Sunday, November 29, 2015

Uterine transplants & social pressures

There was an article in Ms Magazine's online blog several days ago, about recently announced trials at the Cleveland Clinic that would, conceivably (OK, bad pun), allow women to experience pregnancy and give birth via uterine transplant.

While writer Katherine Macfarlane applauds the efforts to give women more reproductive choices, she also takes note of "the social pressures at play that equate true womanhood with the ability to become a biological mother... pressure to experience motherhood in a very specific way."
I understand the determination to become a mother. Aside from the fact that it’s a natural part of life, socialization makes the experience of motherhood hard to separate from the experience of being a woman...  I know from personal experience that, even when it could pose a threat to your own wellbeing, the chance to carry a baby yourself is compelling... It's hard to let that dream go...  
Uterus transplants will give women who had lost hope a new chance to control their reproductive choices: They can now choose the option of experiencing motherhood through their own pregnancies. 
If women walk into these procedures fully informed of the risks, advised by doctors who will weigh the pressure to experience pregnancy alongside what women want, uterus transplants will represent medical innovation at its best. But questioning the restrictive gender norms that might influence those choices is critical.
The key point here for, for me, was the very specific focus on "biological" motherhood as a norm that women feel pressured to aspire to.  Interestingly, the article does not define any alternatives to "biological motherhood."  It does not encourage women to "just adopt" or consider adoption as an alternative.  In fact, I don't think the word "adoption" appears once in the article. (Other "alternative" routes to motherhood, including the use of donor eggs or surrogacy, are not mentioned either.)  On the one hand, it's kind of refreshing. ;)  On the other hand, when you think about it, it seems slightly odd... if you're questioning the pressures women feel to achieve motherhood biologically, why no mention of the other ways they can achieve this goal? 

Which brings me to my point. I just wish the writer had gone one step further.  It's not JUST the pressure to become a biological mother and/or experience pregnancy yourself that women face -- it's the pressure we face to become mothers, period, by any means possible. Or, if not to actively parent a child, then at least to appear "motherly" and nurturing in other ways, and especially when interacting with other people's children. (I know there was a great online discussion on this subject recently, although I can't for the life of me remember where -- on a blog? On Facebook?  -- if anyone remembers, let me know in the comments!) 

Of course, many people consider feminism to be anti-motherhood -- perhaps the writer and the magazine was trying to avoid that image with this specific focus?

What do you think? -- of the pressures to become a mother, biologically or otherwise, and of uterine transplants as a potential route to motherhood?


  1. Was it the discussion with Kim Cattrall?

  2. I think you've touched on some very important points the author missed. It's a combination of womanhood = motherhood and ranking motherhood where physically carrying genetic children is the supreme form of motherhood. The hard part, also, is the backlash to 2nd wave feminism where woman are embracing motherhood and family. But at what cost? How far is too far and if women don't go these routes are they considered less?

    Final thought: does this actually work? With all transplants comes risk and there is the possibility of rejection due to immune response. And we know that immunity needs to be tempered in pregnancy. Is there data of pregnancy following uterine transplants?

    1. Good questions, Cristy. These are just clinical trials, and I think they will supply the data & determine just how successful this is an option for broader use.

  3. This may only be tangentially related, but it brings to mind the time a student I'd had in class for several weeks came to my office for the first time in the semester. He saw the pictures of my daughter that I have up on my desk and said, incredulously, "You're a mom?"

    As a college professor, I am very aware of the sexist expectations from men vs. women instructors, and I really actively work to NOT be that nurturing mother-figure kind of teacher. So I just thought it was interesting that my student was so shocked that I had a baby.

    Also, I HATE the idea of feminism being anti-motherhood.

  4. I think you really highlighted some important things. While I wholly support women's reproductive rights, I wish more time was spent on undressing the notion that womanhood=motherhood. Plenty of women are women and not mothers. You don't need to be a mother to be a woman, just like you don't need to be a father to be a man. I think part of this is the idea of womanhood and breaking down barriers - which, in itself, is a very complicated process (after all, a uterus and/or breasts doesn't define a woman, neither does genetics because of transgendered individuals).

    While I love that they are opening up more options for women to get fills me with a bit of dread. As someone who's mother-in-law believes we should go to the end of the earth and back to get pregnant regardless of what cost - financial, emotional or physical, I expect to get an email from her any day now about this...

  5. Well said, Loribeth. The pressures are not just biological, but to be a mother full stop (I think you would say "period?"). To me, feminism has always been supportive of motherhood, but never prescriptive. But I am conscious that many who don't understand feminist principles do choose to see it as anti-mother, which makes me very sad. And so if they have chosen to self-censor in order to avoid those criticisms, I am very sad again, because by have choosing a group to avoid offending, they may have in turn further isolated another group ... Us.

  6. This is an interesting concept. Just because we CAN do something doesn't mean that we SHOULD do it. I think that the concept of pursuing motherhood at all costs is a dangerous thing. But then again, I'm probably not the best person to talk about that.