's "property." Anna Johnson made a deal, and so she ought not to have allowed herself to become emotionally connected to a fetus that belonged to the Calverts.

In this case, because of the submerged issue of race, the question of "property rights" in the child became secondary. Rather than base its decision in custody law, the court found the genetic connection between the Calverts and the child to be the source and sustenance of the "family unit" (97). Both the court and the media denied that race played any role in the proceedings, which Hartouni finds astonishing, even pathological. Johnson was a black, single mother, who had been on welfare and accused of welfare fraud. She was thus marked as a person capable of deceiving and exploiting the Calverts, and, poised against the background of 1980's narratives about black women, she was also positioned as capable of breeding but not mothering children (96). The court's emphasis on biology as the family's constitutional element, for Hartouni, indicates the pervasive circulation of meanings and histories attached to race throughout the trial.

Hartouni amplifies her discussion of race and social perceptions of motherhood by examining discourse around The Bell Curve, a conservative work on IQ and race.[7] In Hartouni's assessment, The Bell Curve proposes that the greatest contemporary threat to the U.S. economy (and thus to U.S. society) is the rapid growth of a "cognitive underclass" of poor, "dull" and disproportionately black persons. The book thus accuses "dull" black women who beget illegitimate, "dull" children of irresponsibly destroying U.S. culture. Furthermore, the book charges, these "dull" black women are aided and abetted by national fertility policies that subsidize reproduction through welfare and condone reckless breeding by, for instance, not requiring temporary sterilization through the use of contraceptive devices such as Norplant.

The Bell Curve generated numerous responses and challenges, all notable for their silence on the book's indictment of black women. For Hartouni, this silence reveals the widespread acceptance of claims based on genetics as "scientific truth." Historically, negative perceptions of black women's reproductive strategies came from disparate treatment of white and black mothers of "illegitimate" children. Prior to the 1950s, having a child out of wedlock, for women of either race, indicated congenital mental incapacity. In the post-war era, a bullish market for adoptable white children led to seeing white single mothers as simply morally misguided. Since black children have never become a valued commodity, black mothers of "illegitimate" children continue to signify "genetic incapacity and...an uninhibited biological impulse to copulate and breed" (108).

Now, although abortion still occupies a central position on "social problem" agendas, welfare reform has become a major priority. In welfare debates and other public performances, politicians, policy makers and the media relentlessly use black women as a trope for "social pollution and pathology" (109). Like the shifting visions of "fetus" and "motherhood," claims such as those made by The Bell Curve find potency in their "scientific" foundations. And, like stories about women's "natural" drives, these claims stem from a perceived need to stabilize potential disturbances in existing class, racial and gender classifications. Explaining poor black women's situation in terms of genetics (re)naturalizes class and racial differences as rooted in biology. For Hartouni, "scientific" explanations make "medical" solutions — e.g., enforced chastity through welfare ineligibility, temporary sterilization via surgically-implanted contraceptives, or eugenically-motivated proposals as in The Bell Curve — seem reasonable and morally imperative to policy makers and the public.

Hartouni also sees cultural anxiety about human cloning as arising from the need to make sense of and to sustain race and class differences. Initially, in vitro specialists developed cloning as a technology that would facilitate the drive of maternity by increasing the likelihood of producing viable embryos for implantation. Like surrogacy, in vitro fertilization produced speculation about grotesque and unnatural possibilities. Originating in the 1960s, these fantasies were reinvigorated by a 1993 report that scientists had successfully cloned human embryos. By 1993, however, in vitro fertilization was a culturally accepted technology. So why, Hartouni asks, does hysteria about human cloning persist?

Turning to Donna Haraway's metaphor of the "border war," Hartouni suggests that cloning provokes a

"well-scripted border skirmish in ongoing contests over who and what gets to count as fully human" (119).

Opponents to cloning object to its possible use for eugenics; its potential to (further) commodity human life; its disruptive effect on "natural" kinship structures; and its potential to irreversibly disrupt conventional understandings of identity and individuality. Of these objections, Hartouni sees the last as the most significant. Positing a genetic basis for class and racial differences provides a biological explanation for not only individual originality and authenticity, but also for cultural diversity. Cloning, by threatening to disrupt this basis, tends to precipitate frantic retelling of identity stories that confirm

"the ideological centerpiece of Western thought, humanism's unique, self-contained, self-determining individual" (119).

The self-contained and self-determining individual implies an opposite, however. This opposite is the "monster," an unnatural, ill-conformed person who threatens established categories and values. In the popular language of science, biology explains such persons as genetically abnormal. For Hartouni, genetics thus provides an acceptable way to soothe disturbances to conservative ideas about maternity, race or social class caused by "monsters" like Mary Beth Whitehead, who tried to "steal" a baby from a middle class couple, or Anna Johnson, who claimed that a white baby "belonged" to her. Genetics also explains the "monstrous" behavior of the black single mother, always seen as unfit and dependent on welfare; the pregnant woman who smokes or drinks; or the woman who chooses to abort her unviable fetus in the third trimester of pregnancy.

These genetic explanations also appear in the movies, where difference frequently is represented as monstrosity. In CITIZEN RUTH, for example, Ruth is an emotional monster whose pregnancy fails to arouse any maternal feeling. She is also monstrous in appearance and behavior. Since the film provides no narrative explanation for her situation, Ruth's lack of "natural" maternal feeling, and her ignorance, crassness, substance abuse and criminal propensity, can only be attributed to something essentially not biologically "normal" about the character.

Monsters, Hartouni suggests, signify an excess of cultural meaning. Yet a proliferation of "monsters" that cannot be tamed to respect conventional boundaries represents possibility as well as problem. Perhaps, Hartouni concludes, borrowing from Marilyn Strathern, the issue with respect to new reproductive processes and practices is not "whether these new processes are good or bad," but rather, "how we should think them and how they will think us" (132).8

In "A Cyborg Manifesto," Donna Haraway focuses on the future, imagining a mythical creature, the cyborg, as a symbol of pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and of deliberation in their construction. Rather than continuing with the same old border war, Haraway suggests that the cyborg might renegotiate the troubled relations of humans to technology, liberating us from preconstituted categories and social roles and from Western horrors of difference. In Cultural Conceptions, Hartouni, who studied with Haraway, suggests that new ways of seeing past and present controversies over reproductive technology might accelerate a reconciliation between organism and machine. By revisioning, we might turn away from pre-scripted battles that justify conservative victories by playing on fears of monstrosity and a belief in science as an objective source of truth. We might move toward an innovative and equal land where cyborgs might thrive.

As a proposal for a new understanding of recent cultural debates about the uses and practices of reproductive technology, Cultural Conceptions makes valuable connections between the border war and essential issues of diversity and difference. Hartouni's primary concern, as her conclusion shows, is to explicate the stakes of the struggle, rather than to suggest the terms of a cease-fire. For discouraged feminists, however, Cultural Conceptions might well be useful in strategizing a counter-attack to the current assault on reproductive freedoms and rights. Nevertheless, in the context of present initiatives, Hartouni's allusions to the possibilities opened by cultural disturbances seem regretfully wishful. Cultural Conceptions may help us to see fissures, but, in fact, the recent uproar over Dolly, the Scottish sheep; Clinton's ban on human cloning research, and new laws attacking reproductive freedoms indicate that these fissures have yet to broaden into possibility-sized openings.

One hopes, naturally, that viewing these issues in close-up will inform and inspire additional work on broadening the fissures. By connecting scientific advancements to a variety of social debates, Hartouni suggests a new way of looking at media representations of reproductive technology and reproductive freedom. As this review suggests, an examination of how these discourses surface in other media contexts might illuminate further how scientific visions originating in elite sectors of society appear in mass culture and how audiences interpret these visions. Although Hartouni uses specific, situated examples to argue that cultural discourse mediates viewer response, the audiences she chooses — the viewers of S'ALINE'S SOLUTION, for instance — may be located at an extreme of particularity of how and where they receive the messages from which they produce meaning.

By examining additional representations made and seen by mass audiences, we might gain further understanding of the diffusion of discourses on reproductive technology from elite institutions, such the scientific establishment, Congress, the courts, and academia, to a general public. As we slouch toward a future where cyborgs might thrive, however, Hartouni's insights and her careful analysis help us to see how debates over reproductive technology create and sustain conservative categorizations. Without a sophisticated understanding of the stakes involved in humans' relations to technology, we cannot begin to re-imagine reproduction as a flexible process rather than a reiteration of timeless and fundamental hierarchies of race, gender and social class.


1. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature  (New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1991), 150.

2. For examples, see Ruth Hubbard, "Irreplaceable Ewe," The Nation 264(11)4.

3. Harold T. Shapiro, "Ethical and Policy Issues of Human Cloning," Science 277 (5323), 195-96.

4. Angela Bonavoglia, "Separating Fact from Fiction," Ms. 7 (12), 55-56.

5. Rosalind Pollack Petchetschy, "Fetal Images: the Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction," Feminist Studies 13(2) (1987), pp. 263-292.

6. These responses were apparently provoked by a 1991 screening at UC San Diego, as part of a program of six video pieces entitled "The Bad Body" (59, 143, n. 5). Hartouni does not discuss whether the video has screened elsewhere.

7. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994). The principal thesis of the book is that people are born with fixed IQ's, which can never be significantly increased. Therefore, success and failure in the U.S. economy is largely a matter of genes.

8. Marilyn Strathern, After Nature: English Kinship in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).