In her recently published book, “Mon corps ne vous appartient pas”(My body doesn’t belong to you), Marianne Durano tells “the story of dispossession and the account of a reconquest”—that of a woman and her body. She tells Gènéthique how “she threw herself” into this book.
Gènéthique: What led you to write this book?
Marianne Durano: Initially, I wanted to write a thesis on biotechnologies and especially the latest innovations in the field of procreation. During the second part of my Master’s degree, I “got” pregnant with my first child, experiencing, so to speak, procreation “first hand”, the technical aspects of which I was studying at the same time. My pregnancy was a double revelation. On the one hand, I was suddenly discovering that I had a woman’s body which was wonderful and complex, albeit sometimes cumbersome. On the other hand, I felt dispossessed by medicine’s hold over me. My body was subject to scrutiny, as if it no longer belonged to me.
My pregnant body was weighed, examined and treated like an object. The gynaecologists I dealt with were only interested in potential problems, when they weren’t making paternalistic remarks. At the same time, I felt like an unidentified flying object (UFO) amongst my university friends—how on earth could I have a child at 23 before completing my studies? How indecent of me to display my pregnant body in the aisles of the library. My body—the mystery of which I was well aware—was considered an embarrassing phenomenon in public places and a dangerous contraption in physicians’ surgeries. How did we get there? Why did I feel personally uncomfortable in this sexually differentiated human body? Why did I accept the cool looks and hands of the doctors without flinching? This experience of my pregnancy caused me to review my entire journey as a modern young woman: puberty, the first times I had intercourse, first method of contraception, periods, discussion about prevention and the models of femininity around us. Everywhere, there is the same technical logic, which culminates in artificial procreation and begins in a philosophical approach that systematically devalues the nobility of the female body.
G: You denounce the fact that the female body has been alienated by technology, which acts as a lure and, far from liberating it, keeps women under male domination. How does this domination, which you identify from contraception to abortion, from medically assisted procreation to surrogacy, actually play out?
MD: There are several ways of answering this question. To begin with, women are offered emancipation by controlling their bodies and their fertility. They are asked to adapt to the rhythms—sexual, emotional, professional—thought out by men for men. Thus the pill allows girls to be available, without restriction, to male desire, without men having to assume any responsibility for contraception. All of the methods used to control female fertility allow men and society as a whole to disengage themselves entirely on this issue, leaving women alone with their gynaecology, their pill blister strip, their emergency contraception and their pregnancy test. Similarly, the typical career—long years of studying, maximum productivity around thirty, past one’s peak at 45—completely goes against the female biological clock: extremely fertile before the age of 25, young children between 25 and 40 and a life ahead of you to take up other projects after the menopause. As a result, women inflict themselves with hormonal contraception when they are fertile and risk having problems conceiving a child naturally later on. However, rather than adapting our society to the female body, we prefer to expose the latter to increasingly innovative techniques such as egg freezing, ovarian stimulation, medically assisted procreation (MAP) and even surrogacy. According to the 2015 CNSE (French National Centre for Treatment Abroad) activity report, 50.2% of women seeking MAP services abroad were over forty years old. The number of women having their first child in their forties has tripled in 20 years. No wonder that everyone is clamouring for MAP under these conditions!
G: You write “how society views women shows the esteem it has for life in general”. What do you derive from that in terms of how we look at life and children from conception onwards? Have we lost the meaning of life?
MD: Historically, the fascination for a woman’s womb ended at the same time as respect for nature in general. The expropriation of midwives by doctors, the great witch hunts and the assumptions of medical bio power are the spin-offs of a scientific revolution where man dreamed of “controlling and owning nature“. Just look around to see how living creatures are being trampled upon—with the destruction of biodiversity, natural disasters related to the weather, the perilous use of the planet’s resources, chemical pollution, etc. How can an era that has so little respect for the life it sees around it, take care of the tenuous life it doesn’t see, that of newly created life in the womb? We think we can control everything—nature, our bodies and our offspring. But life escapes our control. Life blossoms without invitation and declines the invitation when it is passionately desired. This lack of control is unbearable in a technological society that idealises individual will. We therefore provide a technical response to unwanted pregnancies—as we do to highly desired pregnancies—to make the problem disappear. We approach personal suffering with syringes, laboratories and pharmaceutical industries. We are probably developing in terms of technical control but are certainly losing in the humanitarian stakes.
G: Would a change in our understanding of the female body strike a fairer balance in terms of “the desire to have a child,” which can be interpreted as a claim or a “right to a child”?
MD: The desire to have a child is undoubtedly one of the deepest human emotions. The desire to give and to pass things on from one generation to the next epitomises all living creatures— there we see nature in all its glory, developing and perpetuating itself. Nature refers to all things born—natus—not manufactured. When we allow technology to replace nature, the desire for a child is likely to lead to manufactured babies. However, the techniques of artificial procreation all too often compensate for the damage created by industrial civilisation per se. We live in a polluted world. We take synthetic hormones that notoriously upset our endocrine systems and disrupt our entire reproductive system. We procreate later and later in life—as told quite harshly by Alexis Escudero in La Reproduction artificielle de l’humain – The artificial reproduction of humans (Le Monde à l’envers, 2014): “MAP for one and all is more than a slogan. It is the device that capitalism imposes upon the body to compensate for damaging itself.”
We must find a healthier approach, effectively balancing our bodies and our rhythms, to be able to more calmly and naturally welcome the life we wish to pass on. Conversely, the demands placed upon us to strictly control fertility and plan births like a professional diary, are tantamount to suggesting that every unwanted pregnancy should be treated as a failure—a catastrophe that has to be dealt with and overcome alone. Similarly, the technical control of births portrays the child as a project that has to be successful at all costs. Parents are under tremendous pressure to have a child when they should, with no room for error. The desire to have a child develops into a plan for a child and, ultimately, the right to have a child.
So what should be done? Perhaps we should simply let go. That’s easy to say when, like me, you haven’t experienced the pain of childless couples. Many people are just under pressure to procreate at any cost. Consider the anxiety every time they attempt MAP treatment, the stress caused by the pressure to succeed, the lack of interest in sexual intercourse and the shame of a body that fails to respond. Many couples talk about how they eventually conceived naturally after stopping treatment, or at the end of the adoption process. Since I wrote this book, people have been talking. Several women have recounted to me how they underwent intensive medical treatment for infertility issues that were shown to be psychological, or even emotional. On the other hand, an unplanned child can be seen as a wonderful gift and a lovely surprise. What does it matter if the newest addition to the family arrives early or late? What if we let life surprise us?
 Marianne Durano, Mon corps ne vous appartient pas, Éditions Albin Michel, 2017, 282 pages.