Today the medical frontier is transplanting uteruses so that women who are missing theirs can still have children of their own. Not an adoption, but one from her own body. Sort of.
The uterus would be a loaner, not permanently hers, since she would have to keep taking anti-rejection drugs to keep the foreign uterus in her body. As soon as she had the child, the uterus would be excess baggage.
Womb transplants in the U.S. are estimated to cost around $300,000 per operation. But spending this kind of money on a pregnancy seems to be OK with just about everyone who is taking part in this discussion. After all, these people want a child and just any child won’t do. It has to be “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”
Sweden has performed nine transplants to date and had four successful births with one pending. Ten British women were approved for transplants in September and in the United States the Cleveland Clinic has been approved to perform 10 experimental transplants.
“I think our initial impression was: ‘Wow. This is really pushing the envelope,’” the chair of the ethics committee at the Cleveland Clinic was quoted as saying by The New York Times. “But this is the way human progress occurs.”
So women who want to get pregnant are assisting human progress.
But what about women who don’t want to get pregnant?
Refuseniks Behind the Counter
If the pharmacist at the local drug store has a religious objection to using birth control, he or she can legally refuse to fill a woman’s prescription in six states. But in practice, pharmacists are refusing to fill such prescriptions more widely. A National Women’s Law Center Report found 25 states where pharmacists had refused to fill prescription for birth control; items ranging from the pill to the morning-after-pill. These refusals “are based on personal beliefs, not on legitimate medical or professional concerns.”
In some states a pharmacist must tell a woman where she can go to get that prescription, but in many states not even that is required.
Since 2010, 282 restrictions on women’s reproductive rights have been enacted, the Guttmacher Institute reported in July. Far more have been proposed. These restrictions range from longer waiting periods before an abortion can be performed to requiring unnecessary medical procedures like ultrasounds to forbidding abortions after 20 weeks of gestation.
The number of proposed U.S. laws that regulate men’s bodies? Zero.
Surely having a vasectomy or buying condoms is no different from a woman who uses birth control. How do we explain this?
And how do we explain that pregnancy supports progress, while a woman who wants to use birth control or even decides to have an abortion is anti-progress? And selfish.
Some would say that it is about history. Women have always been the child-bearers, sequestered in the home, protected. That is the narrative of patriarchy.
That narrative chooses to ignore the parts of history where women who wanted to be more were hanged or burned at the stake. It ignores the necessities of women who—across centuries and cultures—worked outside the home to provide food and shelter for their families. It also ignores the suffering to which girls and women, ostensibly protected by their families, can be horrendously subjected to in the privacy of their own homes.
It is this interpretation of a woman’s role that allows Melinda Gates to be castigated by fundamentalist Christians for supporting family planning for poor women with the Gates Foundation initiative Family Planning 2020, a global effort to make voluntary, artificial contraception available to 120 million poor women by 2020.
Speaking of her own Catholic faith, Gates said in an interview that when poor women have no access to family planning, “We’re not serving the other piece of the Catholic mission, which is social justice.”
Social justice is the lens we must bring to the discussion of “rent-a-uterus” and other narratives of women’s roles in the world. Otherwise, we are leaving out millions of women globally and only promoting the needs of a small and affluent minority.
As we approve funds to advance a woman’s opportunity to bear her own child, we must also insist on providing services to the millions of women who choose to limit the size of their families. It is a matter of health. It is a matter of justice.
BIO: Judith McDaniel teaches women and the law at the University of Arizona. She is a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.