The Future of Violence Against Women: Human Rights & the New Genetics
By Sujatha Jesudason
I was born into a culture that embraces confusing messages about the worth and value of women. I grew up in an India where a woman such as Indira Gandhi could become a formidable leader, and yet female infants were routinely killed or starved because they were deemed less valuable than boys. This contradiction played out in my family where smart and competent women who made a difference in the world continued to live with men who abused them, or attempted suicide when their husbands left them. The female role models in my life oscillated between these radical extremes: powerful agents and value-less victims. For as much as I have resisted, this confusion has been a central struggle in my life; I have worked to believe that there is a place for me in this world, that I have a right to enjoyment and happiness, that I matter, and that I have the power to make a difference.
I began working to end violence against women nearly fifteen years ago when I realized that violence is one of the key tools of women's oppression. Not only does this violence literally beat us into submission but, like female infanticide, it inscribes messages of powerlessness, worthlessness and vulnerability onto our bodies, minds and spirits. For many women, this kind of physical and emotional vulnerability begins early and carries through into adulthood, when we struggle to understand how we matter, that we have bodily and emotional integrity, and that we deserve respect and have rights.
As future science and biotechnology, in the form of stem cell research and reproductive genetic technologies, started insistently knocking at our public door, I started to think about the future forms of violence against women. Women's bodies and women's eggs are the raw materials of these new human biotechnologies - what forms of violence are they, and will they perpetuate against women, and against future generations? While there have been many beneficial reproductive technological developments, we are also at a crossroads where many of the technologies currently in use and under consideration - sex selection, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification - have the potential to endanger women's health, and moreover, threaten basic notions of human equality and human rights.
If we consider the different kinds of reproductive screening technologies promoted in the U. S. today, we begin see the kind of troubling questions these technologies raise for women. Women's health is put at risk with inadequately studied pharmaceuticals and technologies, women's bodies are increasingly medicalized in these biomedical processes, and women are under increasing pressures to produce particular types of children, whether they be of a particular sex or ability. Equally disquieting is that some of these practices are market-driven. Sex selection processes like MicroSort, a form of pre-conception sperm sorting, are being advertised as "family balancing" and "gender diversity;" innocently asking, "Do you want to choose the gender of your next baby?"
Technologies such as amniocentesis and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis have long been controversial among disability rights advocates, raising concerns about the normalization of selection processes and eugenic notions of desirable and undesirable traits. As these technologies develop, there are many who advocate that they be used not only for cures, but also for enhancement. They see no problem with women's eggs and genetic material being harvested and manipulated to modify future generations for specific eye color, faster twitch muscles, increased intelligence, decreased need for sleep, narrower emotional capacity (to prevent depression), or any other futuristic notion of what a "better" human being should look like, act like or feel.
As the new reproductive and genetic technologies continue to develop, what messages will be programmed into women's minds, bodies and spirits as girls, women and mothers? What will these messages re-enforce about women's value, worth and power in the world? Will a woman's worth be determined by the "perfection" of the children she bears? Will a baby's value be determined by the amount of money a parent can spend to "buy" the screening processes and genetic modifications? Will a girl's worth be measured by how well she fits the gendered stereotypes in her parents' mind when they selected for her using MicroSort? What will be the value and worth of "designed" children, and of children whose parents could not afford to pre-select the traits of their children?
As somebody who has worked for many years in domestic violence prevention, particularly in the South Asian American community, I am careful about what I label as violence. With clear memories of broken and bloody bodies, I hesitate to call every violation of a woman's dignity and integrity a form of violence. And yet I watch as international scandals breakout about the buying and selling of women's eggs for research with no discussion of women's health and safety or the reduction of women's lives and bodies to their biological materials. We are already looking at one of the new forms of violence against women.
It is in the violence against women movement that we have developed our most organized and consistent voice in our struggle for women's respect, dignity and power in the world. We have named the violence and work to stop it. And this is the movement that continues to most clearly advocate and organize for women's bodily integrity and human rights, and that believes in the power, worth and well-being of women and girls.
As I think about the perilous potentials of genetic and reproductive technologies, I am deeply concerned about what they may imply for future forms of violence against women in the genetic age. Eugenics has a long track record of targeting women; sterilization, incarceration, and rape are but a few of the ways we have been used as guinea pigs and selected out of existence. This new form of eugenics will also target women's bodies, integrity and fertility. In the past, eugenics movements - movements that have tried to "breed better human beings" - have been mostly state sponsored. While the eugenic practices of Nazi Germany most often come to mind, there were significant eugenic programs of sterilization, segregation and immigration restrictions in the early 1900s in the U.S. Now, however, we face the possibility of a market-based eugenics, where individuals in the marketplace could seek to either eliminate or promote particularly "desireable" or "undesireable" genetic characteristics through genetic screening, sex selection, gene therapies and genetic modification.
Do we have a language and a conceptual framework to articulate what these technologies will do to women's bodies, women's rights, and the value of women? We need to understand the kind of platforms of doubt and vulnerability this kind of normalization and selection will program into our culture and in our relationships with each other. And we need to start talking about the kind of violence and violation that will be done to women's bodies in the name of these technologies - the kind of eugenic violence and even genocide that might get practiced against particular groups of people, whether they be girl babies in India and China, Down's syndrome children in the U.S., or the "unperfect" children of the future. What will be our message to women and children if we start designing children? What kind of conditional love are we creating and what kind of inequality are we coding in our bodies and our selves?
Beyond the violations of human rights perpetuated by these technologies, these market-driven eugenics have the potential to end the human community as we know it. Some biotech advocates envision a world of "genetic castes" with the "GenRich" and "Naturals"*, where people who are wealthy enough to afford genetic modifications will rule over those who are not genetically modified. These technologies hold the potential to encode existing social inequalities into genetic make-up. Race and racism will no longer be merely social problems, but will be genetically engraved into our bodies. Will it be possible to ensure human equality, democracy and human rights for genetically and biologically different human beings?
So, what can we do about this? In addition to policies that regulate the use of selection technologies and ban reproductive cloning, inheritable genetic modification, we also need to start social and public discussions of the implications of these technologies. These decisions can not be left up to scientists, biotechnology corporations and policy wonks; they need to be made by people and, in particular, women and the international community.
One route into these discussions is those old-fashioned consciousness-raising groups that characterized the beginning of the second wave of feminism. In such venues we need to talk about human rights and values in these intimate, personal decisions. Just like we did with domestic violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment, our conversations with other women can turn private decisions into public and social concerns. The new reproductive and genetic technologies raise all kinds of complicated and confusing questions - ethically, morally and socially. If we can we share our doubts and confusions with each other we can gain clarity about the broader social, political and economic powers at play. We need to reflect more deeply on the values and worth we will encode in the bodies of women and in future generations.
How do we define what it means to be human in the genetic age? Who decides who is worthy of living? Who decides if we human beings need "enhancement" and at what price to women's bodies and lives? Without regulation or oversight, these technologies, will violate our fundamental human rights and the very foundation of human equality that makes possible the functioning of any democracy. We need to ensure that the rights of women, children and all humans are respected, protected and guaranteed.
In India, the ethical and political understanding of these new human biotechnologies is much clearer. I could not say it any better than the Saheli Women's Resource Centre:
"The final goal of reproductive engineering appears to be the manufacture of a human being to suit exact specifications of physical attributes, class, caste, colour and sex. Who will decide these specifications? We have already seen how sex-determination has resulted in the elimination of female fetuses. The powerless in any society will get more disempowered with the growth of such reproductive technologies."
Over time, many women have been the target of eugenic practices - poor women, women of color, queer women, women with disabilities. The new reproductive and genetic technologies hold the potential for both great promise and great danger for women, our bodies and our communities. Rather than let these technologies slip down the slope of becoming the next tools of violence that violate women's bodies, dignity and integrity, let us work together in thoughtful and ethical ways towards ensuring the future of human rights and human equality.
*Silver, Lee. 1997. Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World. New York: Avon Books.