Noel León, LSRJ Legal Fellow (’14, University of Pennsylvania Law School)
I attended The Embryo and Global Reproductive Technologies conference at last Tuesday at the UC Berkeley Department of Gender & Women’s Studies. The panelists presented a fascinating variety of sociological and anthropological research from around the world about how people perceive the nature of the “embryo” and kinship.
I usually stay away from philosophical conversations about personhood because they are so often used to diminish the humanity and autonomy of people, especially pregnant women but certainly others, making choices about their reproductive lives and families. But this conference helped me see how reproductive justice can benefit from nuanced conversations about the nature of the embryo: When global reproductive health technologies are involved, the reproductive interests of every participant at every point are implicated and must be attended to; and in order to attend to them, each participant’s understanding of their body, children, and family must be incorporated.
Under some belief systems, presenters demonstrated, the biological connection to a family member was paramount; while under others, the prominence of spiritual kinship makes biology irrelevant. Some societies house the predominant belief that the “self” inside the embryo has existed long before conception and makes its own choices about its future self; while in others it is generally believed that a “self” does not come into existence until well into pregnancy. Still other divisions exist between people whose understandings of family and kinship change based on whether a parent actually gives birth to their child.
In all of these societies, it was clear that when someone engages personally with reproductive health technologies, their perceptions often change even more. Presenters discussed how hopeful parents, surrogates, medical professionals, egg and sperm donors, and embryo researchers within one country all understood embryos somewhat differently.
Given that the extraordinarily complex transnational issues of reproductive assistance systems will likely persist, the question nagged at me: How can those in the U.S. who are involved in the global reproductive health system – as egg donors, surrogates, adoption agencies, would-be parents, corporations, reproductive health care professionals, and policymakers – engage with the system in a way that pushes it towards reproductive justice for all involved? Should institutions be systematically providing education on global impact to potential participants? Even if education could in theory help push the system to be more reproductively just, how can unbiased education be practically achieved that reaches everyone considering engagement with the system? Will the government do the educating? “Medical tourism” companies like the now disgraced Planet Hospital? Liberal or conservative press?
At this point, the best approach may be one that reproductive justice advocates have been using for many years: Stories. Some groups, such as We Are Egg Donors, are beginning to share the ways that they grapple with their own relationships to embryos and to other participants in the global reproductive technology system. But in order for the system to move meaningfully towards creating reproductive justice with sensitivity to diverse understandings of the embryo, more stories must be shared from participants at different points systems across the world. This is tall order and likely a long process, but we have to start somewhere.