“The lady vanishes”: How women become obscured in repro-genetics

Biopolitical Times
The cover of Donna Dickenson's "Property in the Body" second edition featuring an image of a woman with her eyes closed superimposed on an image of a gel electrophoresis scan.

Property in the Body: Feminist Perspectives, Second Edition, by Donna Dickenson, 202 pp.. Cambridge Bioethics and Law. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Any new work from the eminent British scholar Donna Dickenson promises to bring important insights.  This second edition of her important 2007 volume on the commodification of women’s bodies, Property in the Body, is no exception.

Ten years after the book’s initial publication, Dickenson sees that scholars and activists have scored some victories against capital’s incursions on women’s bodies, particularly in the form of stricter governance of reproductive tourism.  But continuing areas of concern remain, especially in what she calls the “egg trade” for IVF and research, as well as the creation of commercial biobanks and cord blood repositories. 

Deploying the trope “the lady vanishes,” which she used in edition one, Dickenson provides multiple examples of how women effectively disappear in the law, the clinic, the global marketing of IVF and related services, and the discourse surrounding reproductive medicine. Dickenson writes, “neither women’s labor in creating ‘biovalue’ nor women’s rights of ownership over their own tissue” are being recognized.” She adds:

Women’s labour in pregnancy and childbirth is likewise ignored when surrogate mothers are depicted as merely renting out their wombs, turning these women into a “biological lumpenproletariat.”

Roughly half the second edition contains new or reframed material that examines how women are routinely robbed of “property in the body.” Dickenson provides expanded consideration of human eggs, babies as property, umbilical cord, other biomaterial banks, and biodata. In Marxian terms, women become subjected to both commodity fetishism and alienation. The labor that produces value (e.g., eggs, umbilical cord blood, and a baby) is obscured in reproductive realms, and women are seen as having no natural or rightful property claims to their bodies’ “products.” Instead, their tissues and reproductive powers are treated as akin to the unpaid work of family care.  In legal terms, women’s bodily contributions are deemed res nuliius (from the Latin meaning literally “nobody’s thing”). And instead of having control over their own bodies, women find that their reproductive labor falls into the public domain, ripe for the taking by canny entrepreneurs.

Dickenson, in line with some Marxist scholars, makes a compelling case that the repro-genetics industry has used informed consent to transfer the “surplus value of clinical labour and human tissue from the provider” to themselves.  Through consent, women sign over their body’s products and processes to clinics; to commissioning surrogate parents; and to biobanks of various sorts.  Dickenson sees the entire enterprise as a supply chain of commodities. Tissues, ova, gestation and parturition, and, ultimately, babies, are sold in the marketplace, but the women whose labor is involved are not, by and large, the recipients of the lion’s share of the profits.  (Interestingly, men who participate in repro-genetics find that their bodies are “feminized” as they are increasingly bled of their rights.)

Dickenson’s view of surrogacy has clearly evolved.  In 2007 she made an argument for permitting surrogacy, on the basis that it valorized women’s reproductive labor. In the latest version of Property in the Body, she now draws a very different conclusion:

Babies cannot rightfully be either bought or given away, as a conscious choice in advance of the child’s birth.  Either sale or gift makes babies a form of property, but persons cannot be property.  If this logic is followed, we should be prohibiting both commercial and non-commercial surrogacy as an invasion of the personhood of the child.

Dickenson realizes that such a ban obviates new forms of families. Nonetheless, she justifies her stance on that grounds that “the needs of any particular group or groups, no matter how heartfelt, do not constitute a knock-down argument in ethics, law or politics.”  Surrogacy as practiced in many countries, she argues, has led to the reinscription of old forms of inequality, exploiting poor women so that more privileged people could exercise reproductive choice.  In her mind, the closing down of reproductive tourism in India, Thailand, and Nepal has helped eliminate abuses.

In the end, Dickenson believes that viewing property as a “bundle of rights” would prove a powerful means for understanding and better managing repro-genetics.  Through this concept, Dickenson proposes that owners of any object (for instance, cord blood, genetic material, or ova), can be seen as having one, some, or all of a series of rights (see table below).  

Bundle of Rights (from Dickenson, 2017)

The owner of object X may have some or all of the following rights:

1) to the physical possession of X

2) to the use of X

3) to the management of X, determining the ways in which others can use it

4) to the income that can be derived from its use by others

5) to its capital value

6) to security against its being taken by others

7) to transmit it to others by gift

8) to transmit it to others by sale

9) a permanent right to these other rights, without limit of term and/or

10) a duty to refrain from using X in a way that harms others.

Rights pertaining to a given situation, such as gamete provision, would be spelled out clearly in advance, depending on “the criteria of agency, intentionality, labour and risk-taking.”  For example:

Some forms of tissue donation, such as voluntarily offering one’s ova for research, will fall near the higher end of the spectrum, and will in turn merit either more of the rights in the bundle or stronger forms of those rights.

The goal: providing maximum flexibility while also recognizing differences among the types of biomaterials, as well as the kinds of labor involved in their production.

Dickenson feels strongly that action must be taken now to ensure that the clinical labor of women, as well as men, is rightly valued.  Too, the globalized stockpile of biomaterials that is being amassed should redound to the largest number of people possible.  This “biomedical commons,” as she terms it, should be seen as a common good, the property of the people, rather than of multinational corporations that seek to engage in a modern day agricultural “enclosures” movement for their own gain.  Starting in the 17th century in England, she reminds us, wealthy landowners turned lands that had for centuries been available for use by commoners into sheep pasture.  These enclosures, undertaken to boost sheep production, were held to further the national interest, but led to mass dislocations from the countryside.  Dickenson foresees that if the repro-genetics industry succeeds in “fencing in” our common genetic heritage, we will all be poorer for it, women especially.

Gina Maranto is a fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society. She is Director of Ecosystem Science and Policy and Coordinator of the Environmental Science and Policy program at the University of Miami's Leonard and Jayne Abess Center. Her articles, opinion pieces, and reviews have appeared in Discover,The Atlantic Monthly, Scientific American, The New York Times, and other publications. She is the author of Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human Beings.