Sharing Motherhood and Patriarchal Prejudices

Guest Post by Ezio Di Nucci, University of Copenhagen

Re: IVF, Same Sex Couples and the Value of Biological Ties 

Reproductive technologies are increasingly enabling access to parenthood to people who previously could not procreate: these developments are changing concepts and practices within family relationships in interesting ways. Take the following example: in a particular form of IVF treatment, known by the acronym ROPA (Reception of Oocytes from Partner), lesbian couples can share motherhood with one partner providing the eggs while the other becomes pregnant.

IVF-with-ROPA is, on the face of it, good news: two people can share the delight of parenthood and create a new family. More precisely, a couple that would have been previously relying on egg donation or surrogacy can do everything by themselves (obviously apart from the sperm donor), thereby being, in an important sense, empowered through technology.

Additionally, IVF-with-ROPA allows such couples to redistribute parenthood in ways that may turn out to be important both for the health of the relationship and from the point of view of justice, as both women can, through IVF-with-ROPA, claim to be biological mothers (the one through gestation, the other through genetics). IVF-with-ROPA, then, on top of fulfilling a very human wish, has the potential to empower women in at least two important ways: by granting (a more) independent access to motherhood and by promising a more equal relationship.

So far the good news. But I am afraid that IVF-with-ROPA, exactly from the point of view of women empowerment, also carries some very traditional risks. Think about it: IVF-with-ROPA (and, indeed, reproductive technologies more in general) does not actually enable parenthood full-stop; it only enables biological parenthood; as couples that go for IVF-with-ROPA could have presumably also become parents in non-biological ways (adoption, for example). The risks of emphasizing the biological side of parenthood happen to be illustrated particularly well by the supposed second advantage of IVF-with-ROPA: the idea that sharing biological motherhood will lead to more equal and just families.

The principle motivating this idea should be familiar to us all, as it is one of the guiding forces of patriarchy and its oppression of women, namely the idea that the nature of parents’ biological ties to their children should guide the distribution of roles within the family, so that for example mothers, because of their gestational relationship to their children, should, say, stay at home more than fathers.
IVF-with-ROPA starts with the promise of empowering women by allowing lesbian couples to share motherhood but it risks reinforcing our society’s patriarchal prejudices by emphasizing the importance of biological ties to our children, which has been one of the main instruments of patriarchal oppression through history.
Our commitment to equality, then, is exactly what should make us skeptical of this appeal to biological ties based on patriarchal prejudices about how biology affects role-distribution and power-imbalances within a family. A parental project cannot be liberated from the patriarchal norm by trying to redistribute the very phenomenon, biological ties, which is consistently used to reinforce our oppressive status-quo: rather, liberation requires the establishment of fair and equal parental projects where biological ties do not play any role in the distribution of roles, responsibility, and ultimately power.

This is actually a general point relevant to all parental projects and families: a difference in biological ties within the family should not affect parents’ relationships with their children nor the parents’ own relationship; it should not affect, in short, what we have referred to as the distribution of roles, responsibility and power within the family. To put it very simply: women in traditional contexts ought not to be taking on a greater burden within the family simply in virtue of the fact that they have a biological tie to the children (genetics plus gestation) that men in traditional contexts do not have (only genetics).