Comments from Solidarity Summer School

Below are notes from a talk I gave at the Solidarity summer school on July 27th. It was part of a workshop called Socialist Feminism: Theory and Practice.

Feminist activists working from an intersectional perspective — that is, feminists working simultaneously on issues of racism, gender oppression, ablism and other forms of domination — have shown the limitations of individual rights as a tool for advancing human liberation.

For example, women prisoners’ organizations have shown that abortion access doesn’t secure reproductive justice if women prisoners who choose to bear their children are still shackled during childbirth. Poor people’s organizations have shown that access to birth control means less if people don’t have the resources to care for the children they choose to bear.

To be clear, access to birth control and abortion are major social movement victories. Radicals and revolutionaries should support campaigns to defend and expand them.

But we should also think long-term. What kind of organizing will lead us towards a world in which people’s needs — not only the physical ones, but intellectual and emotional ones, too — are fulfilled? What sort of politics will help us imagine a world free of domination?

An intersectional feminist perspective can help us begin to answer these questions.

I want to give three examples of ways to apply this perspective. This is not intended to be an intellectual exercise as much as a practice of drawing connections between different sites of struggle, whether those struggles are potential or real. I don’t think we can even begin to answer the two gargantuan questions above without doing that.

The examples come from two personal experiences:

– When I was 19 my hearing went from bad to worse. I got a cochlear implant.

– More recently, as a result of fertility problems, I chose to enter into the world of assisted reproductive technology.

1) Most of us think of assisted reproductive technology (ART) as something that’s available only to rich and privileged people.  There is a lot of truth to that. In the United States, you need thousands of spare dollars, great health insurance, or a willingness to go into credit card debt to get in-vitro fertilization treatment.

For that reason, it’s easy to ignore ART when we think about reproductive justice. But we shouldn’t. That’s because like any other form of medical technology or reproductive treatment ART can be used to solidify or challenge existing power relations. Consider how governments and pharmaceutical companies have used Norplant and forced sterilization to subordinate certain communities. In-vitro fertilization can be used advance right-wing political agendas, too.

For example, Israel grants citizens unusually free access to IVF – all citizens get unlimited treatments until they get two babies or hit age 45. Jews living in the occupied Palestinian territories (but NOT Palestinians in those same territories) qualify for this.

On the other hand, abortion is much more limited. Women seeking low-cost or free abortions have to appear before a termination committee and show they’ve met certain criteria (economic hardship is not on this list).

Why is Israel so generous with some reproductive services but not others? The main answer: This system was developed as part of a nationalist project in which Jewish women’s childbearing is deployed as a weapon, mostly against Palestinians.

To bring the issue home: Consider the coverage in the mainstream media of the US 2010 Census. There was a lot of hand wringing about the population of the US becoming less white, about the “majority” becoming the “minority.”

The Israeli state’s has similar anxiety about the high Palestinian birthrate, but magnified by a thousand.

We don’t have much time to discuss this in depth. Suffice it to say that a strong reproductive justice movement in that region would have to have a sharp analysis of the occupation of Palestine.

Another question we might discuss in this workshop is how do reproductive justice issues come up in the immigrants rights movement in the US?

2) As I mentioned earlier, cochlear implants are surgically implanted devices that allow people with certain types of deafness to perceive sound.

Before the days of cochlear implants, and before mainstreaming became politically popular, hearing parents in the US would send their deaf children to deaf institutions.

These schools were often hostile to Deaf people. Hearing administrators usually viewed sign language as barbaric and understood themselves to be on a civilizing mission. In some ways, the institutions resembled those that sought to Europeanize Native American kids.

But still, those schools had benefits for Deaf people: they forced them into the same space and gave them the opportunity to build relationships with each other. Those institutions helped form the basis of Deaf communities that saw themselves more as a national minority than as a group of disabled people. That is why people who identify with these communities describe themselves as “Deaf” instead of “deaf.”

Cochlear implants and the rise of mainstreaming changed that.  These two things offered hearing parents the promise – which often goes unfulfilled — that deaf babies can grow into hearing kids, or at least approximations of them.
Why did I get a cochlear implant? I am not deaf with a capital D. I was born hearing and in most ways identify with the hearing world. This remained true even as my hearing deteriorated throughout my adolescense and even as I made some contacts with the Deaf community and learned some ASL.  I never fit perfectly into either the Deaf of hearing worlds. My cochlear implant has helped me survive in the world that I’m in.

Some discussion questions: how could we have excellent healthcare without imposing standards of physical normativity? Would cochlear implants exist in a socialist feminist world?

3) Feminists have long debated whether technology is a tool of oppression or liberation. One great example of technology as a tool of liberation is contained in Marge Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time.  One memorable aspect of this novel is her portrayal of “post revolutionary” human reproduction, where creation of children has been delinked from the human body. Instead, babies are made in test tubes and people of all genders can apply to “mother” in threesomes. One consequence of this is that gender binaries completely dissipate. Another is that there is no breast feeding and no unique mother-child bond, at least not in the way we think of it today.

Some questions we might discuss are: What are examples of reproductive technologies being used for liberatory purposes and for oppressive purposes? Can one technology be both in different contexts? Some ideas: surgeries used to assign conventional genitalia to sexually indeterminate infants, surgery/technology used to transform bodies to be in line with the person’s gender (sex reassignment surgey), sterilazation, etc.

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5 Responses to “Comments from Solidarity Summer School”

  1. Hey there,
    Skipped straight to the comments after your analysis of the Israeli policy on IVF – as I am an Israeli, and I benefit from those policies. A couple of things I would like to clarify for you:
    a) This pro-IVF policy doesn’t hold for palestinians because they are (by choice) not a part of our medical system. It is important to note that Israeli Arab citizens are given the same reproductive rights and benefits.
    b) Though there is a “committee” to approve abortions, it’s merely a technicality, to appease the religious right. If you look at the studies, almost 100% of abortions are approved in the first trimester.
    c) The Israeli government in general, does take reproductive rights much further than the US government, because abortion rights have not been questioned once since it was legalized, and they are not even close to controversial. I would call that progressive.
    d) I believe that with all due respect to your opinion as to why IVF is covered, the true reason for it is twofold: One, it is in keeping with the jewish tradition of “be fruitful and multiply” and two, and more importantly in my opinion: It is the direct result of the holocaust, in which 6 million jews were murdered, so yes, we would like to replenish our numbers, thank you very much.

    I respect you and your writing very much. I don’t want to start a politics war here. But still – not every issue in Israel is about Israelis VS Palestinians, and in this case, you have your facts wrong. Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks for the reply. I’m just learning about this topic and appreciate the clarifications. Your points that the “abortion committee” is a formality and that Israel protects abortion rights more strongly that the US are well taken.

    To be clear, though, I’m not arguing that Israel’s IVF policies are “just about Israelis v. Palestinians.” My point is that these issues intersect. Policies on childbearing and reproduction have always been a huge part of promoting nationalism, waging war and maintaining systems of racism and apartheid. The US is no more exempt from this than Israel.

    To take this out of the context of Israel/Palestine, check out this article by activist Loretta Ross:
    http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/node/15635

    Her description of the anti-abortion campaign targeted at the black community in the US is instructive because it shows how tightly enmeshed race and gender are when it comes to reproductive issues.

  3. Really fantastic piece!

  4. Great post with lots of food for thought as always, especially this:

    “For that reason, it’s easy to ignore ART when we think about reproductive justice. But we shouldn’t. That’s because like any other form of medical technology or reproductive treatment ART can be used to solidify or challenge existing power relations.”

    ART is almost always left out of discussions of reproductive justice, in my experience, and I think it’s for exactly the reasons you outline — people think of it as being a luxury of the wealthy and privileged, but don’t then flip that around to think about making it more accessible. Just because something is currently restricted to people of privilege, doesn’t mean it should stay that way.

    • A 2005 report from the CDC shows that the rate of infertility for “hispanic”, non-hispanic white, and Black women aged 15-44 is fairly close: 10% for Latinas, and 12% for white and Black women. So yes, that shows that infertility is not a middle-class white women’s problem. But an interesting article in Feminist Studies (summer 2009) points out that the causes for infertility tend to be different for different groups. Mary Lyndon Shanley and Adrienne Asch point out that infertility among older women is related to the age of their eggs and fertility plummets in women over age 35. But another cause of infertility is a blocked fallopian tube. Tubal impairment and advanced age affect everyone, but white women are more likely than the two other groups to delay childbearing while tubal impairment occurs more frequently among Latinas and Blacks than among white women. Tubal impairment is often the result of pelvic inflammatory disease which happens when std’s are untreated or inadequately treated. Another cause of infertility is exposure to chemicals at work–something more likely to occur in working-class jobs that Black and Latina women are more likely to do. So the rates may be relatively similar, but the reasons for infertility are different. Shanley and Asch go on to argue that demanding equal access to ART is important BUT it should not be taken up as a cause without ALSO demanding change in working conditions (including the fact that having a child early in life impairs earnings more than delayed childbearing), poverty rates (linked to incidence of std’s) and healthcare access (linked to under-treatment of std’s).

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