Sunday, 8 June 2008

Blood, DNA and Feminism.

The obsession with blood and DNA as markers of familial relationship in contemporary society is increasingly disturbing. Throughout history, blood lineage has always been important amongst certain social groups, especially for inheritance reasons, and, as a result, the chastity of women was vital. Female virginity on marriage and chastity throughout ensured that any children she gave birth to could be identified as legitimate heirs. Male chastity was less important as they could not pass off illegitimate children as someone else’s. The concern with blood led to significant social, cultural and physical restrictions on women’s lives, but it also required a significant amount of trust, as it was never absolutely possible to prove legitimacy.

Despite this obsession, British society in the past was open to familial relationships that were broader than blood alone. Amongst the Scottish clans, a system of fosterage existed, where a child (often the heir) of warring (or uneasily allied) kin groups would be brought up by the enemy family to promote harmony in the next generation. This link was often consolidated through marriage within the kin groups. These children were expected to be loved and well-treated, like a biological child, to ensure good relationships. It was also true that where families were without heirs, they would adopt children from other families, while orphaned children could be adopted by loving parents (although I would not like to suggest that there was a golden age without orphanages or other institutions). The complexities of the apprenticeship system, where children went to live with another family at around age 12, also meant that people often raised the children of other families. Apprenticeship contracts often include clauses that require moral guidance and care as well as occupational training. In the Victorian period, it was not unusual for single (mainly middle-class) women to adopt orphaned children, as it was considered good for the child and good for the woman to release her ‘innate motherly urges’ (check this out single mothers!!). While blood was important, having an invested interest in the children of other people was not considered problematic or a waste of time or energy.

Today, our obsession with blood continues, but often in a more extreme form. We no longer require women to be chaste as we can do a DNA test to prove paternity, but if a child is not biologically related then we pretty much cut all ties. The idea that fatherhood (or, for that matter, motherhood) is about action, behaviour and desire is quickly being replaced by a biological link. Recently, the advice columnist Joan Burnie was sent a letter by a man who had recently discovered that his sperm count was low and questioned whether his, now adult, daughter was really his. He asked whether he should demand a DNA test. As Joan responded, what’s the point, other than to hurt your daughter? Does DNA really replace a lifetime relationship? Are you any less a father because your genetic code hasn’t been passed on? Similarly, the American writer, Rebecca Walker, has recently said that she loves her biological child more than her stepson, whom she also raised. When did a piece of paper, or an abstract bit of code, become more important than a relationship?

In many ways, I think that this trend is represented in the desire for IVF. Now, I think IVF is a good and important thing and should be widely available, but you have to wonder why it is fast replacing adoption. In part, I think this is caused by widespread fear that nature may be stronger than nurture. Awareness of genetics has led us to obsess about hereditary diseases, hereditary personality traits, hereditary criminality, as if who we are is entirely the result of our DNA, not (at least in part) our upbringing. And yet at the same time, we increasingly cordon our children off from society, for fear that strangers may corrupt or abuse them. We contain ourselves in smaller and smaller, privatised boxes, not only rejecting outsiders, but even those within our families whose genetic origins are suspect. We have also begun to obsess about our origins in another light, tracing back family trees to find out who we are, and then adjusting our perception of self and identity to match a long dead heritage (aha! We were actually a criminal underclass; Look at the purity of our roots over several generations).

As feminists, we should be wary of a call to blood and DNA as this attitude has never been great for women in the past. As we worry about genetics, it tends to be women’s bodies that are increasingly policed. It is women whose eggs have to be in prime condition to stop ‘genetic’ defaults; despite evidence that poor quality sperm is also ‘a problem’. Women with disabilities, or undesirable genetic traits, are increasingly outcast and their reproductive options limited by a call to genetic perfection. It almost goes without saying that such attitudes tend to work against groups in the population that are already viewed suspiciously: black people, Asian people, poor people, etc. DNA tests allow men to walk away from responsibility towards children, never mothers. It is frequently women who suffer most by the privatisation of the household, where, let’s not forget, the vast majority of violence and abuse that children and women face occurs. The privatisation of children makes it more difficult for women to ask other women for support in child-rearing without this seeming like a unreasonable burden. An inability to share links with humanity beyond the family is bad for women as it isolates them, and it is bad for feminism as we cannot create a movement due to fear of the other, an ‘other’ that is an increasingly large part of the population.

It is also bad for children. Children, especially those who are not white, middle-class newborns, who end up in care are no longer fostered or adopted, but cared for by the state in institutions. This is not (just?) due to an increase in IVF removing the demand (plenty of foster and adoptive parents have biological children, plus much of this is due to the lack of support for parents in society generally, making having or fostering children difficult), but a fear that the potential disruption that these unvetted elements may add to a household are too great a risk. Children who live with their parents (biological or otherwise) no longer get to interact with other adults, and, through doing so, learning about other cultures and values, and being able to access alternative sources of support and advice. Through this, they are taught that involvement with other people’s lives is suspicious and unwanted, and the basis for any social movement, which relies on a sense of commonality, unity and ultimately involvement with other people, is lost.


Anonymous said...

Great post--spot on.

Anonymous said...

Hi (new commenter here)-
This book has taught me so much on this topic. It's fairly US-centric and a lot of it is about the undermining of black motherhood (including coerced birth control and sterilizations) in US history, but she does discuss reproductive technologies later. IIRC, she says that they have a "subversive" potential, for allowing single women and gay and lesbian couples to have children, but that more often than not it goes with the status quo.
Yeah, and I found the Rebecca Walker quote pretty disturbing!

Feminist Avatar said...

Ooh, thanks for the reference. I'll need to put it on my reading list!