This week’s readings discussed reproductive technologies in the perspective of motherhood. The reading by Rothman, specifically, critiqued surrogacy from a feminist point of view, while distinguishing the critique from the religious point of view. Rothman mentions the term patriarchy to make the distinction – due to the essential social relationship of the father and son that underlies the patriarchy, women are described in relation to men. For example, when “women bear the children of men” (Rothman, 1600). The matter of control is also discussed, as men may implant their seed in women, but they then lose control of that seed and must control the woman in order to control the seed (Rothman, 1600).

In the case of surrogacy, patriarchal notions are present – children are defined as legitimate based on the father. The mother’s own role does not matter, like in the biblical case of Abraham, Sarah, and Haagar. Although the child borne is not Sarah’s, the child is fundamentally defined by the relationship with Abraham. The privilege of claiming children is extended to women only to a point congruous to men. Women’s claim of children does not emerge from the foundation that the children grew in their own bodies, but that the child retains half of the woman’s genetic material. Rothman describes surrogacy as serving women’s interests only some of the time, as surrogacy typically depends on how privileged men and women may be.

The Baby M case, a surrogacy case which Rothman worked on where the surrogate mother changed her mind about keeping the baby after giving birth, was compared to a man walking into a bar, seducing a religious girl who would not have an abortion, supplying her with basic maternity goods, and then taking the child away from the girl (Rothman, 1602). Baby M highlighted the notion that children’s social relationship with the father are given priority when, at the end of the case, custody was given to the father. Women being able to gain custody of children has typically had some relation to how the father of those children were reacting in that same situation. If, for example, a man wanted the child, then he would gain custody of the child.

Rothman concluded that surrogacy and reproductive technologies could not be considered in the same manner for men and women, as each group has a very different experience of the same occurrence. Pregnancy, for women, is continuous from conception itself as women, while pregnancy, for men, is only present when the egg is fertilized. The social relationship of pregnancy itself should, therefore, be considered when deliberating kinship. Rothman’s argument was compelling and pregnancy should be regarded as an important social relationship, but the argument itself represents only some women and disregards those who are infertile and wish to have a child. Rothman herself maintains that not all infertile people should have to turn to adoption for a solution, but then what solution remains for these infertile women?

Meilaender approaches the topic of reproductive technologies with perspectives previously taken by Protestant ethicists. The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Haagar is mentioned in this reading as well, but only in how it emphasizes the importance of procreation. McDowell suggests that surrogacy, based on biblical themes, is misplaced compassion or “compassion gone awry” (Meilaender, 1638). Surrogacy, according to McDowell, does not illustrate the loving commitment of a couple nor the intention to care for a child conceived purposely. It instead emphasizes that a child can be created for the mere purpose of giving to someone else. Simmons biblical analysis differs from McDowell, as he thinks that the concept of surrogacy allows for children to be recognized as the gift they are by parents who can truly appreciate and care for them. These two viewpoints summarize the theological duality of finitude and freedom that are later deliberated on in the reading as central to Protestant thought of reproductive technologies. The reading emphasized the vastly differing perspectives that can be taken when considering religious texts. Conclusions in the reading did not matter as much as approaches did to elaborate on the patterns of thought.

The ethnography by Seeman et al. followed homeless, primarily African American, mothers in the United States. Most of the mothers did not become pregnant deliberately and cited the pregnancy as a factor contributing to their homelessness, but they also had an inclination to describe motherhood as a positive force or a “blessing.” Such a description can demonstrate a vernacular religious concept, or a religious nuance that affects the distinction between the intentions of pregnancy. The methods of the ethnography in the urban shelter Naomi’s House included observations, interviews of residents and staff members, and a focus group where residents where asked about the decisions they had taken for their reproductive health.

The shelter emphasized strict rules for their residents stressing personal responsibility and planning. Such planning was not necessarily taken in by the residents, as they were unable to make a specific plan when given a hypothetical situation where both a night job and day job was offered. Although the residents insisted that they had to take both jobs, they could not formulate a plan to do so; however, the insistence matched the concept of persevering “with God’s help, despite serious obstacles” (Seeman et al., 33). The residents also did not idealize their situation in Naomi’s House, but did compare it to much worse situations which allowed them to view their pregnancies positively. In fact, motherhood was utilized as a reason for why these women bettered themselves and achieved something. Even Diana, one of the few women who had not used the word blessing to describe her pregnancy, still cited her pregnancy as a positive turning point in her life. The spirituality and religious perspectives of these cases are closely tied, and the perspectives are internalized in the residents.

The residents discussed their fear of side effects and the poverty which influenced their use of birth control and inevitably led to their pregnancies. A negative attitude toward medical professionals also influenced their reluctance to discuss their reproductive health with these professionals. These factors and the internalized vernacular religious concepts of the residents of Naomi’s House emphasized the importance of ethnographic research and cannot be taken out of concept. Other homeless women may consider the agencies that affect their pregnancies in a completely different manner. In this specific ethnography, the agencies the affected the rational choice of many of the residents had to do with a religious discourse.

What’s Motherhood Got to do with it?

This week’s readings are interconnected by their discussion of the carefully calculated decisions that are made before and during motherhood. Broadly, all of the readings beg the question of the acceptance of reproductive technology in altering conventional motherhood. Surrogacy, for example, is considered an alteration to motherhood by challenging the long-established idea that a child delivered from a woman’s body is in fact her child. Before reproductive technology such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy were introduced, there was little question of who the mother of the baby is. Both Rothman (1992) and Meilaender (1992) give careful thought to the question of the role of surrogacy and artificial insemination and blurring kinship lines in human reproduction from a feminist and Protestant perspective, respectively. Seeman et al. (2016) address motherhood from a slightly different angle, investigating poor women’s’ reactions to their unintended pregnancy. The ethnographic study raises the concern of abortion as an alteration to one’s experience as a (potential) mother, and specifically addresses how women perceived their decision to continue the pregnancy or not long after the fact, and how religion and spirituality have roles in their autonomous decisions. With the discussion of these three readings, I highlight the important themes that are central to each article as well as motherhood in a broad sense.

Barbara Katz Rothman, a self-proclaimed feminist sociologist whose work is central to birth and motherhood, wrote her article as a personal stance on surrogacy given her feminist perspective that takes issue with patriarchal norms and control of women. Rothman is quick to point out that although her opinion might lie “on the same side of this particular fence as the religious leaders, we are coming from a very different place, and we are going to a very different place” (1599). She separates her argument from religion and focuses instead on the overarching patriarchal view of motherhood that puts women and mothers in a subordinate place. Careful not to conflate “patriarchy” with “sexism” or “men’s rule,” Rothman distinguishes between the concepts and emphasizes that her focus is on the “rule of fathers” in a patriarchal society, and not sexist claims. She argues that in the United States, a “contemporary patriarchal society,” the defining relationship is the father and son, from which derivations are formed, such as children being referred to as “the children of men out of the bodies of women” (1600). When a man loses control of his reproductive autonomy by allowing his child to grow in a woman, he therefore must control the woman to maintain a sense of power and certainty of his kin. Rothman accounts for the differences in societal determinants of kinship, but acknowledges the general American perspective that consanguineal kin is true kin. “Seed,” or gamete, is the “essential underlying concept of patriarchy,” thus, because America recognizes the gamete of a woman to be half of the genetic makeup of the reproductive cycle, some patriarchal privileges are extended to women.

It is through this lens that Rothman opposes surrogacy for a number of reasons. Even with extended rights, surrogacy perpetuates class differences, as there is often a large payment from the woman who cannot carry the fetus to the woman who can. She argues that surrogacy is hardly different than adultery with respect to the case of “Baby M”, claiming that if a man impregnate a woman who was not his wife then sued for custody, the same goal would be accomplished because the courts favor paternal custody (1603). Through this point, we see a connection to past class conversations of the father providing the seed for the mother who is simply fertile soil, which is how Rothman argues that women are used and perceived as houses for the seed to grow. Although Rothman spends some time emphasizing her separation from religious opinions of surrogacy and argues that it is instead the patriarchal norms that are reinforced through society (and commonly religion) that feminists should take issue with, I found one specific part of her argument to be challenging to her views. Rothman emphasizes that reproductive technology is perceived as a threat to “the family and natural order” (1604). Although the paper is twenty-seven years old, Rothman indicates that feminist discourse is concerned with maintaining the natural sanctity of the family, which I argue would be challenged heavily today by the disapproval of the dichotomy of natural and unnatural that her argument suggests. This concern Rothman raises seems to coincide with Catholicism and Natural Law, therefore I would argue that this claim is not distinct from religious influence or opinion.

Rothman’s conclusion emphasizes that all of this would look very different from a woman’s perspective. She particularly caught my attention with her discussion of reproductive autonomy and the control of reproduction for the benefit of society, which infers that women are mechanisms that support what society needs, stripping away the woman’s autonomy. Rothman concludes her paper with a call to action of others to oppose surrogacy because it is a violation of autonomy, emotionally and physically exhausting, immoral, and “unnatural” for a woman to give birth to her kin just to hand it over to the father. This closing thought is “regardless of the sources of the egg and or the sperm,” which allows the reader to infer that Rothman is arguing pregnancy and birth are the most determining factors of motherhood, and that “any woman cannot be a mother of a child who is not her own” (1607). With this powerful conclusion, how well do you feel Rothman’s thoughts are constructed? Do her arguments support or refute one another? Would you consider them to be feminist if this was written today?


In his paper, Meilaender (1992) outlines the various Protestant interpretations and opinions of reproductive technology, giving credit as well a critique to the arguments. He clearly explains how many Protestant views of reproductive technology are entrenched in the self and obligation of the self to God among other common values. Through this understanding, artificial insemination and other reproductive technologies are often but not always disapproved of for their dehumanizing nature. This is described by different Protestant scholars to have consequences for different individuals. For example, Ramsey argues that the union of the biological and the personal is essential for moral parenthood, and their separation through technological intervention would prove to be dehumanizing and cause enslavement to “whatever new technological advance becomes possible” (1641). Smith, however, argues that surrogacy or artificial insemination by donor (AID) should be prohibited for its dehumanizing of the child’s world, as well as the unequal parental representation. He argues that if only one partner in marriage has their genetic information passed to the child of AID or surrogacy, there is unequal representation of the marriage in the relationship, which is argued to be destructive to the self (1640).

In my opinion, the most important concept from the reading is that while the same religious influence can be considered with respect to an ethical issue, very different outcomes and thus opinions can arise under the same denomination. Meilaender portrays this with a contrasting opinion under Protestant reason that does not condemn AID. Fletcher argues that “kinship is essentially a matter of human intention and will, of love and not blood” (1642). This interpretation is rooted in Fletcher’s greater value in freedom of self than reproduction. While Ramsey and Smith condemn this very idea, Fletcher celebrates it as “‘rational and human choice’ over ‘blind worship of raw nature’” (1643). In conclusion, Meilaender claims that although these opinions of reproductive technology are different, it is the theological approach and use of the Bible in Protestant theory that is systematically followed to address controversial issues that one should practice in human society, in order to maintain the ideals of what is truly human. I cannot say that I agree that the fundamental Christological understanding of Jesus as the son of God to be a starting point for this discussion moving forward, especially after reading Rothman’s critique of contemporary patriarchal society and its stripping of women’s autonomy. As a woman, I cannot help but wonder how different these conversations would look if one’s ability to identify as male or female was not so telling of their rights and privileges in American society. I also begin to wonder how much of the American contemporary patriarchy is truly rooted in religious text or values…please feel free to share your thoughts on this.


More recent literature has investigated the nature of altering motherhood from a woman’s perspective. The authors of Blessing Unintended Pregnancy study how poor African American mothers who experienced unintended pregnancies now perceive their decision to raise their child(ren). The woman in the ethnographic study were all staying at a homeless shelter, which many found comfort in because it offered a new beginning. Regardless of their financial state, the majority of the women who carried unintended pregnancies to term regarded their pregnancy to be “meant to be” or “a blessing.” (Seeman et al. 2016, 34) This tribute to a higher power than oneself can be seen as a denial of some human control over pregnancy. The authors attribute the ambivalence of human control of reproduction to be rooted in an “existential tug between human and divine agency” (34). Throughout the study, the authors unpack the personal accounts of women who most often attributed their unintended pregnancy to something beyond their control.

While some women struggled to gain approval of family and community members, others took the opportunity to move out and “start over,” commonly escaping habits or situations that might pose consequences for their child such as drug use or physical abuse from their partner: “Each of these women described motherhood as the primary reason that they managed to reframe their lives around achievement and success rather than endless struggles and disappointment” (36).  Being able to make a drastic change for oneself by attributing something like unplanned pregnancy as a “gift” cultivated impactful change, which these women felt empowered by. The authors proceed to portray that coming to the homeless shelter was more than a place to temporarily raise their children, but it also provided some shelter from male dominance that many of them felt subordinate to.

The use of “blessing” and “meant to be” can be seen as a religious comfort offered to explain unintended pregnancy; however, many of them women who were most involved in local religious groups declined that they were religious and instead felt that “spiritual” better described their faith. The authors argue that to woman at the homeless shelter, spirituality is not posed as an alternative to religion, but as a part of “Christian discourse that includes a critique of some institutional Christian practice” (41). In the context of this study, this definition of spirituality made great sense to me and helped to understand personal experiences of these women and what’s at stake for them in their local moral world. Arguably the most important port of this paper is the call to action of further studies to not assume that “religious conceptions always mediate against planning discourse” (42). It is therefore not our place in academics to assume that “we know what religion means in reproductive settings,” and instead to pay close attention to how perspectives are shifted and where agency lies through different contexts of reproductive decisions.

This paper serves as a call to action for public health discourse to consider ethnographic studies of the local moral world instead of abstract debate regarding fetus and maternal rights or when life begins in the womb. Ethnography holds great validity, and through ethnographic study research can unpack the role of more than just religion in order to understand personal accounts of reproductive autonomy in order to shape public health policy moving forward.

Different Views on Abortion

This week’s readings shed light on a very controversial topic in our world today.  In Hadley Arkes’ piece, he writes about abortion in an instructive manner that touch upon key elements of argumentation.  Early on in the reading, Harkes declares that the human life, and the right to law, are a matter of theology (360).  He furthers this by saying that, “it has become common public figures to declare in public that “they personally disapprove” of abortion, but that abortion is a “deeply religious and moral question,” and therefore that the laws should not impose an official policy on this matter” (361).  I found this to be quite interesting and prevalent to our world today, since the topic of abortion poses both a political and religious problem for high-up officials.  Although it is unproductive for the progression of whether abortion should be legal or illegal, it is advantageous for politicians to place the power in the hands of the mother and her religious values.  Instead of implementing something that changes the lives of all people, both good and bad, politicians declare the right to choice.


When discussing the case of Roe vs. Wade, Arkes breaks down the decision that was made in regards to when a human life begins.  More over, the fact that a human’s beginning means the ability for protection by law, and the effect that this has on abortion.  With the technology that we currently have, it is possible to save the lives of many of these embryos that will become humans with the proper, continuous process of growth. Another interesting point that Arkes brings up is the “benchmark of twenty-four weeks” that Blackmun set when specifying the viability and recognition of a child.  Consequently, “Blackmun and his colleagues had framed a momentous decision without even bothering to draw on the most informed technical understanding available to them”(376).  This decision and the technology at hand create a technological fallacy when speaking of viability.  He mentions that if the Roe vs. Wadecase, “really accepted the notion that fetuses may be protected by the law when they are “viable,” then that decision contains the grounds for its own dissolution as our technology makes it possible to rescue these threatened fetuses almost at the very beginning” (377). Modern-day technology has created the possibility for a human life to be established through other means at a very early stage in the pregnancy.  The takeaway here is the questioning of when a fetus gains the equal rights as the mother. This is seen in Judith Jarvis Thompson’s work, “A Defense of Abortion.”


Thompson does say that a fetus does become a person prior to the birth, but there is no specific point in which it can be marked simply because the process is nonstop.  One thing is for certain and that is a fetus is a person, and a person has rights. Both the mother and the child have the right to life, but there are instances in which one must sacrifice the other.  With the example of the woman who would die due to her cardiac condition if she gave birth to her child, Thompson poses some thought-provoking questions.  Her conclusion from these questions was that a mother is performing an abortion on herself, and therefore has the right to do what she sees fit.  Thompson states that, “it cannot seriously be thought to be murder if the mother performs an abortion on herself to save her life.  It cannot seriously be said that she must refrain, that she must sit passively by and wait for her death” (52).  It would be one thing if a person murdered a completely separate individual, but the idea of an abortion creates much more room for debate since it is the woman who is housing the fetus.


In Ginsburg’s reading, we are able to get some clarification on the difference between pro-life and pro-choice, something that is crucial in the debate on abortion.  Pro-choice activists see abortion as an, “essential safeguard against the differential effects of pregnancy on men and women” (7).  As seen in her example of rape, Thompson cites that abortion is beneficial in that aspect. This counteracts the view of the pro-life activist, who preach that women are distinguished from men due to their ability to become pregnant and assume the role of mother.  As we have seen in prior week’s readings, becoming a mother is an extremely coveted position in certain religions, and it is clearly wrong from these perspective to abort a child as that would take away this role.  In the end, for Ginsburg, she notes that pro-life and pro-choice activists come together at the end of the day to support the livelihood and well-being of women regardless of the view on abortion.  The opening of the Women’s health organization is a great example of both sides coming together.

Abortion – Thomson and Ginsburg

Thomson takes the stance that “while I do argue that abortion is not impermissible, I do not argue that it is always permissible” (65).


First, Thomson counters the common arguments of anti-abortion discourse. Under the premise that human life is defined to begin at conception and all abortion is immoral, Thomson juxtaposes choosing between the right to life of a woman and her unborn child. As both have an equal right to life since both are human, opponents of an abortion in this scenario argue that it is “(3) as one’s duty to refrain from directly killing an innocent person is more stringent than one’s duty to keep a person from dying, an abortion may not be performed. Or, (4) if one’s only options are, directly killing an innocent person or letting a person die, one must prefer letting the person die, and thus an abortion may not be performed” (Thomson 51). Thomson deconstructs this argument with a parallel example of a body-hijacking violinist who abducts a person in order to use their kidneys for 9 months in order to filter the violinist’s own blood and save the violinist from imminent death, and at the end of the 9 months the violinist would live and the abductee would die from kidney failure. Thomson insists that our modern sensibilities think it just  that the abductee be allowed to unplug and thus allow the violinist to die because the violinist has no right to the abductees body: “If anything in the world is true, it is that you do not commit murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if you reach around to your back and unplug yourself from that violinist to save your life” (Thomson 52).


Thomson goes on to point out a sexist fallacy inherent in concerns about the moral implications of 3rd party actions in answer to a request from a woman for an abortion. The typical train of thought defines what a mother is allowed to do by what a third party is morally allowed to do, but “But it seems to me that to treat the matter in this way is to refuse to grant to the mother that very status of person which is so firmly insisted on for the fetus” (Thomson 52). Thomson redefines the issue as such, giving the mother equal weight as a person and decisive agent in the scenario: “Both are innocent: the one who is threatened is not threatened because of any fault, the one who threatens does not threaten because of any fault” Thomson 53). However, there is also a power dynamic at play between the mother and her child. While both are considered equal human beings in this scenario, one is the mother and owner of the “house” or body, and the other is a fetus and an outsider that has either trespassed or once been welcomed in the the house but has began to threaten the owner’s life. Thomson uses another metaphor, of the “house” and the body, to argue that a woman’s right to her body undeniably allows a third party action to justly act on her behalf to save her life and her house from the trespasser. In essence, the right to life of the child is superseded by the right of the mother to control her own body.


Central in this discourse is the idea that no other person has the right to another’s body, even if the use of your body will save their life, and thus, according to Thomson, abortion is not completely unjust. However, while abortion is not an unjust act in Thomson’s eyes, she delineates between moral neutrality and what is viewed as socially decent through a surprising reference (at least to me) to religion. Thomson argues that when Jesus commanded his followers to be good samaritans, it “was not morally required of any of the thirty-eight that he rush out to give direct assistance at the risk of his own life, and that it is not morally required of anyone that he give long stretches of his life”… “to sustaining the life of a person who has no special right” to the samaritan’s body (Thomson 63). Furthermore, she deduces that taking responsibility for someone else is an act of Good Samaritanism, a social human decency, and that in her opinion the benchmark for actions towards other human beings should not fall below that which is “minimally good samaritanism.” Here the grey area of Thomson’s argument presents itself for she uses this ambiguous standard of “minimally good samaritanism” towards the fetus as a line in the sand to separate what is a just and unjust abortion in non-problematic pregnancies (Thomson 65).


In line with the discipline of philosophy, Thomson’s argument is almost sterile, devoid of reference to American cultural concerns. Contrasting, Faye Ginsburg demonstrates that the pro-life assertion that human life begins at conception is a rationale situated within a complex cultural critique of the evolution of American gender constructions and the subsuming of nurturance as a core value to that of materialism and egoism. The assertion that life begins at conception is symbolic of larger concerns about the degeneracy of American culture, and Ginsburg makes clear how hopelessly intertwined the two are … which raises the question, what came first, the chicken or the egg?


Ginsburg opens her ethnography of a abortion clinic in Fargo, North Dakota with the history of abortion in America. Abortion was an accessible and widespread practice, performed up to until 5 month gestation, with little stigma in 19th century America, and surprisingly the agents of change surrounding abortion litigation prior to the 1960s were doctors. Around the 1860s-1880s physician’s pushed to make abortion wholly dependent on professional medical judgement in a play to grab control of their profession and lower competition of outside abortion providers. Due to the influence of physicians, abortion became illegal unless it directly endangered the life of the mother. Allied with anti abortion physician’s but for different reasons were 19th century feminists who largely saw abortion as a promiscuous, upper-class male’s backup plan and thus societal safeguard for the consequences of unrestrained male sexuality, greed, and materialism on defenseless women. As time went on, women still did not mobilize against abortion due to societal preoccupation with eugenic and sexist arguments of “race suicide” and “maternal instinct.” In fact, medical procurement of abortion did not reach national significance as an issue until the 1950s case of Finkbine’s denied abortion of her fetus with thalidomide-induced deformations. While doctors yet again sought legal reform of abortion, this time to evade litigation suits, feminists were not aligned with the doctors unlike in the 1860s. Thus, the modern conflict we know today of pro-life vs. pro-choice began to take form.


Ginsburg goes on to detail the events of the 1950s-1970s, interweaving the rise of the New Right, Hyde Amendment, group strategies for litigation vs court appeal, and the Roe v. Wade decision. By including the national picture and discourse, Ginsburg is astutely able to narrow into the local moral world of Fargo, North Dakota, and contrast/explain the national with the local “social drama—moments of revelation of social divisions when ‘people have to take sides, in terms of deeply entrenched moral imperatives and constraints”(62). Most inducing of social drama was the Roe v. Wade decision. Roe v. Wade demonstrated to the pro-life constituency that the courts and legislature had taken the side of pro-choice, and therefore the pro-life strategy “shifted the grounds of the conflict to the “gray areas” left unclear in the Court’s decision—questions regarding a woman’s rights to have access to abortion—and aimed at restricting the delivery of abortion services through whatever means possible” (75). Thus, the polarization of sides in Fargo and the onslaught of picketers outside the Fargo clinic, the opening of Fargo dummy clinics, and other subversive strategies of pro life activists began.


After an ethnography of the local positions of Fargo pro-life and pro-choice activists and their “procreation stores,” Ginsburg concludes with an analysis of the why behind each position. As Ginsburg succinctly puts it, “ Each position represents conflicting interpretations of the shifting social consequences of and connections between sexual activity, reproduction, and motherhood for women in American culture” (213); Ginsburg asserts that both positions are feminist in their own interpretation of the word.


Through ethnography, Ginsburg frames the pro-life opposition as arising due to the widening possibilities of female narratives in society that exist outside the domestic sphere. For pro-life proponents, the unique ability of women to bear children and the associated nurturance and motherhood qualities attributed to the “woman” identity that a man cannot possess are jeopardized by abortion’s ability to destabilize the natural progression surrounding the creation of a family unit (marriage, sex, birth, not necessarily in that order) and thus threaten the cultural value of motherhood. Furthermore, abortion conceals the result of illicit sexual relations in the view of pro-life advocates, and, as pro-life activist Roberta from Fargo echoes, “easy access to abortion as decreasing women’s power by weakening social pressure on men to take emotional and financial responsibility for the reproductive consequences of intercourse” (190,214).  Pro-life proponents view pro-choice opposition and logic as “culturally male—sexual pleasure and individual ambition separated from procreation and social bonds of caretaking—is set against their own identification of ‘true femininity’ with the traits of nurturance that are, in American culture, conflated with motherhood”(205). In contrast, pro-choice proponents do not celebrate the culturally constructed differences between men and women but rather seek to equalize men and women in society through allowing motherhood to be a choice at all times that does not then define a woman’s identity.  


While modern discourse often pits them against each other, Ginsburg paints the coexistence of pro-choice and pro-life activists in Fargo, North Dakota as undeniably rocky but not without a local respect and acknowledgement of mutual motivation: protection of what each defines as the right of women.


The reading by Ginsburg discusses the debate of abortion in Fargo, a rural community in North Dakota, during the early 80’s. This particular instance is a good example of the many discourses on abortion that occured in the United States throughout this time. The debate was sparked when the Fargo Women’s Health Organization opened, which allowed abortions, birth control, and information on sexual health to become accessible for the first time. The clinic catered to many people in surrounding areas despite the numerous amount of protests that occurred outside of the clinic. Many of the patients receiving abortions were typically young, unmarried women, who did not plan to be sexually active and became pregnant from the lack of preventative measures taken. Although abortions have become increasingly common since they became legalized in 1973, the introduction of the clinics where majority of abortions occur, was/is quite difficult to establish due to the social acceptance of abortions. When inspecting an area’s acceptability of abortion, religion must be considered as a major influence. In Fargo, Christianity is extremely prevalent and therefore may be the root cause to many of the pro-life opinions shared throughout the area. Majority of activists on both sides of the debate are white, middle class females. “Pro­-choice activists consider inequalities between the sexes to be rooted in social, legal, and cultural forms of gender discrimination” (Ginsburg 7) and therefore abortions are viewed as a way to create equality between man and women that pregnancy often disrupts. “Pro-­life activists, on the other hand, accept difference, but not necessarily hierarchy, in the social and biological roles of men and women” (Ginsburg 7) and therefore feel the need to maintain and protect pregnancy/motherhood as a defining quality of womanhood. Furthermore, pro-life activists view abortion as a disregard to the the link between reproduction and male support of family.

Ginsburg outlines three major themes in the connection between abortion and american culture. The first theme concerns irresponsible sexual activity as being a natural occurrence for men and an unnatural occurrence for women. The second theme emphasizes the unjust disregard for those that are dependent such as the fetus, disabled, and elderly. The third theme critiques the power behind and authenticity in human relations, and how abortion questions these elements.

In her analysis, Ginsburg also comments on how the increase in the amount of women joining labor force, and the availability/safety of new reproductive technologies might sway people’s opinion of abortions. Women now have more options as to the path they chose in life in terms of career and family. Historically, abortions were commonly practiced and only made illegal by those wanting to protect the lives of the dependent, and physicians attempting to gain control of their practice. Furthermore, some scholars claim abortion was made illegal to combat the decline of birth rates in the United States, and some feminist even claimed that abortion promoted actions stemming from male lust. It’s interesting to note that those who created the stigma around abortion including physicians and feminists, were those trying to legalize it a century later. Similarly, religion was much more passive in the abortion discourse in comparison to modern times. From the late nineteenth century with the campaign to criminalize abortion, to the 1960s pro-choice movement, and finally to the legalization of abortion in the twentieth century, attitudes and acceptability of abortion have fluctuated. However, although abortions were legal, they were not available to many people. Of the clinics and hospitals in Fargo, none of them offered abortions for fear of the stigma and backlash they would received from pro-life activists in the community, therefore opening a free standing clinic was not an easy task. After much debate and political/legal difficulty surrounding the opening of the clinic, those seeking services of the freestanding clinic were faced with pro-life activists that encouraged women to consider other options. Pro-life activists used tactics such as prayer vigilants, sidewalk counselors, movies, and other forms of media/advertising. A major theme throughout the pro-life activists goals was to educate those seeking abortions because they were deemed uninformed about the life of the fetus. But many of the tactics used, including the advertising, use of “counselors”, similar names of the activists groups, and indistinguishability between the people made it easy for those seeking abortions to come to pro-life establishments. This resulted in many legal cases that eventually favored thr Fargo Women’s Health Organization, and ultimately made the two sides of the abortion debate distinguishable.

However Both the pro-life activists and pro-choice activists, as demonstrated through ethnographic accounts, recognize each others interest and concern for the well being of women. There have been instances where the clinic has referred women to the pro-life community for financial support and moral support in her desire to the children. Since the establishment of the Women’s Health Organization clinic, there have been debates and conversations between the activists on both sides that has resulted in an understanding of each other’s viewpoints. Both sides have come to recognize that good intentions placed for women in the community, despite the disagreement on the practice of abortion.


The reading by Thompson begins by critiquing the common claim opposing abortion that states how humans cannot pinpoint an exact moment in which the fetus becomes a person. The development of the fetus is continuous, and is therefore a person from the moment of conception. Thompson agrees that the fetus has likely become a person before birth and to draw a specific line to where personhood begins is somewhat arbitrary. However, a newly fertilized ovum, according to Thompson, is no more than a clump of cells. The argument is that the fetus is a person, regardless if one disagrees or agrees, is not sufficient because it does not link the status of the fetus as a person to the impermissibility of abortion. Thompson goes in to understand this missing link by proposing that the fetus’s right to life is more important than the mothers right to decide what happens with her body. But in considering situations of rape is this claim still justified? Many people would argue that pregnancy resulting from rape would permit an abortion, but in making that claim, a fetus as the product of rape has less right to life than a fetus resulting from an unintended or abnormal pregnancy. For this reason, some do not see abortion as permissible in the case of rape, or even in cases where the mother’s life is threatened, though not many people have this extreme view.

Thompson goes deeper into the argument of how a fetus might threaten a mother’s life, and the permissibility of abortion in that instance. Are the rights to life between the mother and child equal? Many believe that abortion is killing the child, but not doing anything with the mother is not necessarily killing her. Thompson claims that “it cannot seriously be thought to be murder if the mother performs the abortion herself to save her life” (Thompson 52). To let the mother just wait for her death to come is rather ridiculous. However, many mothers cannot safely or accurately perform an abortion themselves and need a third party in order to do so. Thompson claims that not all acts of self defense are justified, but in this case “both are innocent” and “there are only two people involved, one whose life is threatened, and one who threatens it” (Thompson 53”). Therefore it seems that decision rightly belongs to the mother. The argument continues saying that we cannot intentionally kill individuals, but when a person is dependent on an individual for survival, that doesn’t mean that individual must assist the dependent person. The individual does not owe the dependent individual assistance. So Thompson concludes that “the right to life consists not in the right to not be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly” (57).

The mother’s responsibility for inviting the fetus into the world questions her right to abortion, because the invitation was voluntary. However, this question of responsibility cannot be extended to instances of rape, and even in instances of unplanned pregnancies. Just because a window of opportunity is opened, does not necessarily imply intentions of becoming pregnant. Therefore just because it would be more favorable and decent to help another individual, not doing so would not necessarily be unjust. Of course saving the life or helping another individual in need would be a good thing to do, especially when trying to be a “Good Samaritan” as instructed in the bible, but no law says one must be a Good Samaritan.

The reading concludes with her claims that an individual is not responsible for carrying a child she does not wish to have, but does not have the right to guarantee the child’s death. In other words, the fetus does not have the right to the mother’s body, but the mother does not have the right to ensure the death of the child should it become birthed or survive in some way. However, throughout this entire argument it is assumed that the fetus becomes a person from the moment of conception, which is of course a different but related debate.  


The reading by Arkes begins with discussion on the Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade, as a significant landmark in the abortion debates. In the case, Justice Blackmun states that pregnancy will always be with us as long as man is present and that many women will become pregnant more than once in their lifetimes. We cannot use religious or theological accounts to make these decisions because claims cannot be judged as completely true or false. The question of what makes a human arises, and it is concluded that the determining factor cannot be left to appearances or anything tangible, but rather “consciousness” (Arkes 374). However, we have a difficult time in defining what consciousness is and how to measure it. Many people do not have moral understandings of their own acts and motivations, and therefore would not be considered as persons. These attempts in defining consciousness are really just attempts to define when a fetus becomes a person, and allow us to disregard other tangible measures from the brain or heart.

Arkes goes into explain that a fetus is not a potential human, because it’s not possible for the fetus to become anything else. Rather, the fetus’s development is continuous and became more developed as time passes. Therefore there is no point in development where a nonhuman becomes a human. Arkes makes the claim that if the the offspring can only be human, it’s not always wrong to kill if one has justification for doing so. Rape may be a good justification, but we also must consider poor mothers, or those who cannot emotionally handle a child as possible justifications. Furthermore, the wellbeing and welcoming of an unwanted child should be considered as a justification.


Impossible Gifts and Magical Progeny

To truly understand a perspective we must have some framework or background in which to explore the perspective as it relates to a community and individuals within that community. Bhattachary specifically advises against creating a “Hindu ethic” less it be exclusionary to large confounding factors such as location- this to say the American Hindu ethic might have noticeable differences than the Sri Lankan Hindu ethic; and the New York American Hindu ethic might be much different than the Sea Coral Drive in San Diego California Hindu Ethic (Bhattachary 3). As such I feel the framework provided by Simpson in Impossible Gifts which is based both in policy/regulatory history and fieldwork experiences with clinicians provides a viable framework as it considers the bi-directional relationship of culture (individualized beliefs, religious myths, and behaviors) and institutional policy (Simpson 840).

With Theravada Buddhism being the state religion of Sri Lanka, it is reasonable to say that the two are fairly intertwined; and thus, views historically held by Sri Lanka which were dependent on Buddhist philosophy might aide in extrapolation of their view on up and coming phenomenon such as IVF. Theravada Buddhism stresses charity and donation as a means of ethical development in aide of removing the ego and becoming above oneself. This idea of giving is broken down into levels consisting of worldly goods, body parts, and life (Simpson 841). Practically, this translates to donating blood being a very common occurrence in Sri Lanka- going so far as to having blood donation centers at religious events not being an uncommon sight.  Simpson tells of a man relaying to him the notion that he hopes he ties from a brain hemorrhage so that little damage is done to his body and as much of it as possible can be donated.

These beliefs extend to the world of policy in many ways but is chiefly illustrated by eye donations. Sri Lanka leads the world in eye donation and so much so that the supply of donated eyes outstrips the need for new eyes in the country leading to groups being put in place to manage the export of eyes to over sixty other countries, irrespective of their cultural identity (Simpson 846). Furthering this notion that giving is a cornerstone of the Theravada and subsequently the Sri Lanka culture.

It is with that said and before I transition into IVF and such that I want to recognize this idea that the Sri Lanka culture and the Theravada Buddhist beliefs are i) not monoliths and ii) not inherently identical. Simply because a religion says to live one way and because a country is a majority of that religion does not mean every individual in that country will treat every situation the same and draw the same conclusions from a given situation. As such policies must be passed. such as outlawing the sell or purchase of body parts, tissues, and fluids in Sri Lanka, providing tangible consequence to actions deemed immoral (Simpson 850). This also explains why certain dissenting opinions exist such as those individuals who worry about the export of eyes to countries of different cultural make up- no individual exists in a vacuum.

As with every country some individuals have reproductive barriers and the idea of donor insemination isn’t a new one, but in the 1900s Sri Lanka decided that for the public good they would form and subsequently regulate sperm banks (Simpson 852). Simple enough but one major problem got in the way- lack of donors. Well that happens to the best of business and the solution is simple- advertise! For some strange reason advertisements asking for sperm donations were not deemed acceptable by the public conscious so the question had to be asked- what underlying cause is stopping the Sri Lankan people from donating sperm? If blood and eye donations are such a hit why does that not extend to sperm donations?

One major problem Simpson found was stress- for every individual on every side of the donor insemination, IVF with donated sperm, etc. debate there was stress (Simpson 852). Stress about questions of infidelity. Stress about questions of personal identity for the child. And, stress about the collection method of samples to be donated. When physical pleasure is minimized to become less associated with your physical self it is hard to justify the methods associated with giving a sperm sample. So the conclusion is simple, the Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists are not in favor of IVF, right?

Let’s look at the other half of IVF- ova donation. The collection of ova involves surgery and thus physical pain solving the last problem (Simpson 854). Socially, Simpsons found, women were more likely to help others in the ingroup dissolving questions of infidelity. Reproduction isn’t associated with some physical act as explained by Bhattacharyya so there is no immediate objection to the IVF itself (Bhattacharyya 52). In short, there are no religious qualms with ova donation.

Thus, it seems there are no major problems with IVF as a technology and utilizing IVF as a means to create progeny, but the question of will or won’t a society adopt a technology is filled with nuance which can’t be answered solely by historical contingency or by analyzing religious values without context. Culture is a fluid thing which can answer many questions if applied correctly, but no country is a monolith and no people are all the same. I have to wonder though, to what extent to these religious considerations survive outside of the majority? Are Hindu bioethics surviving on Sea Coral Drive in San Diego California?

Inventing Bioethics

In Swasti Bhattacharyya’s book Magical Progeny, Modern Technology, she discusses the Hindu perspectives on reproductive technologies, including IVF, adoption, and surrogacy. To do so, she cites many traditional Hindu stories, relying primarily on the Mahabharata and the messages it carries. In addition to this primary goal, Bhattacharyya also speaks extensively about the importance of cultural competency in a clinical setting, as well as the presence (or lack thereof) of religion in both academia and clinical environments. Bhattacharyya sets the scene by stressing the relevance of incorporating Hindu perspectives into bioethics debates. In the United States and globally, those ascribing to a Hindu tradition are numerous and growing, yet bioethics tend to be centered around Christian and Judaic perspectives. The importance of learning from and about different perspectives is increasingly important as America continues to become more diverse, and second/third/fourth generations immigrants formulate their own unique worldview that incorporates a great many set of identities. These religious beliefs underscore the perceptions and actions of many people, but religion tends to be marginalized in academic settings and poorly understood in clinical settings. This problem has seeped into bioethics discussions as well. But to cast aside religious perspectives is to leave out the most important factor for individuals when dealing with dilemmas involving life, birth, and death. It is therefore important and relevant to expand current religious influences on bioethics to include perspectives that accurately represent what individuals deal with when considering procedures such as IVF or abortion.

Hindu perspectives on reproductive technologies present themselves quite differently from other religious traditions. Whereas it was simple for us to read Donnum Vitae and understand wholly the position of Catholicism on reproductive technologies, there is no one central Hindu authority, or even a clear consensus about what a “Hindu perspective” would entail. It is multivalent, subjective, and malleable, and focuses more on acting ethically in a given situation rather than establishing absolutes. Bhattacharyya reconciles this by presenting a foundation of Hindu values and stories from which they’re drawn, and then discusses the perspectives that could be formulated from them. The mythologies presented in the Mahabharata serve as Bharracharyya’s key evidence for how Hindu perspectives about ART are structured. These stories discuss extensively the ideas of childbirth, procreation, kinship, and lineage, and include many fictive parallels to modern day reproductive technologies. Mythical stories about gods as sperm donors, surrogacy, adoption, exogenous birth, and more, establish an already fairly liberal precedent for the modern day equivalents of these stories. The characters in the Mahabharata “reflect a creativity and moral openness” (99) in finding ways to circumvent “normal” procreative processes. The author then identified six Hindu characteristics that embrace “a diversity of thought and experience”: emphasis on societal good, unity of life, dharma, the multivalent nature of Hindu thought, karma, and commitment to ahimsa. Each of these parts can be easily applied to bioethical debates about ART—for example, the idea of dharma and a woman’s responsibility to fulfill her childbearing responsibilities. All of these six characteristics intersect to provide a diverse, complementary worldview where alternate views are not only tolerated but are welcomed and internalized. The case study of Jacyee Buzzanca exemplifies this commitment to “viewing and honoring the views of life from many perspectives” (97) and is compared/contrasted to a Roman Catholic perspective, a tradition much more concerned with establishing absolutes and universal rules.

A Hindu perspective on bioethics and ART is one that contains ideals commonly represented in religious traditions—ideas of doing no harm, responsibility for actions, and one’s prescribed role in this world. However, the way that these concepts come together is quite unique, and is a perspective that is important to incorporate into bioethical debates. In many cases, involving religion tends to place limits on what one can and cannot do. Hinduism opens it back up and provides grounds upon which case-by-case moral dilemmas can be creatively managed.

The article by Bob Simpson, Impossible Gifts, takes yet another approach to viewing reproductive technologies, as well as organ and tissue donation. Interestingly, he talks about Ayurvedic medicine and how sperm donation is not a well-received practice due to issues of paternity. This contrasts quite heavily with the previous reading about Hindu bioethics, which also have links to Ayurvedic medicine. Beyond this, the article gives another very distinct view of tissue donation as “gift giving,” a practice deeply rooted in Buddhism that carries a lot of weight. Both of these readings truly show the process of “inventing bioethics” and how groups come to form their own ideas of what is moral and right.

After reading and reflecting on both of these very nuanced schools of thought, I wonder if we will ever reach a point in America where all of these diverse opinions will be incorporated in bioethics conversations? America, although nominally secular, definitely takes Christian viewpoints more seriously than others. Will Hindu or Buddhist perspectives ever carry much weight when it comes down to making legislative decisions about what is right or wrong?

Magical Progeny, Modern Technology

Swasti Bhattacharyya wrote and published Magical Progeny, Modern Technology: A Hindu Bioethics of Assisted Reproductive Technology in 2006. Dr. Bhattacharyya is a professor of philosophy and religion and has a background as a nurse. Her healthcare background provides her insight into pragmatic bioethics with consideration of Hindu and Indian ideologies.

Bhattacharyya acknowledges that Westerners have reified religion, and consequently, dominated discussions while non-Western voices have mostly been excluded from shaping American ideology, including bioethics, despite the ever-expanding pluralism and diversity brought in and cultivated by immigrants. Religion permeates through our ways of being and is inseparable from culture, philosophy, politics and the social, which is why cultural competency, or cultural humility, is necessary for medical competency. It is necessary to listen to perspectives that are different than our own in order to understand people and communicate effectively because no one knows everything, and we cannot expect to intuitively know everything. So, here we are, listening to what Dr. Bhattacharyya has to say about Hindu bioethics while keeping in mind that Hinduism has many facets and voices. If I had to choose an excerpt from the book to reflect what Bhattacharyya wants to highlight about Hindu thought, it would be this:

“Rather than focusing on prohibiting various actions, the Hindu ethic… emphasizes the presupposition that all are ultimately interconnected, that each of us has a particular dharma a commitment to ahimsa, and that karma ultimately holds each of us responsible for all of our actions” (108).

Dharma is difficult to define but essentially informs people how to behave. Individuals should live on “a path of ahisma, ‘no harm’ or nonviolence’” and act with nonmaleficence and benevolence (73) with consideration to the greater good of society because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Individuals should also live with respect to karma, which means “action,” that fundamentally “ is the cause of current situations and the determinant for the future… making humans directly responsible for both the positive and negative fruits of their actions” (73).

These elements are highlighted by the Mahabharata, a wide-read and influential text that includes narratives that inform Hindu and Indian way of life. For example, if we look at stories about Kunti, Madri, and Gandhari, we find that matriarchs participate in actions that can be related to reproductive technology. Kunti rejected niyoga, which is a “levirate marriage or traditional practice that allows a women to have sexual intercourse with a man other than her husband for this express purpose [of producing heirs]” (35) and instead, she used a mantra gifted by the God Durvasas to produce three sons engendered by the gods of her choice. This was a form of genetic selection and models modern sperm donation. Niyoga reminds me of Jewish law, which allows temporary marriage for the purposes of conceiving children. Similarly, Madri used Kunti’s mantra to produces sons engendered by the God of twins. Gandhari’s story involves an extended pregnancy that produced a ball of clotted blood. After asking a God to give her the 100 children she was promised instead of a clotted ball, Gandhari was given instructions that allowed her to create 100 embryos out of the clotted blood, and she used clay pots to incubate the embryos. A connection could be drawn from this story to “’artificial wombs’ that gestate the developing embryos until they are brought to term” (46) as well as modern day “Clomid (clomiphene citrate), IVF, GIFT, ZIFT, etc. which often result in development of multiple embryos” (47).

These narratives illustrate the importance of procreation and kinship for the purposes of continuing the family line. Bhattacharyya says that “there are few if any limitations on the utilization of creative means in one’s attempt to produce [a] son,” and the Mahabharata would condone surrogacy, sperm donation, gene selection, and embryonic manipulation based on the stories (51-52). Unlike the Catholic Church’s clear stance against conception without sexual intercourse, the Mahabharata does not consider the act of sexual intercourse necessary for procreation. Additionally, the matriarchs of the Mahabharata stories take control pretty much as equally as the Gods. This contrasts the stories in the Bible where God takes charge of procreation and humans to have little to no control. Biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah, Issac and Rebekah, Rachel and Jacob, Elizabeth and Zechariah as well as Mary illustrate God’s control over procreation. To that end, the stories of Tamar and Judah, Naomi and Ruth show us that humans can still take some control.

Bhattacharyya shifts from narrative to pragmatic bioethics and introduces us to the case of Jaycee Buzzanca. John and Luanne, a married couple, decided to use IVF to conceive Jaycee, and commissioned Ms. Snell to be the surrogate mother. After the fact, John claimed “dissolution of marriage” and did not wish to financially support Jaycee (78), but the California Court of Appeals ruled that “even in the absence of a genetic or biological relationship, parental relationships may be established when the intended parents initiate and consent to reproductive medical procedures” (79). The court considered individual rights and what would be best for individuals, which reflects American cosmology.

Hinduism, on the other hand, puts emphasis on individuals in the context of their communities and societies. Hinduism does not construct a rigid definition of family and does not require people to be blood-related in order to be considered family. “Family” could include immediate family members, extended family members, neighbors, or community members. A father would not necessarily need to be biologically related because Hinduism is more concerns with the father that “invests time and energy in the process of raising the child” (92). To that end, since John intended on creating Jaycee and was circumstantially able to provide a means of support for Jaycee, then John was obligated to do so according to the dharma of parenthood. Hinduism emphasizes that for the good of society, parents like John need to see their commitments through and take responsibility for their children. It is important to point out that, unlike the Catholic Church whose opinion on conception and responsibility to children is black and white, Hinduism dabbles in liminal space and considers circumstance, intent, dharma, karma, and ahimsa, which can modify the results and ethical implications of cases. All in all, if we take lessons and make bioethical interpretations and applications based on the Mahabharata, we should make decisions and carry out actions that maximize elements of dharma, karma, and ahimsa.

Reading Magical Progeny, Modern Technology, I wonder how the American healthcare system can include voices that have historically been left out and integrate these voices into its systems. Do medical schools have education on medical ethics involving culture and religion? Should healthcare workers be held responsible for understanding different cosmologies or should religious consideration and consult be left to pastors, rabbis, and chaplains?