Feminist Perspectives on Human Genetics and Reproductive Technologies

Abstract

Feminism offers three separate but equally important insights about human genetics and the new reproductive technologies. First, feminism is concerned with ways in which these new technologies have the potential to exploit women, particularly in the treatment of their reproductive tissue, while seeming to offer both sexes greater reproductive freedom. This risk has been largely ignored by much bioethics, which has concentrated on choice and autonomy at the expense of justice, giving it little to say about the concept of exploitation. Second, feminist scholars have developed complex and subtle analyses of how women's labour is incorporated into the global bioeconomy in a gendered manner. Although feminist perspectives vary on such issues as surrogate motherhood, they have provided important studies of how women's labour is commodified in the new reproductive technologies. Finally, feminist analysts and activists have been among the leaders in identifying and resisting the threats from commodification and commercialisation in genetic research and patenting, which often affect women disproportionately. In all three areas, feminist writers have drawn specific attention to medical, economic and political impacts on women that had not been adequately considered.

Key Concepts

  • Conventional bioethics frequently lacks a political dimension, which feminism corrects by focusing on power and justice issues in the new biotechnologies, including reproductive technologies and human genetics.
  • According to a feminist analysis, genetics and new reproductive technologies (NRTs) pose a risk when they ignore or even worsen those differences in burdens between men and women that actually could be alleviated by modern biotechnology.
  • A key insight of feminism is that neither genetics nor NRT is gender neutral.
  • For example, if there were to be a general movement towards either ‘producing the best children we can’ or ‘three‐parent IVF’ for the purpose of minimising hereditary genetic disorders, women would be asked routinely to undergo superovulation and egg extraction, processes which carry serious medical risks.
  • This reality is ignored by proponents of ‘procreative beneficence’ and ‘enhancement’, who argue that we should produce ‘the best children we can’ but ignore the burdens on women that would result.
  • Other common practices in reproductive technologies, including egg sale and commercial surrogate motherhood, have also been contested by feminists, with a particular reaction against cross‐border surrogacy in the Third World.
  • Women have also been disproportionately affected by the trend towards private firms taking out patents on human genes, such as levied for diagnostic tests on two genes implicated in some breast cancers, BRCA1 and BRCA2.
  • A major US legal case, brought by a coalition of women patients and professional bodies, succeeded in overturning many of these patents, demonstrating that it is possible to resist harmful aspects of the new biotechnologies if their inescapably political nature is recognised, as feminists have argued.

Keywords: new reproductive technologies; feminism; genetic testing; genetic patents; commodification, procreative beneficence; egg sale; surrogacy; three‐parent IVF; altruism; gift

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Further Reading

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Dickenson, Donna(Nov 2016) Feminist Perspectives on Human Genetics and Reproductive Technologies. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005592.pub3]