Can the e-tail industry be faulted for building businesses out of our laziness — or busy-ness, depending on how one looks at it? Or, for that matter, can wedding planners be faulted for making money out of our national obsession with Karan Johar and his films? Is artificial reproductive technology (ART) the villain for converting the social premium on motherhood into a fat bank balance?
It is the answer to the last question that Politics of the Womb: The Perils of IVF, Surrogacy and Modified Babies seeks through social commentary and empirical evidence. It is a painstakingly researched book that looks at all aspects of motherhood, without deification. Pinki Virani has clearly done her legwork and invested hours trawling PubMed to look for scientific papers related to the issue.
Using assisted reproduction as the metaphor for sexism within the confines of the family, Virani challenges social mores that look at women only as potential propagators of the race. She blasts her way through the high pedestal that society reserves for mothers, one that, according to her, “mocks motherhood”. That blasting, in principle, I would have thoroughly enjoyed. Only she does so at a pitch and tenor that often times makes her swing to the other extreme — of subjecting men to the stereotyping that women have been subject to for ages, and which she is stridently speaking up against.
Thus, for Virani, a woman opting to have a baby through scientific means after the natural ones fail is essentially
a victim of circumstances – a tad simplistic given that the sheer costs associated with assisted reproduction means
that the chances are more of her having had a decent education and opportunities.
But there is unlimited and, at times, misplaced derision for the commercial sperm donor. Sample this paragraph. “Who is this un-person (commercial sperm donor)? Does he walk away if he impregnates his girlfriend or wife, abandoning parental responsibility? In which case, what kind of human being is he, this IVF one-night stand who wants no attachment to his genetics, merely the money for it. Is this a gene pool coveted for a craved-for child?” The commercial surrogate is spared such critcism.
While talking about the woman who has had her body “successfully” ravaged by IVF, Virani says this goes through her mind: “She knows, when she looks across the same dining table, that the teen’s father does not come from good seed”. Haven’t we heard that line a million times: only for the womb that embedded the seed? Does casting the same aspersions on the seed make the world a better place?
The book is infused with dollops of feminism, some rudimentary anatomy, physiology and a lot of search results for IVF research posing as factual analysis of the baby-making industry, when the conclusions the book arrives at appear to have been decided way before the first line was typed.
Studies on beneficial effects of alcohol are as easy to come by as those on its associations with various diseases. The book deftly uses that fallacy of medical research to make its pre-decided conclusions sound like axioms. Occasionally, it borders on being alarmist. While discussing risks of IVF gone wrong, Virani writes a scary section on genetic chimera. Chimera are people with two sets of genes. Horrific as that sounds, all the ones known so far have been people conceived and born naturally.
Sometimes, the aspersions get graphic. “To understand what such external hormones do, in the woman’s body chock-filled with drugs, just please do this. Ask another man to stand in front. Face him. Request him to deliver a kick, a gentle one, to the testicles. Stand up. Request another kick, a little more violent, in the same place. Stand up again. Ask the man to wear a pair of curved-in-front and covered-in-brass shoes. Plead for another kick, a series of kicks, in the same place, viciously into the testicles, smashing into the scrotum.”
In sharp contrast is her capitulation to the NDA government’s world view: that the interests of a child “is best
served living legally with a legally wedded woman and man under one roof with physical-financial-emotional safety, which constitutes the most stable environment for a child as demonstrated by civilisation to date.” That apparently was why the choice of surrogacy was restricted to married heterosexual couples when the Union cabinet recently passed a Bill for its regulation.
While I have no special soft spot for IVF practitioners, there is a question Virani asks in the book that I would like to answer. “Does a heart surgeon or cancer specialist keep calling newspapers to say, ‘Hey, just had another successful surgery?’” They do, or at any rate, their PR people do. All the time.
A lot of the ills of ART that Virani has unearthed are in effect ills of the medical profession, the pay-even-if-you-are-dead private sector and the lack of regulation.