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Man-Made Women: HOW NEW REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGIES AFFECT WOMEN by Gena Corea et al (Indiana University: $6.95, paperback; 109 pp.) : The Woman in the Body: A CULTURAL ANALYSIS OF REPRODUCTION by Emily Martin (Beacon: $20; 276 pp., illustrated)

September 06, 1987|Bettyann Kevles | Kevles writes about science for The Times.

On July 30, 1987, Gena Corea, one of the contributors to "Man-Made Women: How New Reproductive Technologies Affect Women," joined in filing an amicus curiae brief in the Baby M case. She hopes to forestall the "commercialization of modern reproductive technologies that would enable economically privileged members of society to practice positive eugenics to an extent only imagined by its originators."

Corea and her co-authors first presented their views in a panel on "The Death of the Female" at the 2nd International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women in Groningen, Holland, in 1984. Their at-first-glance paranoid visions of the future stem from a well-documented history of male domination and manipulation of women's legal and medical autonomy in the West. They also describe the continuing practices of female infanticide and genital mutilation in many non-Western cultures. From this vantage point of outrage and brutality, the new reproductive technologies that permit preselection of infants by sex, surrogacy, embryo-transplant and eventually ectogenesis (growing a fetus in an artificial womb) could possibly lead to the destruction of the human family as we now know it. The suggestion that these technologies will reduce some women to mere breeders, farmed for their eggs but otherwise demoted to slave status, and even eliminate all but a few females from being born at all, makes at least some kind of sense.

The evidence is chilling. Prosperous Indians in the Punjab established sex-choice clinics whose real function was the abortion of female fetuses. Elsewhere, girl infants and children are left to languish while their brothers are taken to physicians for treatment. The evidence is indisputable. But is it reasonable to project Third World extremes onto American culture? Are women in the West as victimized by men as the authors assert? Will prosperous American women really choose to forgo the experience of pregnancy, not to mention the opportunity to control the prenatal environment of their offspring, in order to save their figures or their place on the corporate ladder?

There is no evidence that American women who can have babies will opt for other women to bear them. It is also questionable that most men hate women and, if they could, would eliminate all but a handful from the planet.

Emily Martin, an anthropologist at Johns Hopkins, spotlights medicine as the major offender in her exploration of the way in which women see themselves in "The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction." Equally damning of patriarchal culture, Martin, a Marxist, identifies women as a separate class. She analogizes "labor as work" with "labor as giving birth" and, citing Marx, claims that as capitalism systematically separates workers from the products of their efforts, so do male doctors use intrusive technology like Caesarean sections to separate mothers from the products of their labor, their babies.

Martin is interested in the entire female life cycle and analyzes gynecological textbooks to demonstrate how men understand female bodies. She believes that capitalism has made us fear the idle machine--the woman who isn't pregnant.

In interviews with a cross-section of Baltimore women, Martin casts fresh light on PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and menopause, and childbirth. She points out that the specter of PMS as a cyclical dysfunction that makes women unfit for responsible work has its own cycle: It reappears historically whenever women crowd the job market. Unlike feminists who argue that men and women are physiologically so similar as to be almost identical and ascribe all behavioral differences to socialization, Martin probes the differences. PMS, she learns, is often accompanied by spurts of creativity that are a boon rather than a handicap to the worker. She criticizes the medical establishment for describing menopause as a state of decline rather than as a simple passage to a new stage of life. She rejects the idea that women must have babies, but maintains that an unmedicated delivery is a woman's right that is threatened along with her right to motherhood by the new reproductive technologies.

Both books echo a fear and distrust of men. While sometimes valid, it is manifestly not true as Corea writes, that the new technology "has developed and is rapidly advancing virtually unfettered by the scientific, religious and legal cross-examination that would provide critical checks and balances." These issues are being debated by many religious groups and ethics committees. Earlier this year, the papacy clarified its opposition to all of these technologies.

The new technologies can benefit women as well as men. Women as well as men want healthy offspring, but sometimes the civil liberties of the mother and the health of fetus are at odds. The new medical knowledge also pits carriers of genetic diseases against right-to-lifers; infertile women who want to use these technologies to bear children against feminists who feel that all the technologies threaten the survival of womankind. Both of these books are provocative and informative and ought not to be dismissed. We have experienced too much in the way of social experiments in this century to ignore the call for more debate and the establishment of some kind of guidelines and restrictions.

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