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Motherhood and Maternity

Contentious Debates

In the light of the revolutionary changes that have come about since 1978—when the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born—it is important to touch upon abortion, surrogacy, and new reproductive technologies (NRTs). Such contemporary issues relating to motherhood have provoked controversies that reflect diverse social and cultural perceptions of motherhood.


The conscious decision to medically terminate pregnancy is controversial in religious and political terms in many countries, regardless of levels of modernity. Pro-life groups in the United States and Europe staunchly campaign for the closure of abortion clinics, while for women in contemporary China or India abortion is easy and inexpensive, given the population control policies in these two countries.

Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, perhaps all religious and secular philosophies, focus on two central questions relating to abortion: (1) When does the embryo/fetus acquire the property that makes the termination of pregnancy "killing"? and (2) Is abortion, before or after this point, ever justifiable? Orthodox strains in Christianity, Buddhism, and classical Hindu embryology (which maintain that the trans-migration of consciousness occurs at conception) believe that all abortion is sin and incurs the karmic burden of killing (in Buddhist and Hindu terms). Before modern embryology, however, in both Buddhist countries and the West, ideas about conception were scientifically inaccurate. Although the findings of modern neuro-embryology provided scientific support for subsequent arguments developed by most Western ethicists to defend abortion, such legacies continue to impede pro-choice campaigns in asserting that any society that values liberty should not control a woman's reproductive rights by law (Luker).

Whether abortion is ever "justified" relates to whether religious ethics about motherhood are absolutist, utilitarian, or "virtuist" (i.e., seeing the good in the development of personal qualities). The absolutist would regard abortion akin to murder, whatever the justification. The utilitarian would justify it on compassionate grounds (based on the mother's health or the population crisis or parental inability to raise a child).

Traditional Jewish law (halakah) takes a positive stand on procreation and is comparatively lenient regarding the NRTs. In densely populated countries like China, India, or Bangladesh, state-sponsored family planning policies have enhanced the social acceptability of abortion. Japanese society combines both utilitarian and virtue approaches. Widely accepted as a "sorrowful necessity," abortion is openly ritualized in Buddhist temples selling rituals and statues intended to represent parents' apologies to the aborted. Some Buddhists have adopted a moderate position: abortion is akin to killing, but women should have that choice. Since most Buddhists support laws that discourage or punish murder, implicitly this position seems to suggest that abortion is either justifiable (when it conflicts with bodily autonomy) or that fetuses are closer in status to animals.

Such reproductive accommodations, while they reduce the impact of oppressive regimes on women's reproductive autonomy, do not necessarily emerge from debates that incorporate women's voices. Feminists also point out that pro-life activists (women and men) are not necessarily opposed to capital punishment or killings in war, implying thereby that anti-abortion positions are motivated by considerations of power and control over women rather than morality. Thus, feminist activists the world over stress that abortion should be viewed as an issue of autonomy, constitutionality, and economic status, rather than simply of ethics.

Surrogate motherhood.

Like abortion, surrogate motherhood—which allows for a woman to carry and bear a child for childless couples, mostly as a commercial transaction—is a highly problematic issue. In pitting claims of mothering-as-biological birthing against those of mothering-as-nurturing, it poses ethical, legal, and, some would argue, moral issues. Although new reproductive technologies that enable childless women to raise genetically related offspring increase women's motherhood options, they are pitted against religious beliefs and conservative ethical systems. By creating alternative forms of parenthood and supplanting sexual intercourse as a means of reproduction, this branch of biomedicine has also unwittingly created challenges to kinship and family law. Ethicists generally view surrogate mothering arrangements in terms of stark moral choices: between the tragedy of infertility on the one hand, and the potential for exploitation of the host mother on the other. Among the many compelling objections, the likely economic exploitation of poor, working-class women by affluent childless couples remains a key concern. There are also concerns that widespread surrogacy would lead to a commodification of infants, while reducing motherhood to paid labor and the woman's body to an incubator that can be hired through a contract.

New reproductive technologies.

Feminist theorists of different persuasions have been critical of the effects of NRTs as "potentially insidious forms of social control" over women's bodies. Radical feminists believe that by using NRTs, and participating in these technological processes that invade the autonomy of their bodies, women unwittingly aid patriarchy in gaining more control over their bodies. Feminist theorists Jana Sawicki and Donna Haraway, however, advocate a more complex reading of these technologies. For Sawicki, radical feminists ignore the resistance already emerging within this area. Haraway suggests that rather than view this simplistically, one should complicate our theories of experience. Haraway calls for a shift away from dualistic, oppositional thinking that posits technology as solely destructive and fragmentary. In short, Haraway proposes that while is it true that technology can and has been used as a negative force against women, to write it off as unredeemably patriarchal limits feminist thinking when more nuanced perspectives are needed.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Motherhood and Maternity - History, Religion, And Myth, Feminist Critiques, Motherhood And Development Discourses, Contentious Debates