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.