I was born into a culture that embraces confusing messages
about the worth and value of women. I grew up in an India where
a woman such as Indira Gandhi could become a formidable leader,
and yet female infants were routinely killed or starved because
they were deemed less valuable than boys. This contradiction
played out in my family where smart and competent women who
made a difference in the world continued to live with men who
abused them, or attempted suicide when their husbands left them.
The female role models in my life oscillated between these radical
extremes: powerful agents and value-less victims. For as much
as I have resisted, this confusion has been a central struggle
in my life; I have worked to believe that there is a place for
me in this world, that I have a right to enjoyment and happiness,
that I matter, and that I have the power to make a difference.
I began working to end violence against women nearly fifteen
years ago when I realized that violence is one of the key tools
of women's oppression. Not only does this violence literally
beat us into submission but, like female infanticide, it inscribes
messages of powerlessness, worthlessness and vulnerability onto
our bodies, minds and spirits. For many women, this kind of
physical and emotional vulnerability begins early and carries
through into adulthood, when we struggle to understand how we
matter, that we have bodily and emotional integrity, and that
we deserve respect and have rights.
As future science and biotechnology, in the form of stem cell
research and reproductive genetic technologies, started insistently
knocking at our public door, I started to think about the future
forms of violence against women. Women's bodies and women's
eggs are the raw materials of these new human biotechnologies
- what forms of violence are they and will they perpetuate against
women, and against future generations? While there have been
many beneficial reproductive technological developments, we
are also at a cross-roads where many of the technologies currently
in use and under consideration - sex selection, pre-implantation
genetic diagnosis, reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic
modification - have the potential to endanger women's health,
and, moreover, threaten basic notions of human equality and
If we consider the different kinds of reproductive screening
technologies promoted in the U. S. today, we can see the kind
of troubling questions these technologies raise for women. Women's
bodies are increasingly medicalized in these processes now,
and women are under increasing pressures to produce particular
kinds of children, whether they be of a particular sex or ability.
What's equally disquieting is that some of these practices
are market-driven. Sex selection processes like MicroSort, a
form of pre-conception sperm sorting , are being advertised
as "family balancing" and "gender diversity"
innocently asking, "Do you want to choose the gender of
your next baby?" Technologies such as amniocentesis and
pre-implantation genetic diagnosis have long been controversial
among disability rights advocates, raising concerns about the
normalization of selection processes and eugenic notions of
desirable and undesirable traits. As these technologies develop,
there are many who advocate that they be used not only for cures,
but also for enhancement. They see no problem with women's eggs
and genetic material being harvested and manipulated to modify
future generations for specific eye color, faster twitch muscles,
increased intelligence, decreased need for sleep, narrower emotional
capacity (to prevent depression), or any other futuristic notion
of what a "better" human being should look like, act
like or feel.
As the new reproductive and genetic technologies continue to
develop, which messages will be programmed into women's minds,
bodies and spirits as mothers? What about future generations
of women in terms of their value, worth and power in the world?
Will a woman's worth be determined by the "perfection"
of the children she bears? Will a baby's value be determined
by the amount of money a parent can spend to "buy"
the screening processes and genetic modifications? Will a girl's
worth be measured by how well she fits the gendered stereotypes
in her parents' mind when they selected for her using MicroSort?
What will be the value and worth of "designed" children,
and of children whose parents could not afford to pre-select
the traits of their children?
As somebody who has worked for many years in domestic violence
prevention, particularly in the South Asian American community,
I am careful about what I label as violence. With clear memories
of broken and bloody bodies, I hesitate to call every violation
of a woman's dignity and integrity a form of violence. And yet
I watch as international scandals breakout about the buying
and selling of women's eggs for research with no discussion
women's health and safety concerns or the reduction of women's
lives and bodies to their biological materials. We are looking
at one of the new forms of violence against women.
It is in the violence against women movement that we have developed
our most organized and consistent voice in our struggle for
women's respect, dignity and power in the world. We have named
the violence and work to stop it. And this is the movement continues
to most clearly advocate and organize for women's bodily integrity
and human rights, and that believes in the power, worth and
well-being of women and girls.
As I think about the perilous potentials of genetic and reproductive
technologies, I am deeply concerned about what they may imply
for future forms of violence against women in the genetic age.
Eugenics has a long track record of targeting women; sterilization,
incarceration, and rape are but a few of the ways we have been
used as guinea pigs and selected out of existence. This new
form of eugenics will also target women's bodies, integrity
and fertility. In the past, eugenics movements - movements that
have tried to "breed better human beings" - have been
mostly state sponsored. While the eugenic practices of Nazi
Germany most often come to mind, there were significant eugenic
programs of sterilization, segregation and immigration restrictions
in the early 1900s in the U.S. Now, however, we face the possibility
of a market-based eugenics, where individuals in the marketplace
could seek to either eliminate or promote particularly "desireable"
or "undesireable" genetic characteristics through
genetic screening, sex selection, gene therapies and genetic
Do we have a language and a conceptual framework to articulate
what these technologies will do to women's bodies, women's rights,
and the value of women? We need to understand the kind of platforms
of doubt and vulnerability this kind of normalization and selection
will program into our culture and in our relationships with
each other. And we need to start talking about the kind of violence
and violation that will be done to women's bodies in the name
of these technologies - the kind of eugenic violence and even
genocide that might get practiced against particular groups
of people, whether they be girl babies in India and China, Down's
syndrome children in the U.S., or the "unperfect"
children of the future. What will be our message to women and
children if we start designing children? What kind of conditional
love are we creating and what kind of inequality are we coding
in our bodies and our selves?
Beyond the violations of human rights perpetuated by these
technologies, these market-driven eugenics have the potential
to end the human community as we know it. Some biotech advocates
envision a world of "genetic castes" with the "GenRich"
and "Naturals"*, where people who are wealthy enough
to afford genetic modifications will rule over those who are
not modified. These technologies hold the potential to encode
existing social inequalities into genetic make-up. Race and
racism will no longer be merely social problems, but will be
genetically engraved into our bodies. Will it be possible to
ensure human equality, democracy and human rights for genetically
and biologically different human beings?
So, what can we do about this? In addition to policies that
ban reproductive cloning, inheritable genetic modification,
and the marketing of selection procedures, we also need to start
social and public discussions of the implications of these technologies.
These decisions can not be left up to scientists, biotechnology
corporations and policy wonks; they need to be made by people
and, in particular, women and the international community.
One route into these discussions is those old-fashioned consciousness-raising
groups that characterized the beginning of the second wave of
feminism. In such venues we need to talk about human rights
and values in these intimate, personal decisions. Just like
we did with domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment,
our conversations with other women can turn private struggles
into public and social problems. The new reproductive and genetic
technologies raise all kinds of complicated and confusing questions
- ethically, morally and socially. If we can we share our doubts
and confusions with each other, we can gain clarity about the
broader social powers at play. We need to reflect more deeply
on the values and worth we will encode in the bodies of women
and in future generations.
How do we define what it means to be human in the genetic age?
Who decides who is worthy of living? Who decides if we human
beings need "enhancement" and at what price to women's
bodies and lives? Without regulation or oversight, these technologies,
will violate our fundamental human rights and the very foundation
of human equality that makes possible the functioning of any
democracy. We need to ensure that the rights of women, children
and all humans are respected, protected and guaranteed.
In India the ethical and political understanding of these new
human biotechnologies is much clearer. I could not say it any
better than the Saheli Women's Resource Centre:
"The final goal of reproductive engineering appears to
be the manufacture of a human being to suit exact specifications
of physical attributes, class, caste, colour and sex. Who will
decide these specifications? We have already seen how sex-determination
has resulted in the elimination of female fetuses. The powerless
in any society will get more disempowered with the growth of
such reproductive technologies."
Over time, many women have been the target of eugenic practices
- poor women, women of color, queer women, women with disabilities.
The new reproductive and genetic technologies hold the potential
for both great promise and great danger for women, our bodies
and our communities. Rather than let these technologies slip
down the slope of becoming the next tools of violence that violate
women's bodies, dignity and integrity, let us work together
in thoughtful and ethical ways towards ensuring the future of
human rights and human equality.
*Silver, Lee. 1997. Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in
a Brave New World. New York: Avon Books.
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