Talking down the Technodocs
A fantastic 1985 article from Spare Rib
which has now been digitised by the British Museum
Written by RENATE DUELLI KLEIN, GENE COREA and RUTH HUBBARD
Test-tube babies, gene splicing, amniocentesis—all are the work of the 'Big Brotherhood' of scientists, business men and politicians, RENATE DUELLI KLEIN, GENE COREA and RUTH HUBBARD participated in a women's conference on the new technologies in Bonn, West Germany, and were more than ever convinced that they reflect a pervasive deeply internalised contempt for and hatred of women.
That one has participated in a historical event seems like a grand statement to make. Yet that was how we felt at the congress, Frauen gegen Gentechnik und Reproduktionstechnik (Women Against Genetic Technology and Reproductive Technology) in Bonn, West Germany, April 19-21, 1985.
Organised by the Sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung and Praxis fur Frauen (the Feminist Social Science Association) and the Women's Section of the Green Party, 2,000 women from all parts of West Germany as well as other European countries, the United States and India came together to learn more about these new technologies, to discuss their impact of women, and to start campaigning against them. It was the first time that anywhere in the world such a large group of feminists officially recognised the threat of the techologies to women's present and future lives. It was, as the organisers stated, 'a meeting against the technologies - not a pluralistic discussion on its supposed advantages and disadvantages for women.' It was also the first time that gene and reproductive technologies were jointly discussed from a feminist viewpoint and their many technical, ideological and financial inter-connections exposed.
The conference, to which the three of us were invited, opened with a panel and it was here that the key issues were brought out in detail. Mona Daswani from the Society for Promotion of Area Resources Centre, Bombay, India, pointed out that in the 'developing world', new reproductive technologies mean — not in vitro fertilization (the 'test-tube baby method') — but dangerous contraceptives aimed particularly at poor women who are viewed as prolific breeders. Daswani gave examples of how Indian women were hurt and exploited by contraceptives sold by Western drug companies. She then urged infertile women in the West to think twice whether to give over their bodies - and lives - to a supposedly beneficial medical/scientific establishment that in another part of the world badly abuses women and couldn't care less about their well-being.
In India, she reported, the same medical profession which is uninterested in providing women with access to nutrition, water, sanitation and basic health care, has turned reproductive technology into a lucrative trade. For example, it has set up businesses for the detection of female fetuses through aminiocentesis and the abortion of those fetuses. An estimated 78,000 female fetuses have been aborted in this way between 1978 and 1983, she said. 'Despite active campaigning by feminist groups, amniocentesis continues to be conducted all over the country Daswani said. 'In 1983, the Health Minister issued a statement that misuse of the test was a result of the inferior status of women in Indian society and in the larger interests of research the test could not be banned. The same government has made every attempt to de-emphasise male sterilisation after it was discredited during the emergency. Obviously to the government female children represent the breeders of the future, and whether openly admitted or not, amniocentesis is perversely justified as a family planning measure.'
Another panelist, Gena Corea, author of The Mother Machine
, made the point that invitro fertilization (IVF) (test tube babies) and sterilization may be more closely connected than we think. Once in-vitro fertilisation becomes a standard procedure, women may be urged to use sterilization as their contraceptive method and, prior to that, have their eggs frozen so that those judged by authorities fit to reproduce could be ready for a later pregnancy carried by themselves or by a surrogate mother. Technodocs (scientists and physicians) frequently link IVF with sterilisation, Corea said, giving one of many possible examples. Dr Carl Djerassi, who helped develop the contraceptive Pill, believes that if women think they can always use IVF to bear a child, they will more readily agree to be sterilized. He wrote of IVF: ' If this currently controversial procedure ever becomes a routine, widely used method of conception, it could have a major impact on the acceptability of sterilization among young women.' Corea also asked women to think clearly whether we want to live in a world of 'big brothers' and 'little sisters' due to people 'choosing' to have first a boy and then a girl by means of increasingly sophisticated sex-determination tests; in a world where perhaps in order to produce a 'perfect' child', embryo flushing and subsequent evaluation would become a standard procedure; in a world where women whose eggs have been (or are alleged to have been) damaged by toxins in the workplace, are encouraged to use IVF with 'donor' eggs rather than risk using their own, and where little attention is paid to cleaning up hazardous workplaces.
Ruth Hubbard (Professor of Biology at Harvard University) was morepessimistic about the possibility of stopping the proliferation of these technologies completely. She pointed out that they are part of the larger reality in which scientists view organisms as technological devices that are to be controlled as one would machines. She also reminded us that what is being played out here is the contest between privatized and individualized medical care that is expensive and concentrates power and profits in the hands of a few so-called experts, and more widely effective and less sophisticated economic and health measures that could meet the needs of many more people. Although she was sceptical of the need for any of these technologies or of the benefits to be derived from them, she felt that because the genetic technologies of recombinant DNA or gene splicing (that is inserting or eliminating pieces of the chromosone) are already so widely used, it may be more effective to evaluate different ones separately and decide whether some could be useful if they were properly monitored and regulated, whereas others are too dangerous to be permitted under any circumstances.
She suggested that at present gene technology is used in at least five ways that are all related;
1) to learn about how genes function;
2) to engineer bacteria to produce large amounts of other organisms and large quantities of otherwise scarce substances, such as interferon, human growth hormone, or blood clotting factor;
3) to screen fetuses in utero for a number of relatively rare diseases, such as sickle cell amenia or hemophilia;
4) to treat people with specific genetically transmitted diseases — so-called somatic gene therapy; and
5) to change the genetic make-up of plants and animals, including people, which for people, is called germ-line therapy. (Gene therapy is not being used yet, but it is likely that scientlsts will soon begin to use somatic (body cells) gene therapy in clinical experiments with people who have very debilitating genetic diseases.) She pointed out that all can be used to discriminate — against people with disabilities or diseases, against workers who are particularly sensitive to one or another work-place contaminant, and because of their expense, against poor people the world over because they concentrate resources.
One of the greatest dangers is the potential use of genetic technology to produce novel pathogenic organisms and to stockpile toxins for biological warfare. But even making scarce products more cheaply and in greater quantities than is possible without gene splicing (which one might think of as beneficial) is likely to be misused. As an example, Hubbard cited an 'experiment' in which pituitary growth hormone, produced by gene splicing, was given to healthy children who were still growing, simply because they were at the short end of the distribution curve for height at their age. Being of small stature could thus be turned into a 'disease' that would require 'treatment'with this far-from harmless new product because the pharmaceutical industry needs to expand the very limited market that exists for its legitimate use.
Erika Hickel, Professor of History of Science at Braunschweig University, a member of Parliament for the Green Party and instrumental in the foundation of a parliamentary commission to investigate gene and reproductive technology, agreed with the need for an education campaign which will lead to an increasing participation of a diverse group of people — namely women —in decision-making processes. However, Hickel denounced gene and reproductive technologies as the 'brainchild' of the Big Brotherhood — politicians, businessmen, scientists and 'organised' moralists such as ethics commissions and churches. She painted a bleak picture of the so-called experts — scientists, doctors and politicians —who testified before parliament. Hickel urged all women to protest their handling of these matters which are of extreme importance for women and for all life on earth, and to take the decisions into our own hands, for the belief systems of the experts are deeply misogynist.
Renate Duelli Klein (co-editor of Test-Tube Women)
pointed to the pervasive, deeply internalised contempt for and hatred of women. Under the guise of being benefactors and perfecting the imperfect (that is, women's bodies), technodocs use women or their parts as living laboratories, dissect and dismember them with the aim of reassembling them again 'in their image'. In addition, Duelli Klein said, the economic interests at stake are phenomenal. What has become customary for bio- and gene technology, namely that research projects are financed by a private company, is now being applied to reproductive technology as well. In March 1985, Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, founded 'IVF Australia', a commercial firm to market IVF know-how to a yet-to-be-established chain of IVF clinics in the USA. The profits will be used to fund controversial research (eg surrogate embryo transfer) which the Australian National Health Medical Research Council has declined to fund.
However, Duelli Klein added, women's resistance against this latest take-over by 'technopatriarchy' has begun and on an international scale. For instance, in 1984, FINNRET (the Feminist International Network on the New Reproductive Technologies) and Women and Reproductive Technologies, a sub-group of the US Committee for Responsible Genetics were founded. Duelli Klein urged women to organise a broad and massive movement against the attacks on all women's dignity and our present and future physical and psychological well being. By doing this we also have to confront the patriarchy in our heads with its notions of 'progress' and technological benefits based on the destruction of nature. Simultaneously, we must encourage women to discuss the problem of infertility and the desire for one's own biological children, whatever the cost (monetary and health), in relation to social pressure to bear children that is put upon women. Lastly, we must be very clear that women have an enormous power: if we deny the technodocs the use of our bodies — or parts of them — they will not be able to continue their work!
Maria Mies, a social science professor at Koln and a congress organizer, emphasized the need on the part of governments and industries to produce new consumer goods in order to get the world economy back to flourishing, and to produce these goods by 'conquering' natural ecosystems. . . or genes. . . or women's bodies . . . whether by test-tube technology in the 'first' or by dangerous contraceptives in the 'third' world. Mies listed the usual arguments made in favour of the new technologies such as: 'technologies are not bad per se but only if they are in patriarchal — capitalist hands — all that women need is control.' Hence, 'we must get more women into science and technology in order to oversee these new inventions, otherwise this third technological revolution passes women by as well.' 'It's too late for resistance, gene and reproductive technologies are here to stay' and 'alternative use of the technologies is possible, eg feminists could use cloning to do away with men; the test-tube baby method enables some infertile women to have their biological child'; 'gene technology produces high yielding crops and fights diseases so that poverty in the third world can be relieved.'
Maria Mies counters these statements with the following arguments: Technological processes are never neutral. The development of the new technologies is a further step in the existing scientific logic in capitalist-patriarchal and social patriarchal societies. Natural science is built upon the premise of exploitation and dominance over nature, 'other' cultures and women. (Microelectronics, for example, would not exist without the massive exploitation of Asian women.) The method used — be it in nuclear technology, gene technology or reproductive technology — is based on the destruction of the integrated whole, on dissecting organisms — including women's bodies— into small pieces. After manipulation, for instance by inserting a piece of chromosome (DNA) from a plant into the chromosome of bacteria, or by fertilising a woman's 'harvested' egg-cells in a glass dish and screening the developing embryo for genetic defects (or sexl), the pieces are re-assembled according to the plan of the scientists/doctors. For instance, the four identical 'clones' into which the 4-cell stage embryo has been divided could be inserted in four surrogate mothers — who could be, if they were from the Third World, readily available 'cheap wombs'. Maria Mies contends that it is the production of controllable machines which is the aim of these technologies — and of their 'fathers' —and that this production is accelerated and heavily financed by major international chemical and pharmaceutical companies that need a new boost. Consumers are conned into buying the new products because they believe they will provide them with a 'better' life (more food, a child of their own, a 'perfect' child.) In reality, however, they may get new diseases if, 'by accident', the genetically manipulated bacteria 'choose' to reduce/multiply a different component of the eco-system into which they were released rather than the one they were supposed to act on — or if the woman whose body has been bombarded with hormones during IVF treatment develops cancer from the hormone overdoses or her child (should she be one of the rare successful candidates of the IVF procedures) is affected by them.
Thus, according to Mies, having more women scientists, who work within the same 'machinelogic' will not render these developments less dangerous. Even if they were in power (and for instance could clone men away!), their 'successes' would be based on the same scientific mentality — of biologistic, racist and fascist ideas — that life needs to be manipulated at the biological level. This mentality does not acknowledge that disadvantage, like exploitation and dominance, can be explained through a historical and socio-political analysis as the activities of one group that oppress and control others at the expense of their physical and psychological wellbeing in order to attain power, privilege and profit. Mies also fiercely rejects the attitude that it's too late to oppose the new technologies.' She argues that, on the contrary, 'if we resign ourselves to such thinking and react by trying to make the best of them, we become accomplices of plans that were made without our consent and are not 'for our own good.' She asks women to remember one of the earliest slogans of the international women's movement: Our Bodies, Ourselves
. This implies that we don't own our own bodies or those of our children and therefore cannot claim a 'right' to a child or a 'right' to sell our eggs or our uterus. We ARE our bodies and cannot be artificallysplit into pieces. We must strongly oppose any attempts to be made into controllable robots. Mies urged women to resist in this qualitatively new phase in the patriarchal war against women, emphasising that 'wars do not happen when the Missiles are fired but already when they are invented.'
On the second day of the conference these topics were discussed in depth in 16 working groups. Despite the fact that the rooms were overcrowded (the organisers had expected only about 500 women) there was enormous eagerness to learn and intensity about the seriousness of the issues. Perhaps a bit surprising was the almost total lack of discussion about artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. Surrogate motherhood in particular has received a lot of media attention often with strongly moralistic undertones condemning the 'bad' woman who dares to lease her womb for money. In a number of countries, legislation to outlaw surrogate motherhood and tighten up regulations for artificial insemination - e.g. license it - is being drafted as the first response to the new technologies. Whereas there seemed general agreement that commercial surrogate motherhood agencies badly exploit women (they are paid a pittance and held under tight control) and objectify them as living incubators, there was obvious reluctance to support laws that are not going to what two of us see as the root of the problem; why people who for whatever reason cannot have biological children will do anything to get a child with at least one Parent's genes. (One of us, Corea, dissents on this point, not agreeing that this is the root of the problem posed by surrogate motherhood.) Similar reluctance was felt about coming out against artificial insemination. Some women made the case that artificial insemination did not need any technology at all, hence it shouldn't be lumped together with the 'high techs' which are characterised by the woman's loss of control over part of her body. Women have organised to facilitate insemination for many years and new legislation could make this unlawful. (This has already happened in Sweden). Others made the point that the philosophy behind both the 'low' and the 'high' technologies is the same. In all of them a woman's body is treated like an object that can be used to produce the commodity, 'child'. Proponents of both kinds of opinion agreed however that our energies should not be spent on side-issues but concentrated on exposing and fighting against the crux of the matter: 'high tech' reproductive technology and gene technology.
The resolution passed at the end of the conference and distributed to the media denounces gene and reproductive technologies as the latest attempt of international big businesses, science, politics and the military to re-activate the world economy by creating new markets. The new 'territories' that are dissected, appropriated and subjugated to total control are plant, animal and human life. In particular, it is women's bodies with our unique potential to create human life which are expropriated and used as raw material for the industrialised production of human beings. This development, the resolution continues, equals a declaration of war against women, the ecosystem and Third World people.
Addressed to 'us women', the resolution announces our firm decision to do whatever we can to stop these developments. By openly exposing and boycotting them we will fight against the further take-over of women's lives in all part of the world. In a passage addressed to 'those-in-power', the resolution demands an end to these anti-life and anti-woman technologies made by a small group of so-called 'experts'; an end to government supported research in gene and reproductive technologies; an end to the exploitation of women from Third World countries and poor women in Western countries by international pharmaceutical companies. Any government, the resolution states, which allows these technologies to progress becomes an accomplice in the destruction of nature, including people. Scientists — male and female — are urged to work towards a science that respects the dignity of human beings and of all life on earth and to end the unholy alliance between a mechanistic science and business interests. The conference thus ended with the strongest possible condemnation of gene and reproductive technologies.
Six months later, many local women's groups are engaged in speaking, writing and acting against the new reproductive and genetic technologies. On the international scene, in July 1985 74 women from 16 countries — among them the German organisers - met at the FINNRET Emergency Conference in Sweden. Evidence on the rapid and global development of the new technologies were so worrying — and infuriating — that the participants decided to rename the network to FINRRAGE: Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering. FINRRAGE members then spoke at the NGO-Forum at Nairobi and many new alliances were made. For women from Third World Countries there is no doubt that what these technologies are about is power and control over the decision of who should have — and what kind of — children. They — as well as the German women haunted by the Nazi past — know all too well the politics of 'Auslese and Ausmerze' (selection and eradication), that is, the decision made by a few about what 'kind' of human beings are worthy to exist and reproduce and those deemed undesirable. So things are moving. International resistance is mounting. Women in over 20 countries are now organising against the new technologies. For 1986, a European FINRRAGE conference is planned, and for 1987 a Tribunal on Medical Crimes against women. There is no doubt that our German sisters contributed significantly to these developments. We are deeply grateful to them for their hard work, commitment and political far sightedness.
RENATE DUELLI KLEIN, GENA COREA,