The theme of this week’s readings and film was the topic of motherhood and what motherhood may mean in different contexts. “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health” showed how motherhood can motivate individuals to make a change in their lives. Outside of natural pregnancy, surrogacy, and more broadly reproductive technology, is a well debated topic with some individuals holding the position that surrogacy should exist, whereas others strongly oppose the idea of a woman bearing another woman’s child. The readings “Reproductive Technologies and Surrogacy: A Feminist Perspective” and “New Reproductive Technologies: Protestant Modes of Thought” as well as the film Made in India brought in different types of arguments either for or against surrogacy and reproductive technology and how religion, feminism and personal circumstance go into different understandings of what motherhood is.
Although pregnancy is something that can be planned, as many individuals ‘try for a baby’ or time procreation in order to become pregnant, it often takes time and there is a risk for becoming pregnant when you do not want to. Unplanned or unintentional pregnancy is thought to be a negative, and is subsequently correlated with things such as a poorer mental state, a bad prenatal environment, and an abusive environment for the child. The reading “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health” displays the opposite and described how pregnancy is more than being either “intended or unintended,” but rather a combination of other things that have to be at work in order to “accommodate the mixed intentions and ambivalence, contingency, and sociocultural or religious constraints that characterize many women’s reproductive experiences” (Seeman, Roushdy-Hammady, Hardison-Moody, Thompson, Gaydos & Hogue, 2016). In addition, Seeman et al. (2016) aim to describe the influence of religion and spirituality on decision-making and planning as it relates to reproduction in low-income women, as well as describe the difference between religion and spirituality. This ethnographic study followed residents of Naomi’s House, an “urban shelter specializing in care for families with young children” (Seeman et al., 2016) over the course of fourteen months. The research was looking to “explore the everyday ways that women navigated and talked about their experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and the challenges of homelessness” (Seeman et al., 2016). The women in the current study “expressed ambivalence with respect to the very notion of human control over reproductive contexts” (Seeman et al., 2016). This was demonstrated by one of the women in the shelter who, despite her hesitation to do so, received a tubal ligation. Her hesitation was not due to the fact that the procedure was ‘unbiblical’, but rather because it “represented […] an arrogation of the divine prerogative to send children into the world” (Seeman et al., 2016). This means that the tubal ligation goes against a woman’s given ability to have children. When the women became pregnant, despite their use of contraceptives, many of them ultimately determined that their unplanned pregnancies were ‘meant to be’ or ‘a blessing’ because it signified ‘God’s plan’ and “respect for divine initiative in creating life” (Seeman et al., 2016).
A lot of the women described using this shelter or their developing children as a ‘fresh start’ for themselves and their building family. The women did not “minimize the problems associated with homelessness,” but they were continuously able to “look back on their pregnancies as blessings rather than failures or catastrophes” (Seeman et al., 2016). The few women that planned their pregnancies, “despite their youth, socioeconomic hardship and overall lack of stability — challenge the common use of planning discourse by defining pregnancy in those challenging circumstances as an empowering realignment of the social world” (Seeman et al., 2016). In other words, although these women were in tough situations, they thought of their children as a way to get out of whatever situation they had previously been in and build a better one.
Another aim of the study was to describe the difference between being spiritual and being religious. Some of the women considered themselves as spiritual, but not religious. One woman described being spiritual as having a relationship with God whereas religion is “ritual practice and disdain for sinners” (Seeman et al., 2016) In other words, being spiritual is the physical relationship one shares with God while religion is a set of rules and practices that are adhered to by a group of people. The article concludes by comparing the terminology used to describe reproduction in the midst of unfortunate circumstances (i.e. violence) and the word most prominently used by these women: ‘blessing’. The article states that “blessing is […] comparable (though it is by no means identical) to tropes of ‘luck’ and ‘destiny’ that are central to women’s narratives about reproductive agency in other settings” (Seeman et al., 2016). This means that although the word blessing is different than the words luck and destiny, they all represent some outside agency, or something beyond human control, at work. To these women, motherhood was the reason for them to change the situation they were in to build a life for their child.
Motherhood is not always defined by a drive to change one’s unfortunate situation. “Reproductive Technologies and Surrogacy: A Feminist Perspective” by Barbara Rothman argues that surrogacy goes against her ideas of feminism and motherhood. She begins by defining patriarchy as a “system in which men rule as fathers,” which means that “the relationship between a father and his son is the defining social relationship” (Rothman, 2016). As a result of this, “women [are considered to] bear the children of men” (Rothman, 2016) This implies that children are solely a product of their father’s sperm or ‘seed’, and are not a product of their mother. She moves on by stating that “reproductive technologists were forced to confront the fact of women’s seed” (Rothman, 1991). In other words, in order to develop reproductive technology, technologists had to accept that women provide half of the genetic material to the child and that the child is not solely a product of their father. Since women have some of the “privileges of patriarchy,” through having ‘seed’ in their children like men, then the possibility exists for women to “have the use of wives” (Rothman, 1991) like men, and describes having a surrogate as the same as having a ‘wife’ and ‘buying’ patriarchal privileges which “does not work in the interests of women as a whole” (Rothman, 1991). Not only do women have at most fifty percent of the rights to her child, men hold the power, as men “repeatedly win custody battles at much higher rates than women,” and are more likely to remarry than women are after a divorce (Rothman, 1991). This reinforces the idea that the father is the ‘seed’ and the mother is the ‘dirt’ in which the seed grows.
Society responds to needing more children through “[preventing women] from avoiding pregnancy,” which “leads to the control of women’s bodies” (Rothman, 1991). This idea leaves surrogacy as the using of women’s bodies in order to fit the needs of society. Here, she is saying that society is looking out for its own best interest, not the woman’s. Rothman concludes by saying that “parenthood itself is an intimate social relationship wherever it develops and between whomever it develops,” and surrogacy should be rejected because the surrogate’s “nurturing of that child with the blood and nutrients of her body established her parenthood of that child” (Rothman, 1991). Motherhood to Rothman is the physical nurturing of the child as it develops in the womb. Therefore, the woman who bears the child is the mother and to hire a surrogate is to purchase a child through buying patriarchal privilege.
Surrogacy and other reproductive technologies have been considered through the writings in the Bible, and there continues to be disagreement on whether reproductive technology is acceptable. In Gilbert Meilaender’s “New Reproductive Technologies: Protestant Modes of Thought,” Meilaender analyzes multiple theological considerations from protestant thinkers. The reading begins with the writings of McDowell. She believes that the Bible “places high value upon procreation,” in the sense that “children [are] our primary link to the future and as a fulfillment of God’s promised blessing upon humankind” (Meilaender, 1991). However, despite the importance of children, they, as well as family, are not to be of highest importance. This is due to the fact that the “first and greatest command is not to have a family but to love God” (Meilaender, 1991). This does not mean that family should not be highly regarded, but instead means that although family should besought after, one’s love for their family should not surpass one’s love and devotion towards God. Surrogacy, to McDowell, is a child being seen as “an entity created in order to be given to others” (Meilaender, 1991) and should be seen as inappropriate. In contrast, Simmons writes that “biotechnical parenting” allows parents to be solid in their decision of having a child and that allows them to see their child as a ‘gift’ because the child’s birth was intentional (Meilaender, 1991). The reading continues with Smith, who argues two things: 1.) that surrogacy separates biology from familial sexual love and 2.) that the use of reproductive technology closes reproduction off from one partner. His first argument is saying that the child is intentionally being placed in a situation where their biological origins (developing in a surrogate, sperm/egg donation, or another use of reproductive technology) is different than the family in which they grow, and this makes his world “fractured” (Meilaender, 1991). Smith’s second argument explains that in using different types of reproductive technology, specifically with the use of gamete donation, one partner is excluded from the production of the child, making the partners unequal. Ramsey argues against surrogacy because humans are limited, yet have become “self-creators,” which makes us “free … [but] at the same time limitlessly used” (Meilaender, 1991). Here, Ramsey is saying that although humans have the freedom to create beings through reproductive technology, humans become ‘slaves’ to the technology that is available. In contrast, Fletcher is in support of reproductive technology because “kinship is essentially a matter of human interaction and will, of love and not of blood” (Meilaender, 1991). Here, Fletcher is saying that biology is not the sole determining factor for kinship, but is rather the created bond between a group of people. The reading continues with O’Donovan who believes that reproductive technology is ‘making’ humans which leaves the child a product of doctor’s creation. In O’Donovan’s opinion, the creation of children via reproductive technology deems humans as creators, which is a problem because only God is the creator. Meilaender summarized the thoughts of a few protestant thinkers. However, different from the other readings, Meilaender did not come to any conclusions about parenthood or formulate any opinions about reproductive technology, but instead provided readers with an overview of varying works.
Beyond religion, circumstance guides much of what people view as right or wrong or pushes them to do things despite what they may believe. The film Made in India tracks an American couple, Lisa and Brian, who could not naturally have a child. They were unable to afford surrogacy in the US, so instead went through a business to hire a surrogate, at a lower price, in India. The surrogate they hire, Aasia, is illiterate, uneducated, and trying to find money to support her children because her husband’s job was not bringing in the money it used to. The film shows Lisa and Brian travelling to India and the surprise of the different environment they experienced in the impoverished region of India Aasia lived in. A key facet of the movie was the confusion expressed by both Aasia and her husband about the procedure of surrogacy. The main focus of the company that Lisa and Brian used is to keep surrogacy as affordable as possible to Americans, and at the time that this film was created, this type of ‘outsourced’ surrogacy was becoming popular and had little regulations. The film was powerful in that watchers got a very detailed picture of the American couple and their surrogate. Watchers could see each step of everything that was happening and hear the thoughts of the couple as well as the surrogate through interviews. Lisa and Brian were willing to do whatever it took in order to have a child, despite not being about to talk to or oversee Aasia throughout the whole time she was pregnant.
This week’s works were very diverse, but were able to paint a strong picture of differing views of motherhood and what that means, the lengths people are willing to take in order to have a child through reproductive technology, and the implications of those actions. I believe that “Blessing Unintended Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health” was a strong study showing an unexpected view of unplanned pregnancy. It was nice to read about how a child was such a strong turning point for a group of women. I think it would be interesting to see a similar study in different groups of people with differing religious beliefs to see how differing religion beliefs and differing situational factors influence women’s thoughts on unplanned pregnancy. With regards to Rothman’s “Reproductive Technologies and Surrogacy: A Feminist Perspective,” I believe that she wrote a lot about her beliefs about patriarchy in order to come to her conclusion that motherhood is whoever nurtured the child, which, in the case of surrogacy, would be the surrogate. I had a hard time understanding how the rest of her writing was related to her conclusion. Meilaender’s “New Reproductive Technologies: Protestant Modes of Thought” was an interesting read because it brought a plethora of readings that did not share the same thoughts. It was interesting to read about the theme throughout the reading of being both finite and free in the sense that we were created to have a free will, however we are limited as humans and how that related to reproductive technology. Although it was a good read, it was harder to comprehend because it was a summary of multiple works and I did not read the original works. The viewpoints of the different writers were harder to understand because I did not get that full picture of what each person was saying, and instead only saw what Meilaender pointed out. In addition, I have a rather limited view of the Bible. I am newly finding my own understanding of Christianity, so I do not have the strongest foundation of the concepts that based the theological thought shown throughout the reading. I continue to have the same question for the argument against reproductive technology in religion especially. How are things such as sperm and egg donation different from adoption? This reading talked about intentionality, and stated that reproductive technology is intentionally creating a child from sperm or eggs outside of marriage. Another argument was that adoption makes the couples ‘equal’ whereas with sperm and egg donation the partners are ‘unequal’. However, these arguments have not persuaded me. Lastly, the film Made in India was extremely strong, I think, because we could follow the couple and follow the surrogate. I have mixed feelings about whether or not I felt what the couple did was okay. It is hard because Aasia did get money and medical treatment and Lisa and Brian were just doing what they had to do in order to have a child, but is it okay for Lisa and Brian to ‘outsource’ and pay less to someone in a different country for the same services that would cost substantially more in the US? If that is exploitation, how do we begin to think about all of the medical procedures outside of reproduction that Americans seek outside of the country? Is that also exploitation even though the individual we are paying gets the money that they asked for?