Medically assisted procreation: the ambivalences of feminism

Publié le 31 Jan, 2009

The Revue française de science politique (French Review of Political Science) of April 2009 published an article by Isabelle Engeli, called “La problématisation de la procréation médicalement assistée en France et en Suisse (the critical scrutiny of medically assited procreation in France and Switzerland). Les aléas de la mobilisation féministe” (the ups and downs of feminist mobilisation). Isabelle Engeli, doctor in political sciences, conducts a comparative analysis of the evolution of feminist movements and their impact on the development of medically assisted procreation (MAP) in France and Switzerland. She shows that the feminist speech has a contrasting influence related to the social context in which it is in line with. Indeed the debates on social claims have no chance to influence the public debate if they do not find an echo with “the system of values and sense representations socially shared“.


The ambivalence of feminists


Medically assisted procreation and abortion, “being each at opposite sides of the reproductive process“, to take up an expression from Marie-Josèphe Dhavernas during the colloquium L’ovaire-dose, “wreaked havoc in the reproductive order by deeply disturbing the traditional normative framework of reproduction“. This trouble allowed challenging the traditional order of gender “based on the biologization of the social function of woman” dedicated to motherhood. Abortion and MAP have then brought two important challenges to the society and feminists. 


After the political claim of abortion in the name of the free choice of the “non motherhood“, the advent of “new reproduction technologies stroke head-on the feminist movements this time by asking the question of the performance of motherhood“, without being able to give an unified answer. Initially, MAP techniques were welcomed favourably and unanimously: feminists saw in it the mean to definitively erase the sexual differences and to free women from motherhood. Rapidly, however the positions diverged. For radical and eco-feminist women, the development of new technologies reinforced the masculine domination which looked like medical power. This one accentuated again the social obligation of motherhood and sexuality for women. But for liberal and post-modern women, the MAP was the direct continuity of the control of women on motherhood decision, inaugurated with the legalization of abortion. Moreover it had a strong potential for transforming the gender relationships and familial structures.


France: failure of radical thought 


In France, the feminist movements have been confronted with these internal contradictions. During debates about MAP for the elaboration of the law of bioethics in 1994, the public debate was concentrated on the notion of “desire for children“, agreeing in this idea with part of feminists. But little by little, the dominant feminist debate was hinged on the instrumentalisation of the female body with reproductive new technologies. Such a thesis was in real contradiction with the public consultation and medical profession which estimated as essential the medicine relieve the pain of sterile couples. Their speech became “radical“: it went “against the system“. Then it faded away progressively until “being completely forgotten during the continuity of the decision process which brought to the laws of bioethics of 1994“. The adopted legislation, liberal in matter of MAP, is thus a defeat for French feminism to be considered on a legislative level.


Switzerland: game of alliances


When the advent of new technologies was enthusiastically welcomed in France, scepticism worried about possible eugenic drifts prevailed in Switzerland. A huge popular initiative launched by a magazine and called “Contre l’application abusive des techniques de reproduction et de manipulation génétique” (against the abusive application of reproductive techniques and genetic manipulation) rapidly agreed with prolife movements and catholic associations. The thought was based on two principles: the “respect of human dignity” and the “protection of family“. The initiators of the debate did not wait for putting radical and ecologist feminists in the spotlight: they were fighting for “the prohibition of oocyte and embryo donation by denouncing the instrumentalisation of the female body by the medicine, as well as the maternal pressure imposed to sterile women“. Thus they were the echo of a much larger debate to which only medical profession was opposed, which rapidly changed from a proactive position to a defensive position. Faced with this power run-up, the liberal feminist movements were quickly demotivated. The thought of radical and eco-feminist women, on the other hand, became rapidly more intense: it joined up the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering (FINNRAGE) which gathers feminine associations of all trends. During the second phase of the elaboration of the law on medically assisted procreation, their ideas influenced largely the parliamentarian debate, taken up by all the partisans of a restrictive policy, but also by their opponents. Finally the law was “placed under the seal of a big prohibition [banishing] most of medically assisted procreation techniques, and particularly the oocyte and embryo donation“. The health insurance does not cover charges related to it.

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