Medical technology is an awesome thing. It can save lives, cure terrible diseases, rebuild bodies. It can prolong and improve the lives of the chronically ill and disabled beyond the wildest dreams of sufferers even fifty years ago. It can reattach limbs, restore sight, cure depression, return the manic to health and sanity. But can it be used to give women control over whether and when they have children? Only if male doctors and MPs say so.
Whoever your parents are, they’re going to fuck you up to some extent. I make no apologies for assuming that gay women and single women are just as likely to make good parents as anyone else, if not more so, as children conceived via the arduous process of IVF are slightly more likely to be wanted and treasured infants. For the purposes of this post we shall assume that one’s sexual orientation has no bearing on one’s likelihood of raising an unfucked-up child, nor on one’s right to attempt to do so. With that one out the way, let’s tuck in to a tasty breakfast of radical feminism with a gin chaser.
Throughout the wholesale technological reworking of the cultural landscape in the 20th and 21st centuries, laws remained in place to prevent new medical technologies and increased understanding liberating women’s reproductive choices. Even now, a woman must gain the permission of two doctors and undergo stringent ‘checks’ before she can access safe medical abortion. Until recently, women seeking IVF needed to declare a father and use a named man’s sperm despite the existence of plausible alternatives. But this week, in an impressive feat of anti-Luddism, MPs voted to allow single female parents and lesbian couples the right to reproductive self-determination: the right to have children, if they choose, without mandatory male interference.
‘Fathers are no longer needed!’ screamed the headlines as the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill passed through the commons on Tuesday. Well, we could have told you that. Millions of us grew up without fathers at home, without fathers at all. Millions more of us have loving and productive relationships with our fathers, but it is categorically not the case that any father at all is better than no father. The work of pregnancy, labour and the majority of childrearing still falls upon women, and it is inhumane to insist that that work be anything other than a sphere of self-determination. Men do not go through the physical trauma of conception, pregnancy and labour; men can have no right, as such, to insist upon any control over the process. It might be hard for individual men to swallow, but until medical technology enables them to conceive, incubate and bear children themselves, fatherhood will remain a privilege to be earned, rather than a right to be insisted on.
Reproductive rights campaigning goes far deeper than individual instances of choice. It’s a powerful cultural fascination, an issue that is woven into the very fabric of the stories that make us modern. From the rape of the Sabine women to Europa, ancient myth and precedent is obsessed by violent male control of feminine reproductive potential. From Brave New World to 1984 to the Culture, fables and fictions of the future are replete with paranoid speculation over the reorganisation of reproductive control.
The power to continue – or not to continue – the human race is quite simply the biggest social loaded gun on the planet. Since the dawn of patriarchy, male control over reproductive rights has been essential to the furtherance of patriarchal power, just as the ancient matriarchies ended when men’s involvement in human reproduction was realised.
This is why the rights of women to have children without ‘declaring the father’, to terminate pregnancy and to raise children alone, are such emotive and important legal sticking points. Women’s right to decide whether and when and how they have children is the ultimate threat to the rule of men, the ultimate insult to the divine supremacy of the father, and this week’s Commons vote is a milestone in the erosion of political patriarchy whose significance we will be debating for years to come.
Conservative MPs such as Ian Duncan Smith have made “impassioned pleas that the Government plan would “drive another nail into the coffin of the traditional family”” (DailyHate, 21.05.08). The assumption of the Tories is that the vacuous notion of the ‘traditional family’ ever had any relevance. The organisation of human love has little to do with how children are raised and everything to do with the maintenance of the bourgeois state – and excuse me for coughing communism onto this keyboard, I’ve got this little marxist tickle that just won’t quit.
The Embryology Bill marks a turning point in the history of patriarchy, and all of us -men and women and transpeople, feminists and libertarians and trade unionists – can congratulate ourselves on beating back the tide of fundamentalist reactionism at extremely short notice. But, since this is a fight we’re going to be called to again and again, we will have to spend the meantime coming to terms with the radical systemic social change that must be the end-point of our ideology. The rights of women to biological self-determination, the rights of mothers to bear or not to bear children without mandatory male interference, must remain fixed points on the agenda of the British left. Men have a right to stand alongside women, a right to care for their children, a right to take up the responsibilities of fatherhood once that privilege has been granted them. Fathers have their place. But that place is no longer at the head of the table.