Missing Voices, Missing Wombs: Reproductive Technologies and Women of Color

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Missing Voices, Missing Wombs: Reproductive Technologies and Women of Color

Samantha Martinez

In the 1960s, Second-Wave feminists not only continued to fight for gender equality in the social and political sphere, but also, for the right to use contraception and for safe and legal abortions. The patriarchal systems of authority, mainly the church and state, imposed strong restrictions forbidding birth control and abortion. Women eventually fought for and won these rights in fiercely contested court battles. Even today although abortion is legal it is constantly publicly debated, and women's autonomy to do what they deem necessary or right with their body is challenged. Later, in the late 80s and the 90s, Third-Wave feminists such as Cherrie Moraga and Audre Lorde challenged the mostly white, heterosexual feminist movement to confront their racism, classism and homophobia in order to unite all women in the overarching women's rights movement, insisting on inclusion of these voices as a matter of equality and social justice.

Reproductive technologies is the current label for all forms of "current and anticipated uses of technology in human reproduction." These technologies have progressed rapidly since scientists and researchers began manipulating DNA and delving into genetic engineering. As represented in high profile news stories of famous actors for instance, they are often used to help infertile couples conceive children through in-vitro fertilization, which is the process by which an egg and sperm is fertilized in a lab and the resulting embryo is implanted in the woman. Today, the term reproductive technologies encompass the various forms of biotechnological procedures that allow women to produce children who might not otherwise be able to. These technologies range from in-vitro fertilization to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, a procedure that uses genetic testing on the embryo to find genetic illnesses. Currently, these technologies are costly and are only available to certain people, namely, privileged, white, heterosexual and most times married women. Using a third wave feminist framework, in particular the influence of Audre Lorde, this paper will discuss the lack of availability and use of reproductive technologies in women of color communities. Several areas will be highlighted, such as the lack of consideration for the real needs of women from diverse backgrounds with regard to these technologies; the issue of invisibility from promotion of such technologies, and reasons women of color give for not using reproductive technologies.

In our culture, we tend to think about liberty and freedom as important features of our society and hold these values dear to us in all areas of our lives. We often use the terms "freedom" and "liberty" in connection to discussions about individual choices and agency. This is important to recognize in a discussion about reproductive "rights" given the history of discriminatory practices that exclude some members of our society from enjoying the freedom and liberty that is so often cited. The rights of women have often been suppressed or regulated. This is why first wave feminist fought for equality for women. It was important to challenge male dominance and how it has adversely affected women. Third wave feminists bring new perspectives and challenges to the way we talk about rights for women because past feminists have excluded discussions about class or race or homophobia. To third wave feminists, these concerns should be concerns for ALL women, or all those who call themselves feminists. So, a discussion about how we should be free to use whatever reproductive technologies are available is not appropriate for all since this conception of freedom is based on a dominant discourse of rights.

Most users of these technologies are white, privileged and heterosexual. In an essay titled, "Race and the New Reproduction," Dorothy E. Roberts argues that "because of financial barriers, cultural preferences, and professional manipulation, the new methods of reproduction are used almost exclusively by white people." By professional manipulation, Roberts is talking about doctors or other medical providers that steer women of color away from positive uses of reproductive technologies where they can remedy fertility issues to pushing for other procedures that would render the woman unable to reproduce. She wants us to consider these technologies as more "conforming than liberating" in that they reinforce a heteronormative ideal, one that idealizes the nuclear family. She reminds us "[f]eminists have powerfully demonstrated that the new reproduction enforces traditional patriarchal roles that privilege men's genetic desires and objectify women's procreative capacity." In addition, she points out, these technologies help reinforce a "racial hierarchy" in America because technology such as IVF are inaccessible to Black people. She provides extant examples of this when describing how the media first talked about IVF such as when the first IVF child was born and was displayed on the talk show Donahue. To Roberts, this display, of the perfect child—white, blond-haired and blue-eyed—reinforced for Blacks that IVF was not something they should or could use.

To further her account of the inaccessibility of treatments like IVF, I researched what the actual costs of these procedures might be. I searched for infertility clinics in the Pennsylvania area and tried to find actual numbers for the costs of these procedures. What I found was that many did not break down the costs and pointed instead to ways to pay for these services, for example, taking out loans, borrowing from family, or tapping into retirement accounts. Finally, I found one site that listed the varying costs of procedures, drugs, and lab work. It appears the starting price for in-vitro fertilization is $10,000—this is without costs for drugs or lab work . Insurance companies might cover these procedures, but with many caveats that prevent single women or lesbians from utilizing insurance coverage for their procedures.

Roberts asks us to consider the historical and social implications of reproductive technologies on Black people and other "marginalized" communities. While she does not negate the usefulness of these technologies for many (such as infertile women, and lesbians) she asks that those promoting these technologies make them available to a wider audience. This is necessary for women who are in need of treatment for infertility but cannot access this treatment because of costs, misconceptions about the services, or other problems as discussed by Roberts. She suggests that policymakers consider, "What does it mean that we live in a country in which white women disproportionately use expensive technologies to enable them to bear children, while Black women disproportionately undergo surgery that prevents them from being able to bear any?" As Roberts suggests, reproductive technologies and how they are marketed and used present a dichotomy of interests. On one hand, white women are encouraged to use this technology to help in procreation, while Black women are forced to endure surgery that renders them infertile. Roberts provides the example that Black women are often told they should go ahead with procedures that will render them impotent (such as a hysterectomy) when other possible treatment might not require such a drastic choice.
Many communities of color are suspicious of scientific pursuits because of the history of abuse perpetrated on these communities in the name of science and medicine. For example, in the United States we have a history of using poor people of color for experimentation. An example of this was the 40-year study of Black men with syphilis from Tuskegee, Alabama, or the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women during the initial push for industrialization of the island of Puerto Rico by the American government.

Women around the globe have also insisted on challenging how and what new reproductive technologies are manufactured and to whom. The Association of Women's Rights in Development, an organization committed to informing and mobilizing women around the world on women's rights, has written in detail about facing the challenges of new reproductive technologies. They pose the following questions: "How are NRT's [New Reproductive Technologies] tested, marketed, promoted?" "Are we becoming more accustomed to turning to techno-fixes for other problems?" and "[W]ho makes decisions about the creation and control of NRT's?"

AWID provides a historical context by which women of color/third world women have been mistreated by the medical establishment. They have been used as research subjects for these NRT's often without consent or concern for the well-being of these women. AWID is not only concerned that these technologies come about at the expense of third world women's lives but the larger issue of the commodification of women's bodies and reproductive capabilities. They also stress as Roberts did that "fundamental ideologies seek to impose an ideal of the family or of women that limits reproductive rights and autonomy." Also, they remind us that most NRT's are developed with a "Western-based model" which means that it is men in medicine that are designing new ways to "control women's bodies" , in essence, reproduction. AWID wants women around the world not to blindly accept NRT's and implore us to question how these technologies affect our lives.

Reproductive technologies can be both beneficial and harmful to women. This paper discussed issues of accessibility, invisibility, and the mistreatment of women of color in the medical establishment to highlight reasons why all women need to take a stronger stance and control of the way new reproductive technologies are marketed and developed. As a third wave feminist I firmly believe it is necessary to question why we choose to talk about reproductive technologies in terms of freedom of choice instead of talking about ways to make healthcare more accessible to all, or working to combat the conditions that might lead to problems with infertility such as poverty, malnutrition, etc. Should we be advancing technologies and using our resources for the few who can access them, or should we be remedying the problems that exist for a larger group of people? Roberts addressed the issue of accessibility of reproductive technologies and I see several ways in which the medical establishment could do more outreach to those who might actually need their services. I believe a grass-roots approach is most appropriate since many communities seek advice from each other either in churches or community organizations, even in beauty salons and barber shops. Advocates for safer sex find ways to do this by posting flyers in neighborhoods, or sponsoring free events. This could also be a vehicle for promotion of reproductive technologies. A further step is needed to address the costs, but this requires a comprehensive effort by many people in our society. Can we say universal health care?

Further research is needed on the effects of reproductive technologies on women of color and third world women and further analysis of the needs of these women with regard to what technologies are most useful for women in these communities.


Works Cited:
Association for Women's Rights in Development. "Facing the Challenges of New Reproductive Technologies." facts and issues No. 8, June 2004.

Roberts, Dorothy E. "Race and the New Reproduction." Rpt. Moral Issues in Global Perspectives. Christine Koggel, Ed. Broadview Press: 1999

The Tuskegee Timeline from the Center for Disease Control Website http://www.cdc.gov/nchstp/od/tuskegee/time.htm . Accessed 11/23/2005

Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia. http://www.wikipedia.org Accessed 11/23/2005

Women in World History Website, George Mason University http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/lessons/lesson16/lesson16.php?s=0 Accessed 11/23/2005


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