Kinship Narratives and New Reproductive Technologies

Through the extensive ethnographic inquiry and “thick description” of the Module 2 readings, we can see the various ways narratives of kinship effect and shape reproductive decision-making across the globe. Although the calculus behind kinship is widely debated, kinship relationships are foundational to both marriage and reproduction, as well as society as a whole. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, “kinship is defined in terms of genetic relatedness…” where “you’re either someone’s mother or you aren’t” (McKinnon 107). As such, evolutionary psychologists assert “a direct link between kinship categories and biological relatedness…” (McKinnon 109). In contrast to this perspective, however, ‘constructionists’ like McKinnon view genetics as but one mode through which kinship relations are formed. Under this conception of kinship, “the fact of ‘treating one another well’ says it all: the relationship is created and maintained by acts of nurturance and solicitude…” (McKinnon 111). Through patterns of altruism, nurturance, and an allocation of resources, then, kinship transcends the bounds of any one genetic relationship. 

Although McKinnon provides the multifaceted use of kinship vocabulary as evidence that “the mind is a flexible and creative tool capable of creating diverse cultural forms” – where a female child may be addressed as ‘mother’ or a surrogate father as ‘dad’ – Shapiro asserts that such extensions “are grounded in native appreciations of procreation…” (Shapiro 140). While such kinship vocabulary necessarily extends beyond biology, Shapiro argues that kinship is, nevertheless, dependent upon, and therefore derived from, genetic calculi.

Kinship narratives such as these play a particularly prominent role in shaping cultural attitudes towards adoption, IVF, birth-control, and other reproductive technologies. Throughout the Muslim world, “attitudes toward family formation are closely tied to religious teachings that stress the importance of ‘purity of lineage,’” posing a quandary for couples faced with infertility. For both Shi’ites and Sunnis, “the very concept of social parenthood is culturally contingent and is deeply embedded in ‘local moral worlds,’…[which] govern ideas about the parenting of ‘nonbiological children, including those conceived through biotechnological means” (Inhorn 96). As such, many of the men discussed “could not accept the idea of social fatherhood – arguing that an adopted or donor child ‘won’t be my son’…” (Inhorn 98). Especially among Sunni men, genetic relationship is closely tied to kinship. 

Likewise, kinship also plays a prominent role in shaping the reproductive practices of Orthodox Jews, shaping the ways in which they navigate the tension between the traditionally divine realm of procreation and “the ability to take charge of and fully mange reproduction” (Taragin-Zeller 372). Through the construction of a middle-ground or grey-area of decision-making, many of Taragin-Zeller’s interviewees coped with the anxieties of reproduction, as well as the tension it posed against their faith, by constructing “a decision-making apparatus that takes into consideration the desires of the self, communal mores, and the input of external players,” the most important of which being God (Taragin-Zeller 379).