Will a fertile woman's body ever be considered hers and hers alone?

Alicia Silverstone's breast milk sharing programme is intriguing, if slightly alienating for those who don't meet her "lifestyle" standards. While donating milk or being a surrogate is an incredibly kind thing to do it is too often regarded with paternali

Alicia Silverstone is launching her own breast milk sharing programme to enable parents to find donor milk without worrying about “what kind of lifestyle choices the donors [have] made”. Yes, Kind Mama Milk Share is for those who want their babies to have breast milk but not, one presumes, the sort that spurts from the likes of meat-eating, Mars bar-chomping, caffeine-swilling me. I have to say, I’m hurt. Half an hour with a whiny, RSI-inducing breast pump and you’d turn my produce down?

Then again, why shouldn’t those who want donor milk be fussy about the type they use? Is it fair to get all “beggars can’t be choosers” about this? After all, adoptive parents or those who can’t physically breastfeed have a right to form preferences regarding the welfare of their child. If you want to be picky about milk and you’ve got the donors to meet your requirements, is it anyone else’s business?

Apparently it is, although I suspect most of the current reporting is less in response to Silverstone’s exacting breast milk standards and more in a “ooh, milk sharing, weird!” way. Because we do find it weird when people with uteruses and breasts decide to loan out some of their reproductive functions to others. We shouldn’t, but we do.

I was aware of milk donation when I was breastfeeding and volunteering as a peer supporter. I considered it but never took the plunge, partly because I was finding it hard to keep my weight up while feeding one baby, but mainly because I suspected my milk would be rejected anyhow due to long-term medication I was taking. The pills were unlikely to have any impact on my son’s health but sufficient to make my milk fall below the standards required by the milk bank, which seems fair enough (although it does make me wonder whether Kind Mama milk goes through the same checks rather than just being certified vegan). I knew a couple of women who donated milk and I admired them for it. Expressing milk isn’t the most exciting activity on earth and sterilising all the pump components afterwards is just fiddly and annoying. It’s time- and energy-consuming (and potentially expensive due to all those extra calories you need to scoff). But it’s a great thing to do if it means breast milk is made available to babies in need.  

It’s odd that such a generous act is so rarely discussed, let alone celebrated. Then again, whenever a person undertake this type of labour for another - donating eggs, loaning wombs, nursing infants - we always seem to stop short of recognising it for the compassionate act it is. Surrogacy is still viewed with suspicion, the use of breast milk for anything other than feeding one’s own, self-produced baby is considered at best hippyish and at worst disgusting. Yet to do any of these things on behalf of another family can be incredibly kind.

Perhaps part of our mistrust comes down to fears of coercion or financial exploitation. I agree these things are a risk. All the same, it seems odd that we still do not permit women to end their pregnancies at will yet get terribly concerned about those who genuinely wish to donate eggs or give birth on behalf of others. Producing a new life may be a powerful act but the paternalistic way in which it is regulated smacks of fear and more than a little misogyny. We venerate the sacrifice but we don’t appreciate it.

To those who want children but are infertile or have miscarried or suffered stillbirths, the idealisation of pregnant women and new mothers truly hurts. And yet to those who are pregnant or have recently given birth, the lack of respect for the blood-and-guts reality of such a life-changing physical experience can be galling. We call it the miracle of life but we take it for granted. Yes, we all know how utterly amazing you are, but spare us the details. Who do you think you are, the first woman on Earth to give birth? Reproductive freedom  should include the right to share and the right to decide on the sacrifices one is prepared to make. Instead, perceptions of sacrifice shift according to how palatable a woman’s decision is in relation to social norms. An unwanted pregnancy is a mere inconvenience. A wanted pregnancy is a gift of love. A surrogate pregnancy is exploitation. Feeding one’s own baby is natural while giving milk to others is disruptive.

Of course, the fuss about Kind Mama Milk Share may be only partly about breast milk itself. There’s the broader association of Alicia Silverstone and breasts. As one People commenter puts it “I'd like to share Alicia's breast milk, but I want it direct from the source”. Sigh. No wonder it’s hard to be generous. Perhaps one day a fertile woman’s body will be considered hers, and hers alone, to give. 

Alicia Silverstone, who has launched a breast milk sharing programme. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”?

Two writers present the arguments for and against.

NO

“I’m not sure what the public health issue is that would require a focus only on those who become pregnant, as opposed to any of those involved in pregnancy, either becoming pregnant or causing someone else to become pregnant,” Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian professor in nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, recently told journalist Jesse Singal when he asked her for clarification on a study she conducted into trans youth and pregnancy.

Her statement is, on the face of it, extraordinary: unlike those who “cause someone else to become pregnant” (males), those who “become pregnant” (females) actually, well, become pregnant, with everything that entails from the risk of varicose veins and pre-eclampsia, to having an abortion or being denied abortion, to miscarriage or giving birth and living with the economic strain and social discrimination that come with motherhood.

As absurd as Saewyc sounded, her position is the logical endpoint of “gender neutral” language about pregnancy. Pressure on reproductive rights groups – especially those in the US – to drop references to “women” and instead address themselves to “people” have been growing over the last few years, and the American body Planned Parenthood now regularly mentions “pregnant people” in its communications. In theory, this is supposed to help transmen and non-binary-identified females who need reproductive health services. In practice, it creates a political void into which the female body, and the way pregnancy specifically affects women, simply disappears.

The obscuring of the female body beneath obscenity and taboo has always been one of the ways patriarchal society controls women. In 2012, Michigan Democratic representative Lisa Brown was prevented from speaking in a debate about abortion after she used the word “vagina”, which Republicans decided “violated the decorum of the house”. Now, that oppressive decorum is maintained in the name of trans inclusion: in 2014, the pro-choice organisation A is For was attacked for “genital policing” and being “exclusionary and harmful” over a fundraiser named Night of a Thousand Vaginas.

Funnily enough, trans inclusion doesn’t require the elimination of the word vagina entirely – only when it’s used in reference to women. A leaflet on safe sex for trans people published by the Human Rights Campaign decrees that “vagina” refers to “the genitals of trans women who have had bottom surgery”; in contrast, unaltered female genitals are designated the “front hole”. And it’s doubtful that any of this careful negation of the female body helps to protect transmen, given the regular occurrence of stories about transmen getting “unexpectedly” pregnant through having penis-in-vagina sex. Such pregnancies are entirely unsurprising to anyone who knows that gender identity is not a contraceptive.

It does, however, protect from scrutiny the entire network of coercion that is cast over the female body: the denial of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland, for example, affects the same class of people who were subjected to the medical violence of symphysiotomy — a brutal alternative to cesarean, which involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered — the same class of people who were brutalised by Magdalen Laundries (institutions established to house “fallen women” which operated from the late 18th to the 20th centuries), the same class of people who are subject to rape and sexual harassment. That class of people is women. If we give up the right to name ourselves in the service of “inclusion”, we permit the erosion of all our hard-won boundaries.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who focuses on feminism.

YES

No matter who you are and how straightforwardly things go, pregnancy is never an easy process. It might be a joyous one in many ways, but it’s never comfortable having to lie on your back in a brightly lit room with your legs hitched in stirrups and strangers staring at parts of your anatomy some of them hesitate to name. Then there are the blood tests, the scans, the constant scrutiny of diet and behaviour – it may be good practice for coping with a child, but the invasion of privacy that takes place at this time can have a dehumanising effect. And that’s without having your gender denied in the process.

If you’ve never experienced that denial, it might be difficult to relate to — but many women have, at one time or another, received letters addressing them as “Mr” or turned up at meetings only to discover they were expected to be men. It’s a minor irritation until it happens to you every day. Until people refuse to believe you are who you say you are; until it happens in situations where you’re already vulnerable, and you’re made to feel as if your failure to conform to expectations means you don’t really deserve the same help and respect as everyone else.

There is very little support available for non-binary people and trans men who are happily pregnant, trying to become pregnant or trying to cope with unplanned pregnancies. With everything geared around women, accessing services can be a struggle, and encountering prejudice is not uncommon. We may not even have the option of keeping our heads down and trying to “pass” as female for the duration. Sometimes our bodies are visibly different.

It’s easy for those opposed to trans inclusion to quote selectively from materials making language recommendations that are, or appear to be, extreme – but what they miss is that most trans people going through pregnancy are not asking for anything drastic. We simply want reassurance that the people who are supposed to be helping us recognise that we exist. When that’s achievable simply by using a neutral word like people, does it really hurt to do so? I was always advised that manners cost nothing.

Referring to “people” being pregnant does not mean that we can’t also talk about women’s experiences. It doesn’t require the negation of femaleness – it simply means accepting that women’s rights need not be won at the expense of other people’s. We are stronger when we stand together, whether pushing for better sex education or challenging sexual violence (to which trans men are particularly vulnerable).

When men criticise feminism and complain that it’s eroding their rights, this is usually countered with the argument that it’s better for everyone – that it’s about breaking down barriers and giving people more options. Feminism that is focused on a narrow approach to reproductive biology excludes many women who will never share the experience of pregnancy, and not necessarily through choice. When women set themselves against trans men and non-binary people, it produces a perfect divide and conquer scenario that shores up cis male privilege. There’s no need for any of that. We can respect one another, allow for difference and support the growth of a bigger feminist movement that is truly liberating.

Jennie Kermode is the chair of the charity Trans Media Watch.