Last week, Hanna sent me a news story from The Guardian’s science page about a woman in England who has agreed to donate her uterus to her infertile daughter in hopes that the organ transplant will allow her daughter to carry a pregnancy to term:
A woman in Nottingham has agreed to donate her womb to her infertile daughter if doctors gain permission to attempt the groundbreaking transplant operation.
Eva Ottosson, 56, the director of a lighting company, said she would offer her uterus to her 25-year-old daughter, Sara, who cannot have children because of a serious birth defect that left her without a womb.
If the operation goes ahead – at a hospital in Sweden – Sara could conceive and carry a child in the same womb she herself was born from, but serious technical hurdles must be cleared if the procedure is to succeed.The operation is experimental and still at a premature stage in animal studies. Only a handful of mice have been born from transplanted wombs and little work has been done in larger animals, such as pigs, rabbits and monkeys.
This story seemed to warrant a Harpy Seminar discussion, so we set one up with the following questions as prompts:
1. What are the boundaries between medical ethics and personal choice? Are there situations in which doctors should tell consenting patients “no” to an elective surgery?
2. What does this story say about the powerful normative pressures in our society concerning childbirth, motherhood, and family creation?
Marie Anelle: Well…..I guess this goes under the banner of “it’s their choice, their decision and if they know what they’re getting into, fine”….but this simultaneously enrages me and gives me the creeps. Enrages me because this goes on with the narrative of how women are supposed to have their babies, and babies for all. That you’re less of a woman if you don’t give birth, yet certain groups of people are constantly screaming about adoption being an option. It’s part of that Catch-22. Creepy because could you imagine looking at your kid one day and be like “where you came from was passed down from mother to mother”?
BeckySharper: I definitely think there are times when doctors should tell consenting patients “no” to elective surgery, although there will always be problems with that because there will always be doctors willing to push the envelope, and doctors who will not perform certain procedures because they consider them wrong in some way (remember, organ transplant and IVF were both extremely controversial and widely condemned when they first became possible).
I usually think that if a woman is making an informed choice about her reproductive system, it ain’t my business. It’s also not for me to judge whether there’s one better way to be a mother. It bothers me that our society is so heavily entrenched in the idea that biological motherhood is the best kind, but conversely, it bothers me when people tell women that “you can always adopt” because it minimizes her feelings about her body and motherhood. Basically, I guess, I just hate it when people get all up in women’s business telling them how and when and on what terms they get to be mothers.
I definitely get the yucks out of this simply because…that’s her mom’s uterus! She used to live in there! And now it’s going in her abdomen! It’s…uh…the Circle of Life? No thanks. But, of course, my having the yucks about what other people do with their bodies is my problem and not theirs.
I will say that I wonder why they seem to have given up on surrogacy as an option if it’s vital to them that the child be their biological child. Money?
Marie Anelle: I can definitely see money being an issue if I knew for sure that a uterus transplant was covered, but something tells me that something this elective would not only have to be paid for, but really expensive. I mean, there’s really no good reason to have your own children to begin with (five years on and I’m still trying to find one) and I think it’s really sad that women feel that they have to have their OWN kids to feel whole, but I’m still not comfortable completely judging the situation because I know how rough it can be to answer for your infertility/lack of wanting kids/even having kids.
……but STILL, your mother’s uterus?!
BeckySharper: Personally, if I couldn’t have children biologically, it would be devastating to me, not because I need it to feel whole or to realize my identity as a ciswoman or whatever, but because I want that experience, both physically and emotionally. And I come from a large blended family with many relatives who are not genetically related to me, so it’s not like I only value one kind of family, either.
I find that the people who downplay my desire to have children are usually either people who have children of their own—not speaking of you, here MA, just in general—or people who have never really wanted them anyway. When they try to convince me of how I really don’t need to give birth I always go “well, that’s easy for you to say.” It would mean a great deal more if it came from someone who had wanted them but was unable to have them biologically…and yet, I’ve found those people generally don’t make that argument to me, probably because they know how painful it is to not be able to have your own children.
That said, there’s no fucking way I’d have someone else’s uterus transplanted into me in order to make that happen. Especially the uterus I lived in 36 years ago.
annajcook: I like your point, Becky, that “Basically, I guess, I just hate it when people get all up in women’s business telling them how and when and on what terms they get to be mothers…” and I do think that a discussion about the ethics of infertility and reproduction can and should be had without condemning specific women for the choices that they’ve made vis a vis their own families. We can never know what factors went into it for a specific person.
I think my broader social concern comes from several places. Like with the rise of C-sections, I feel like we’ve normalized major surgery to the point where people going into it feel like it’s not a big deal. It is a big deal, and could be seriously life-threatening with major complications. Even when it’s life-saving (my mom had a hysterectomy because of cancer) it’s a totally shit experience. So I have a difficult time wrapping my head around someone doing this on a voluntary basis. The other thing I find worrying is the extent to which our pressure on women to be mothers and specifically be fertile NO MATTER WHAT is leading to self-endangering behavior because bio-motherhood is seen as less and less of a choice if you want to fulfill the social role of “woman.” Not that we should deny any person who wants to give birth that experience because of larger social trends, but … I find the astronomical rise of medically-assisted conception and childbirth to be an issue worth interrogating from both a feminist perspective and a public health perspective.
Marie Anelle: Becky, I think the disconnect for some people who’ve gone through pregnancy is that when we hear people who want to go through the experience we kinda go “….why?”. It is pretty difficult to understand that desire, but not understanding should never equal shaming or wanting to take that away from someone, if that makes any sense.
Anna, to be the real issue is exactly what you said about endangering oneself because a lot of women are taught that bio-motherhood is everything. The other undertone to that kind of thinking that disturbs me is that it’s almost like saying that non-bio moms or moms who don’t give birth are less than. A mom is a mom no matter how she chose to become one, it shouldn’t matter how she got there.
annajcook: Marie, about the less-than … I feel like that goes for the children in these situations too. Hanna pointed out that it’s pretty shitty for the young woman in this situation to cast adoption as something she’d only consider if the surgery fails and/or conception fails. Not that this isn’t the order in which many people approach adoption … but I feel like framing it this way, as the fall-back, inevitably makes children who come into families via adoption feel less wanted. (I say this in the aggregate rather than the specific … I know families wherein children by adoption are totally loved and integrated into the extended family with no reservations). Families should be honored as families no matter how they’re made … and narratives like this one end up reinforcing a hierarchy of ideal vs. less-than-ideal ways of family creation.
BeckySharper: I think there’s a huge feminist question about how far is too far to go in the pursuit of motherhood but it’s such a sticky wicket. Living in the Patriarchy, it’s very difficult to separate our feelings about motherhood from the Role of Motherhood as its been forced on us.
Personally, I’m less bothered about the rise of medically-assisted conception and childbirth. The rise in elective C-sections is a negative because I think it unnecessarily medicalizes birth, but frankly, if it weren’t for medically assisted childbirth, a hell of a lot more women and babies would die or suffer harm, as still happens in other parts of the world. And I have a hard time seeing medically assisted conception as a negative or something that’s being abused—IVF is not being forced on women; the people who are doing it are people who genuinely want children. Returning to the bad old days of women having little medical recourse for infertility or high-risk gestation/childbirth isn’t desirable from a feminist perspective.
I think judging women for medically assisted contraception also begs the question of whether we will judge them for medically assisted CONTRAception, which is something that’s regarded as sacrosanct by the feminist movement. Is that wandering too far off-topic?
annajcook: I definitely agree with you, Becky, that medical intervention when necessary can help save and improve lives. However, I think that culturally Americans have come to view medical options as de facto better options … and they aren’t always. Add to this that the medical profession isn’t necessarily inclined to raise questions about people’s desire for intervention and often there is an echo-chamber effect. Again, I emphasize that I am not anti-surgery, doctors, hospitals, or Western medicine. I just feel like we imbue modern medicine with near-Godlike qualities sometimes, and that this can often lead to poor outcomes.
I don’t think the issue of questioning women’s reproductive choices is “too far off-topic.” In fact, it seems central to the topic! I feel, though, that there must be a way to have a public conversation about the cultural narratives that feed into our perceptions of these choices (and their relative desirability) without deriding any one woman’s individual choice … and CERTAINLY without mandating that all women make certain choices by law.
BeckySharper: I just get so knee-jerk reactive whenever people start saying “oh, women shouldn’t be able to have babies this way”. It’s like I have Patriarchy PTSD.
foureleven: This story creeps me out. Personally, I wouldn’t do it, but it’s her choice so, there’s that. I have to agree with MA about people who feel as if children born biologically are somehow more so their own children as opposed to ones who were adopted. I had a conversation with my cousin about this and he refused to adopt because it meant “the child wasn’t really his.” I didn’t understand that at all. He’s in his late 40s and he basically spent the entirety of his 40s trying to find a woman who was unmarried and didn’t have any prior children to bear his heavenly, biological children for him. He succeeded. And his desperation for biological children honestly creeped me out as well. It’s hard for me to say that I won’t judge him because obviously I am. And it’s hard for me to say that I won’t judge this woman because I’m doing that too.
Then again, it’s hard for me to rationalize wanting to have birth biologically because, as MA says, the entire process sounds painful. I’d like to skip the nine months of suffering if I can.
Also, like Anna, I do have an issue with the fact that there are so many more c-sections these days. I have quite a lot of former co-workers who wanted to have their children born on a specific day so they scheduled a c-section for that day as opposed to waiting around and seeing when the child would be born. That kind of creeps me out as well. Again, it’s hard not to judge in these situations. I mean, would you love your child any less if they were born on November 1 as opposed to Halloween? (That is an actual debate I had with someone. She scheduled her c-section for Halloween.)
PhDork: So I guess I’m in the minority here, in that I am not at all fazed or bothered by the whole “mom’s uterus!!!” thing. I question if such a transplant will work, but perhaps the genetic similarities between mother’s tissues and daughter’s are what will prevent rejection/complication (not to say this isn’t complicated).
I’m just rolling my eyes that this is even something that humans–multiple humans, no less–want to do. Wanting to have major surgeries that may, or far more likely may not, work, wanting to experience pregnancy so badly that one will go to enormous lengths (and costs) to attempt it, wanting a bio-kid, etc. I don’t get any of it.
But yeah, as Becky pointed out, it’s because I’m not interested in kids myself and find the pedestal/trap that women deal with re: motherhood is such a huge disaster, no matter what you do, that I think it best to shun as much over-complication and bullshit surrounding it as one can. And this is a like a giant neon sign saying “MOAR DRAMA!”
Do I think it’s ill-advised? Absolutely. Do I think it’s a (in some ways understandable) testament to the fuck-up-ed-ness of our culture on the subject of women and motherhood? Absolutely.
Marie Anelle: I dunno, there’s something nagging at me that something in society has gone horrifically wrong for women when women start resorting to these tactics for the sake of bio kids. Like I feel like the shame shouldn’t be on the woman or going through with it, the shame is on society. Does that make sense?
annajcook: I think it makes sense, Marie. It’s always tricky, obviously, talking about how our personal choices and preferences are shaped by societal expectations or cultural narratives … without that talk making people feel shamed for choosing life paths that match those expectations or narratives. It can be difficult to sort out: “do I want this because of me, or do I want this because I’m told I should want it?” and to the extent it’s because you’ve been conditioned to want it … does that mean you should resist the conditioning? or at some point just decide, “well, I might as well go along with the ride…”
This happens with sexual fantasy too (sliding slightly off-topic for a minute). To the extent that we are turned on by, say, fantasies about coercive sex … should we feel ashamed of that because it’s not “feminist”? No. Should we explore why we might find that arousing given the culture we live in? Possibly. Should it stop us from enjoying the arousal we feel from those fantasies? I don’t think so, unless it’s making us personally unhappy in some way.
Similarly with birth options … Should we resist all medically-assisted childbirth on feminist principles? Obviously not. Should we question why we seek to give birth in certain kinds of ways given the culture we live in? Absolutely. Should the fact that our choices are influenced by our culture mean we should avoid doing something that gives (some of us) pleasure … i.e. experiencing pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood? Not unless the negative effect on our lives (and the lives of others) is outweighing the positive.
BeckySharper: Well said, Anna.
What do YOU think, Harpy readers? Have your say in the comment thread!