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Unborn mothers


Unborn mothers The old rhetoric of new reproductive technologies

Lisa guenther

If nothing else, the new reproductive technologies produce fabulous headlines.

One of the most impressive comes from the Guardian: ʻProspect of babies from unborn mothers.ʼ [1] A team of researchers in Israel led by Dr Tal Biron-Shental have been attempting to grow viable eggs from the ovarian tissue of aborted fetuses, for use in fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization. So far, their success has been limited; by stimulating the tissue with hormones, they are able to develop primary and secondary egg follicles about halfway to the point of maturity. In response to questions about the ethics of this research, Dr Biron-Shental says: ʻWe use sperm thatʼs donated.

Ethically, itʼs almost the same. Thereʼs just the question of whether your mother was an aborted foetus or your father was someone who donated his sperm.ʼ But there is one crucial difference. In this sentence, the father is a person who donates his sperm; but the mother is not in any ordinary sense a person who donates an egg. Rather, the ʻmotherʼ here is a bit of ovarian tissue, harvested from an aborted fetus and cultivated under certain conditions to produce an egg. In this sense, the ʻunborn motherʼ would be an egg donor but not a person, a ʻmotherʼ but not a woman. Under what cultural and political circumstances does it make sense to identify this disembodied egg source as a ʻmotherʼ? And why does the dominant image of motherhood admit so readily of a dissociation between mothers and persons?

An important part of the struggle for womenʼs reproductive freedom in the 1970s and 1980s aimed at securing womenʼs access to the liberal sense of personhood. I own my body, therefore I have a right to choose what to do with my body, including whether or not I will carry a pregnancy to term. The fetus, by contrast, ought not to be recognized in law as a person with rights on behalf of which the state may intervene by forcing a woman to continue a pregnancy against her will. Such an intervention would violate a womanʼs own rights as an autonomous person for the sake of a fetus whose personhood remains highly contestable. While this position by no means exhausts the personal or philosophical significance of pregnancy, the liberal notion of autonomous personhood has been strategically important for feminist politics. The right to choose holds open a gap between being a woman and becoming a mother; so long as I have a right to choose, my bodyʼs capacity to bear children remains a possibility rather than a fate.

But the prospect of ʻunborn mothersʼ poses new challenges to the liberal feminist discourse of personhood. How do we articulate the ethical issues involved in harvesting eggs from an aborted fetus, without resurrecting the debate over whether this fetus is a full-fledged person with, for example, rights to non-interference or freedom from harm?

Can we coherently defend a womanʼs right to terminate pregnancy without relinquishing a feminist position from which to critique the use of aborted fetuses in certain experimental procedures? In short, what happens when the ʻnewʼ discourse of reproductive technology intersects with the ʻoldʼ discourse of abortion?

Mothers and/or persons

The Guardian surveys the reaction to so-called ʻunborn mothersʼ from various groups, including researchers, ethicists and pro-life groups; no feminist response is mentioned in the article. Two main issues arise in this brief discussion. First is the issue of consent. Clearly, an aborted fetus cannot agree or refuse to donate its ovarian tissue; the material is simply harvested from the organism, presumably with the legal consent of the woman who had the abortion (though this detail is not mentioned in the article).

Roger Gosden (an American ʻfertility expertʼ) suggests that ʻit would be less controversial to take ovarian tissue from a woman, for which consent could be givenʼ. Less controversial, to be sure; but it would also be more expensive, less efficient, and more unpredictable to persuade mature women to donate ovarian tissue, when there is already ʻa worldwide shortage of donated eggsʼ. The appeal of growing eggs from aborted fetal tissue would be the possibility of treating this tissue as raw material, rather than as an autonomous subject who is able to consent or refuse or (worst of all) change her mind.

The cultivation of eggs from fetal material would circumvent the need to negotiate with egg donors as persons in any sense of the word. If women are not providing enough eggs to keep up with the demand of the reproductive marketplace, then we can simply develop new sources, putting otherwise wasted bio-material to good use. In this sense, the use of aborted fetuses as raw material for reproductive technologies circumvents the need to deal with women or fetuses as persons who can give or withhold consent.

Apart from this concern over fetal consent, the other dominant response to this new research has been a concern for the ʻidentityʼ of any child produced by so-called ʻunborn mothersʼ. A spokesperson for the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in the UK suggests, ʻIt would be hard for any child to come to terms with being created using aborted foetal material.ʼ A representative from Life (the UKʼs largest pro-life organization) makes a similar point: ʻChildren manufactured as a result of these donor eggs will probably often be the result of donor sperm. This means they will have no sense of their own identity and may have enormous psychological problems.ʼ These responses are notable for the close association they assume between personal identity and biological genesis. Here again, the question of personhood arises, though in a more complicated way; for, through a series of unarticulated assumptions, the article asks us to imagine mothers simultaneously as persons and non-persons, in a way that mirrors the representation of women in pro-life discourse.

In order to make sense of the threat that ʻunborn mothersʼ (and, to a lesser extent, sperm donors) pose to the identity of their offspring, we need to believe that the contribution of an egg or of sperm to the fertilization process gives something more than just genetic information. Already in this biological contribution of a cell, there must be a social or psychological contribution which is substantial enough to influence the childʼs future identity. Just an egg, grown from a bit of aborted female tissue, is apparently not enough to make this important psychological contribution; as a child, I need to know that my mother really existed as a person and not just a slice of tissue in the lab. And yet, the psychological contribution of the egg cell to a childʼs sense of identity is not considered to be entirely separate from the biological. If it were, then it would hardly matter that the fetus was produced from an egg grown from aborted tissue, so long as its identity was supported in other ways by other people who care for it once it is born.

If we are to accept that the child of an ʻunborn motherʼ would suffer from identity problems, then we must believe that social and psychological consequences follow from the biological contribution of an egg to fertilization. In other words, we need to imagine the mother as more than just a bit of tissue from which eggs are produced, as someone who shapes the identity of a child in substantial ways, and moreover does so already through her donation of an egg. The mother must be a person: not necessarily for her own sake, but for the sake of developing the childʼs identity.

Yet this is only one-half of the story. For simply in order to make sense of the phrase ʻunborn motherʼ, we need to imagine the mother quite differently: as nothing more than a source of egg cells. The phrase ʻunborn motherʼ relies for its coherence upon a reduction of motherhood to a strictly biological function, where the social practice of mothering and the subjective life of the mother have become irrelevant. Valerie Hartouni makes a similar point about the media representation of so-called ʻmothersʼ in her book Cultural Conceptions. In response to a headline which reads ʻBrain-dead Mother Has Her Babyʼ (from the San Francisco Chronicle, July 1986), Hartouni writes:

The coherence of this statement rests, in part, on a very particular understanding of ʻmotherhoodʼ, an understanding in which motherhood is equated with pregnancy and thereby reduced to a physiological function, a biologically rooted, passive – indeed, in this case, literally mindless – state of being.

In the cultural context where headlines like this make sense (however ʻsurprisingʼ or disturbing they may be), it is difficult to imagine a biological female who is not already a potential mother, or a mother who is not biologically female. As Hartouni observes, ʻThe only sense in which it could be said that she [this brain-dead woman] is a mother who has a baby is if her sheness is reduced to motherhood [which in turn] is reduced to all biological tissue and process.ʼ [2] If we put these two representations of motherhood together, then we find ourselves in an awkward position. The woman is reduced to a mother, and the mother reduced to a biological condition for the production of a child; but at the same time, social and psychological consequences for the childʼs identity are drawn from the biological status of the woman as mother. The discourse surrounding ʻunborn mothersʼ remains caught between a reduction of motherhood to the merely biological, and an expansion of the biological to include a social and psychological significance. It asks us to imagine the mother as just an egg source and more than just an egg source, at the same time.

Everything old is new again

This equivocation mirrors the by now familiar logic of mainstream pro-life discourse.

As many feminists have noted, pro-life rhetorical strategies tend to represent the fetus as already a ʻbabyʼ – and the pregnant woman as already a ʻmotherʼ – from the moment of conception. The womanʼs termination of a pregnancy is thus interpreted, apparently with perfect coherence, as a mother murdering her baby. The incoherence of this position – and its immediate attribution of social, psychological and moral consequences to a biological moment – is obscured by the powerful impact of photographic images depicting the fetus as a tiny, independent person. Lennart Nilssonʼs 1977 book, A Child is Born, [3] provides the template for these images. In Nilssonʼs photographs, the maternal body tends to appear in bits and pieces: as an amniotic sac enclosing the fetus, or as a bit of umbilical cord trailing off the edge of the picture. Where the image of the fetus as a separate, autonomous ʻpersonʼ moves into the foreground, the image of the pregnant woman as a separate, autonomous person moves into the background, or even becomes the background for new ʻlifeʼ. Against this background, the fetus emerges as both a self-sufficient individual and an extremely vulnerable, threatened person who requires the services of doctors, lawyers and political advocates to maintain its wellbeing even against the wishes of its uterine environment. This double-sided representation of the fetus as both a rights-bearing person and a potential victim implies a similarly double-sided representation of women as both a depersonalized uterine environment and a uniquely responsible moral agent who can be justly forced to support the life of the fetus.

In this context, the pregnant woman is understood as being not only ʻmorallyʼ responsible for the fetus but biologically responsible; indeed, her moral obligations are thought to derive from her biological condition, just as in the Guardian article a social and psychological effect on the childʼs identity is thought to derive from her biological contribution of an egg. The much-vaunted ʻfuture of the speciesʼ depends on women carrying through this biological responsibility from beginning to end. The irony of this representation is that it demands responsibility from the pregnant woman, while at the same time denying her the subjectivity required to make this responsibility meaningful. An ethical relation between woman and fetus is only possible where the popular representation of the fetus is disrupted, and where the claim for responsibility is not issued to women in general, as an automatic consequence of our reproductive capacity, but rather to a singular person who has a chance to respond, but also to turn away from this particular fetus.

Yet if this is the case, then a unique and unshared responsibility for the fetus could never apply to women as a whole, and certainly not as a social, psychological or ethical effect caused by our biological constitution. Only an I – a singular, subjective being – can bear responsibility for the Other. And only a political commitment to the equality of women and men can hold open the space in which this responsibility is possible.

The denial of access to abortion implicitly reduces women to an isolated part of their bodies; it says, for example, ʻYou are this egg, this womb, this bit of ovarian tissue.

Once this egg is fertilized, you will be a mother; and if you terminate this pregnancy, you will be a mother murdering her baby.ʼ The definition of woman as a collection of body parts – and the interpretation of these body parts as isolated bits of ʻmotherhoodʼ – makes it possible for us to think of ovarian tissue from an aborted fetus as an ʻunborn motherʼ. But it also makes it difficult to imagine the mother as a person, and the person as a mother. Rather than invoking responsibility, it attacks the conditions under which both autonomous personhood and the responsible parenthood might emerge. Like the fertility experts and pro-life activists mentioned in this article, I also find the prospect of ʻunborn mothersʼ chilling, though not for the same reasons. The most urgent ethical issues raised by this procedure are not, I believe, whether it poses problems for the identity of children, or even whether a contract is signed to give consent.

The most pressing ethical problem here is that one womanʼs choice to terminate a pregnancy – the political guarantee of which inserts a gap between womanhood and motherhood – is then used to deny this gap symbolically, and to circumvent the need to recognize mothers and other women as persons in their own right. The whole point of growing eggs from the tissue of aborted fetuses is to produce donor eggs for IVF, apparently in a way that avoids the complication of negotiating with egg donors individually. But perhaps if we imagined the identity of motherhood more generously – not as a biological condition with automatic social and psychological consequences, but as the gift of oneʼs time, care and responsibility – then we might not perceive it as a problem that some women do not produce eggs which develop into embryos. The absence of viable eggs is only a shortage – and the shortage is only a problem – if women are thought to have natural rights and/or obligations to produce offspring. When considered in this light, the proposed procedure of growing eggs from the ovarian tissue of aborted fetuses collapses the meaningful distinction between woman and mother, which is otherwise maintained by access to a decent range of reproductive choices. In so doing, it reinforces the reduction of women to mothers – and of mothers to their reproductive organs – which feminists have fought so hard to contest.


1. ^ Ian Sample, ʻProspect of Babies from Unborn Mothersʼ, Guardian Weekly, 1 July 2003,,11381,988615,00.html (accessed 3 July 2003). Unless otherwise noted, all further citations refer to this article.

2. ^ Valerie Hartouni, Cultural Conceptions: On Reproductive Technologies and the Remaking of Life, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 1997, pp. 29, 31.

3. ^ Lennart Nilsson, A Child Is Born: New Photographs of Life Before Birth and Up-to-Date Advice for Expectant Parents, Delacorte Press/S. Lawrence, New York, 1977. The photographs were first published in Life magazine as a photo essay entitled ʻDrama of Life before Birthʼ; see Life, vol. 58, no. 17, April 1965.

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