'The Seed': an incisive, yet generous, account of feminism and infertility

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of The Seed: Infertility Is A Feminist Issue, Alexandra Kimball recalls being asked by a well-meaning party guest if she has any children. When Kimball replies that she can't, because she's had three miscarriages, the stranger gapes at her and disappears.

For Kimball, this moment exemplifies the social isolation she has experienced as an infertile woman. But it also leads to a strange insight: "infertility has a lot of power." It is this power -- infertility's capacity to incite cultural panic, drive women apart, and, occasionally and hopefully, bring them together -- that Kimball sets out to explain in this timely and compelling book-length essay.

One of patriarchy's most enduring and insidious features is its tendency to oppress those aspects of femininity and womanhood that carry physical, social or cultural power. One such aspect is childbirth, because men can't do it (hence, until fairly recently, the devaluing of midwifery as a form of women's knowledge and the medicalization of childbirth).

But, as Kimball convincingly argues, infertility is also powerful, because it gives the lie to the notion that there is anything essential or inherent about womanhood. "Femininity is a process of learning and labour," Kimball writes. Infertile women who use assistive reproductive technologies (ART) to have children debunk the cultural myth of "natural" womanhood by exposing all the various forms of work that go into conceiving, gestating, and birthing babies.

Kimball demonstrates how the mainstream culture has sought to crush infertility's power by pathologizing it. This has a long history in many cultures, from Abyzou, the barren demon from the Hebrew Testament of Solomon, to Wewe Gombel, an Indonesian spirit driven to evil deeds by her infertility. But Kimball's most effective points in this regard come from her careful reading of contemporary cultural texts like the 1992 thriller The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (in which the infertile woman is homicidal) to Tina Fey's movie Baby Mama (the infertile woman is a loser) to The Handmaid's Tale (infertile woman as diabolical).

Her analysis of the latter television show is particularly condemnatory because, as Kimball writes, it's “the most openly feminist text of the Trump era." Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel and its high-budget TV adaptation have served as cultural touchstones since late 2016; its depiction of sexual slavery feels terrifyingly relevant as a challenge to Roe v. Wade looms ever nearer in the U.S.; and it has even spawned its own offshoot of red-cloaked pro-choice activists in the Radical Handmaids. So what does it mean that the show depicts women who can't conceive as "patriarchal collaborators?"

What it means, for Kimball, is that feminism has issues with infertility. She convincingly demonstrates how successive waves of the feminist movement have either ignored or been openly hostile to infertile women. The first wave's eugenicist bent meant that "early advocates of birth control in and abortion in the West were concerned with limiting maternity, especially for poor, disabled, and racialized populations," Kimball writes.

Feminism's second wave, particularly its eco-feminist offshoot, valorized womanhood and natural childbirth. But this also led the movement to marginalize both transgender women and those who become parents through ART, including in-vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogacy, and artificial insemination. (One contemporary iteration of this is found in the freebirth movement, which promotes intervention-free childbirth and "natural" parenting yet whose proponents are also often staunchly opposed to surrogacy.)

Kimball's tour through feminism's blind spots serves as more than a history lesson in gender politics. Rather, she shows how feminism’s dismissal of infertile women has shaped reproductive health policy in Canada, a patchwork framework informed equally by liberal choice feminism (because IVF is a largely private industry) and ecofeminism (because surrogacy is legal but uncommercialized).

Popular representations of infertile women as white, able-bodied and heterosexual perpetuate the idea that the choice model works because these women can afford the exorbitant costs of IVF, surrogacy or adoption; but, as Kimball notes, poor women and women of colour are more likely to be affected by infertility than their wealthy or white counterparts.

If there is one element of this issue that escapes Kimball's analysis, it's the undue burden of emotional labour placed first on infertile women and second on all women with respect to infertility. Of course, because women gestate and birth babies, they bear the physical burden of infertility much more highly than men. But male infertility plays a significant role in infertility overall; and like egg quality, sperm quality declines with age, despite the popular perception that men can continue fathering children well into their 80s.

Moreover, just as feminists have drawn attention in recent years to the unacknowledged emotional labour women perform in most of their relationships, women still shoulder much of the social labour around family planning and endure judgment when it goes awry. (I'm a married heterosexual woman in my early 30s, and have been told several times not to wait too long before having kids. My husband has never received such warnings.) To my mind, part of the work of bringing a feminist analysis to infertility involves considering how the emotional labour it entails can be more equitably distributed.

Ultimately, however, The Seed is an elegant combination of memoir, history and cultural critique. The book is most effective when all of these strands come together, as when Kimball encounters a critique of surrogacy and tries to square her committed feminism with her desire for a child. 

Kimball is critical of feminism's shortcomings and incisive about how its failings have made her feel personally objectified. Yet -- impressively -- she also always tries to understand the other position, poring with equal measure over radical feminist reports from the 1970s and conservative Christian infertility forums. Kimball's anger at a social movement that claims to speak for her experience as a woman while neglecting her infertility would be understandable, but The Seed is a much richer text for its author's intellectual generosity.

Christina Turner is an assistant editor at rabble.ca and a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Toronto. She lives in Toronto.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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