Last year, Katha Pollitt wrote an article for The Nation in which she asked why the left was simultaneously making progress with equal marriage while falling behind on abortion rights. “The media ,” she wrote, “present marriage equality and reproductive rights as ‘culture war’ issues, as if they somehow went together. But perhaps they’re not as similar as we think.”
She highlighted the ways in which the right can afford to cede ground on marriage equality while continuing to deny females bodily autonomy. She is right to do so. While both reproductive choice and gay rights may be classed as gender issues, each has its own very specific relationship to patriarchy.
A woman’s desire to control her reproductive destiny will always be in direct opposition to patriarchy’s desire to exploit female bodies as a reproductive resource. The social institutions that develop to support the latter – such as marriage – may change, but the exploitation can remain in place.
This has, I think, caused great confusion for those of us who like to see ourselves as progressive. We know that the idealisation of the heterosexual nuclear family, coupled with the demonisation of all relationships seen as “other”, has caused harm to countless individuals. We refuse to define marriage as solely for the purpose of procreation, or to insist that a family unit includes one parent of each sex.
We know we are right in thinking that one cannot challenge patriarchy without fundamentally revising our understanding of family structures. Where we have gone wrong is in assuming that a revision of family structures will, in and of itself, challenge patriarchy. On the contrary, it can accommodate it.
This is why all feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.
According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:
“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”
It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.
I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.
I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.
There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.
In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.
This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.
Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.
“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?
Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.
The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.