Reproductive Technology

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Reproductive Technology

Organized by: Colleen C. Ammerman, William T. Grant Foundation
Updated by: Lacey Story, Oakland University

The articles in this section cover a range of concerns and topics. All consider the impact of gender ideologies on reproductive health and behavior, and together their unique contribution lies in addressing the ways men’s and women’s reproductive choices and experiences are mediated by various technologies. The technologies addressed are diverse, from the decidedly “low-tech,” like condoms, to cutting-edge practices, like freezing eggs for later fertilization and implantation. Moreover, the articles in this section expand the notion of reproductive technology beyond contraception and infertility treatment, asking us to consider, for example, the gendered dimensions of internalized beliefs about childbirth as a kind of “technology of the self” or the impact of public policy mechanisms on reproductive decision-making. All of the articles are useful for thinking and teaching about the impact of gender and sexism on reproductive behaviors and norms, but many (particularly Gavey, Kelly, Bell, and Carpenter) would be productive discussion texts in a course on public health.

Czarnecki, Danielle. 2015. Moral Women, Immoral Technologies: How Devout Women Negotiate Gender, Religion, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies. Vol. 29, 5: pp. 716-742.

Catholicism is the most restrictive world religion in its position on assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). The opposition of the Church, combined with the widespread acceptability of ARTs in the United States, creates a profound moral dilemma for those who adhere to Church doctrine. Drawing on interviews from 33 Catholic women, this study shows that devout women have different understandings of these technologies than women from treatment-based studies. These differences are rooted in devout women’s position of navigating two contradictory cultural schemas—“religious” and “secular”—regarding the meaning of reproductive technologies. Religious schemas provide devout women with different cultural resources that help them to avoid using ARTs while still reckoning with the ideal of biological parenthood. I show how devout women draw on religion to find value and meaning in their suffering, move beyond biological motherhood, and achieve a moral femininity. While religion increases the burden of reproduction for devout women, it also provides the cultural resources to resist the financial, emotional, and physical difficulties experienced by women who use ARTs.

Gavey, Nicola, Kathryn McPhillips, and Marion Doherty. 2001. “If it’s not on, it’s not on”– or is it? : Discursive constraints on women’s condom use. Gender & Society 15(6): 917-934.

The authors examine barriers to women’s use of condoms during heterosexual sex. They discuss the influence of dominant cultural beliefs around sexual activity between men and women, such as the “coital imperative” (the sense that sexual arousal must proceed to penetration) and the familiar notion that feminine sexuality should be oriented toward male pleasure. Analyzing interviews with fourteen women, the authors find that these beliefs tend to constrain women’s desire and/or ability to insist on condom use. This conclusion posed a challenge to then-current approaches to increasing condom use among heterosexual populations, which encouraged women to insist on condom use as a condition for sex.

Agadjanian, Victor. 2002. Men’s talk about ”women’s matters’’: Gender, communication, and contraception in urban Mozambique. Gender & Society 16(2): 194-215.

The author presents findings from a qualitative study of men in suburban Mozambique, examining when, where, and with whom they discuss family planning practices and contraceptive methods. The study finds that men tend to discuss beliefs about and experiences with contraception with other men of their same social class and age range, and that men are more likely to talk about contraception with other men than with their spouses or family members. The author also discusses the influence of gendered ideologies regarding fertility and sexuality. The article differs from other studies in its focus on men’s, rather than women’s, communication about contraception.

Martin, Karin A. 2003. Giving birth like a girl. Gender & Society 17(1): 54-72.

The article reviews feminist sociological critiques of childbirth and argues that this prior work has overlooked the ways in which women’s own internalized beliefs about how women should act influence their behavior during childbirth. Drawing on Foucault’s concept of “technologies of the self,” the author argues that women regulate their behavior during childbirth in order to conform to gendered expectations (i.e. that women are kind, selfless, and caring). This “internalized technology of gender,” Martin argues, causes women to minimize or ignore their own needs during childbirth, thus making it more difficult.

Markens, Susan, C.H. Browner, and H. Mabel Preloran. 2003. ”I’m not the one they’re sticking the needle into:” Latino couples, fetal diagnosis, and the discourse of reproductive rights. Gender & Society 17(3): 452-481.

The authors examine how Latino couples make decisions regarding amniocentesis, paying particular attention to how the relationships’ gender dynamics influence the decision-making process and eventual outcome. Analyzing interviews with 157 Mexican-origin women and 120 male partners, the authors find that couples tend to engage in shared decision-making about prenatal testing, challenging conventional notions of male dominance and female subservience among Latino couples. In their decision-making, the couples studied drew on a range of discourse and beliefs about reproduction and gender than both challenge and reinforce gender norms.

Elson, Jean. 2003. Hormonal hierarchy: Hysterectomy and stratified stigma. Gender & Society 17(5): 750-770.

The author investigates the effects of gynecological surgery on women’s gender identity. Employing interview data from 44 women who had undergone the removal of the uterus and/or ovaries, the author identifies a “hormonal hierarchy” which places women who retain both ovaries after hysterectomy at the top, followed by those who retain one, part of, or no ovary after hysterectomy. This finding suggests that while the uterus may be valued for its childbearing function, the ovaries may be more closely tied to women’s sense of gender identity and ‘femaleness’ due to their hormone production. The author ultimately argues that in order to accurately understand the nature of gender identity, sociologists must attend to its biological, embodied aspects as well socially-constructed features.

Kelly, Kimberly and Linda Grant. 2007.  State abortion and nonmarital birthrates in the post-welfare reform era: The impact of economic incentives on reproductive behaviors of teenage and adult women. Gender & Society 21(6):878-904.

The article focuses on several provisions of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 that aim to influence women’s reproductive behavior. The bill, more commonly known as “welfare reform,” provides incentives to states for reductions both in out-of-wedlock births and in abortion rates. Analyzing state-level data on birth and abortion rates, the authors find that reductions in out-of-wedlock births and abortions tend not to be significantly related to state laws and regulations associated with welfare reform. They argue that these findings support prior feminist scholarship on reproductive decision-making and, further, are indicative of women’s resistance to state efforts to control their reproductive behavior.

Brubaker, Sarah Jane. 2007. Denied, embracing, and resisting medicalization: African American teen mothers’ perceptions of formal pregnancy and childbirth care. Gender & Society 21(4): 528-552.

The author examines pregnant and parenting teens’ experiences with reproductive health care and identifies key themes about African American teen mothers’ relationship to formal medical care. Conducting interviews with 51 African American teens enrolled in a school parenting program, she finds that these young women tend to have limited access to reproductive health information and services prior to pregnancy. Once pregnant, teens embrace certain aspects of formal reproductive health care while resisting others. These strategies for navigating reproductive health care point to distinctive features of African American teen mothers’ experiences that have been overlooked by feminist critiques of medicalized maternity care. For example, embracing formal medical care can function as a way for teens to normalize their pregnancies and avoid some of the stigma associated with teen pregnancy. Meanwhile, certain other strategies employed by the teens, such as rejecting medical interventions they deemed harmful or unnecessary, were consisted with feminist critiques. These findings suggest that the medicalization of reproductive health care affects women differently according to age, race, and class status.

Bell, Ann V. 2009. ”It’s way out of my league’’: Low-income women’s experiences of medicalized infertility. Gender & Society 23(5): 688-705

The article focuses on how women of low socioeconomic status experience infertility and the strategies they employ to cope with it. Drawing on data from in-depth interviews with twenty women, the author finds that poor and working-class women’s options for addressing infertility are limited by social and economic inequalities. For instance, Medicaid does not provide for infertility treatments, and even women whose insurance covers such treatments may not be able to afford out-of-pocket fees and frequent medical appointments. The author also argues that policies and practices in reproductive health are structured by stereotypes about poor women being highly fertile and in need of treatments to control fertility, despite the fact there are similar rates of infertility among women of low socioeconomic status and wealthier women. Bell also identifies several strategies for dealing with infertility employed by women of low socioeconomic status who cannot afford or are otherwise excluded from medical infertility treatments and/or adoption.

Carpenter, Laura M. and Monica J. Casper. A tale of two technologies: HPV vaccination, male circumcision, and sexual health. Gender & Society 23(6): 790-816.

The authors consider how responses to the HPV vaccine and to circumcision as HIV prevention have been shaped by cultural beliefs about sexuality, gender, age, race, and nationality. They note that in the United States, attempts to mandate HPV vaccination for girls have been met with concerns about female promiscuity, while promotion of circumcision as an HIV preventative has not aroused comparable worries about boys’ or young men’s sexuality.

Martin, Lauren Jade. Anticipating infertility: Egg freezing, genetic preservation, and risk. Gender & Society 24(4): 526-545.

The author explores the medical and popular discourse around egg freezing, identifying “anticipated infertility” as a new, medicalized category that has emerged since the introduction of the technology. She notes that this category expands the boundaries of infertility, since all women are eventually rendered infertile by age. Reviewing textual materials from medical and popular publications, as well as observing presentations by medical professionals who perform egg freezing, Martin finds that two types of women are most frequently named as candidates for egg freezing: cancer patients preparing to undergo treatment and healthy young women seeking to delay childbearing. The former tend to be depicted as altruistic, undergoing a procedure that entails some risk so as to preserve a potential future family life and achieve motherhood. This contrasts with the portrayal of healthy women’s use of the technology as selfish, seen in some popular media. In addition to this view, Martin identifies two other narratives about healthy women who may freeze their eggs: that they are vulnerable to exploitation, as the procedures is expensive and still considered experimental, and, conversely, that they are empowered by the technology and liberated from the “biological clock.” These competing narratives, as well as the dominant view of cancer patients who freeze their eggs, suggest that ideologies about the desirability of motherhood underlie both the popular and medical discourse. 

Pande, Amrita. 2020. “Visa Stamps for Injections: Traveling Biolabor and South African Egg Provision.” Gender & Society 34 (4): 573-596.

In this article, I discuss cross-border egg provision by young South African women as a form of traveling biolabor that is critically about embodiment, and aspirations for mobility and cosmopolitanism. The frame of biolabor challenges the frames of altruism/commodification, and choice/coercion, and instead highlights the desires of egg providers, fundamental to the creation and maintenance of the global fertility market. When biolabor crosses borders as traveling biolabor, the analysis can focus on the specificities of inequalities embedded within such reproductive mobility. Traveling or mobility is often a privileged decision and connotes freedom and cultural capital. Yet, when applied to young white egg providers from South Africa, this traveling biolabor relies on a particular kind of biopolitics wherein the reproductive potential of ova/egg is fundamental in facilitating women’s cross-border mobility. I divide the findings sections into three key themes— “cosmopolitan competency,” “alternatives to maternity,” and “productive pain”—to argue that, on the one hand, from recruitment of traveling egg providers to their (self) management, this biolabor is built on the young women’s aspirations for cosmopolitanism. Traveling biolabor becomes a way to escape the normative expectations of their (primarily rural, conservative) families and the (Afrikaner) national project of the volksmoeder (mother of the nation). On the other hand, the pursuit of these aspirations is critically contingent on management successfully reframing the embodied pain of egg provision as well as the biolaborer’s own maternity.