Queer Technologies and Reproductive Rights

The issue of Zoe’s Law (2) remains unresolved. Three sessions of parliament have passed where the issue has been debated. I was a member of the audience in that parliament for the last two, along with a large contingent of protesters against the motion.

One of the issues that has come up around my participation was why I felt this issue was a queer issue. I thought I would take the time to explain myself on that. While I think that these matters are primarily an issue for women, they are part of a broader narrative of queer resistance against the medicalisation of bodies and bodily autonomy. For a really good contemporaneous example of this conflict, I would refer you to the opposition against medical intervention of intersex children – it is a similar refrain that homosexuals fought to have their sexuality declassified from being a mental illness 30 years ago.

Women should hopefully find allies on this issue within the queer movements, and I encourage women to embrace this issue as an intersectional one, to oppose the medicalisation of sexual bodies.

Queer Technologies

So much of the history of the queer movement has been around challenging medicalised notions of sex, sexuality, and gender, and shifting them more towards a framework that is about actualisation. By this, I mean that these struggle seek to make the experience of personality superior to the experience of embodiment, and using a variety of technologies to help change, control, and remodel our physically lived experiences to suit the designs of our personality. While the most obvious example of this relates to the use of hormones and surgery to assign and reassign sex, issues that relate to the regulation and control of reproductivity are also part of that broad spectrum.

In many ways, this struggle is directed towards the way we understand the practice of medicine, and various technologies within its purview. It seeks to move medical practice away from normalising bodies towards a position of liberating those bodies instead. That is, so much of queer resistance is against a medicalisation of sex, sexuality, and gender. It is against the co-option of medicine and science to construct our bodies in a manner that is useful only to patriarchy and heteronormative ideas.

[Queer Resistance] seeks to move medical practice away from normalising bodies towards a position of liberating those bodies instead.

Reproductive technologies are a subset of what I consider queer technologies because of the way they remove the constraints of biological determinism. They challenge traditional notions of sex, gender, and sexuality. They reconfigure them from serving reproduction, to serving a broader range of agendas, including identity, pleasure, and power.

For women, intersex people, and trans people (amongst others), queer technologies are granting autonomy over our bodies, that they might be shaped in a way that conforms with their desired experience of that body. Thus, I consider the pill as one of the world’s first queer technologies, because it helped precipitate the sexual revolution by granting women control over their reproduction.

The Medicalisation of Bodies

Medicalisation is a process that uses medical expertise and knowledge to render phenomena of living down to its basic biology and physiology.

Medicalisation is a process that uses medical expertise and knowledge to render phenomena of living down to its basic biology and physiology. Our distinctiveness is described less in the context of social characteristics, and more in terms of anatomical and biological ideas. In doing so, medicalisation tends to view difference and variation in a very pathological manner, because definitions of ‘health’ refer frequently back to standard and normal models. Consequently, medicalisation is actually counterposed with legal notions of personhood, because it actively seeks to move away from social predicates of being towards medical ones.

That is, the law is itself a social construction. It is limited by an issues called the fact-value distinction, which means that any issue before the law must distinguish between empirically observed matters (facts) and what those facts mean for society (values). Because it is almost impossible to determine what we ought to do based on what has been observed, the law must refer to social values to give those facts meaning. Thus the law is a fabric of social values, which gives meaning, agency, and power to a variety of things and interactions that happen around us.

More importantly, the law must reduce complex ideas down into simpler ones. The law is inherently reductive because it struggles to cope with ambiguities. Not only can thousands of dollars depends on an interpretation, but judges are required to return a definitive interpretation. Leaving room for ambiguity only serves to undermine a piece of legislation. Check out my Beyond Binaries policy brief for how many of these issues play out, even under a legal framework that seek to be actively inclusive.

The Carriage of Personhood

In the instance of foetal personhood, the above-mentioned issues are doubly troublesome. On one hand it personifies a foetus, and on the other hand it medicalises a mother. That is, it gives a foetus the status of a personality, and it reduces a mother to her caricature as a uterus. She is no longer a mother, but a carriage for another person.

The problem here is that this law is conflating personification with the ascription of personhood. Personification is understandable, because mothers and parents are neurologically wired to bond with their children, and humanity has historically inscribed human characteristics onto all manner of things. Even babies are capable of recognising faces, revealing that it is something of an innate skill.

However, the reason that personification must be distinguished from personhood is because one has significant social consequence. Personhood imputes agency through entitling an entity with a suite of legal rights. Agency is a crucial component of the law, because it relates to actions and agendas, not merely philosophies. To grant personhood is to grant agency to an entity. It means that that entity has the capacity to impact upon and interact with the law.

Children are given increasing amounts of agency as they mature, until they are recognised by law as being responsible for their own choices. This is another reason why it is important to allow personhood to be dependent on birth, not merely the appearance of humanity. Children may be dependent on their parents socially speaking, but a foetus is dependent for its very existence on its mother. A society can remove an infant from the custody of its mother if it deems it to be in the best interests of that child. However, the law only permits medical intervention to remove a foetus from a mother in situations that are medically justified.

Bodily Autonomy

This brings us back to my original position. These shifts Zoe’s Law (2) proposes would carry the unintended consequences of medicalising mothers and personifying foetuses. Moreover, granting personhood to a feotus grants them agency that would contrast that of the mother’s.

This is incredibly insidious, by medicalising the mother and personifying the foetus it increases the ambit around what justifies medical intervention. We have already seen one instance where a mother’s was entirely reduced to her capacity as a uterus, completely disregarding her status as a person. Moreover, external forces had to act as proxies for the feotus in order to act in this way. For these reasons, and for all the reasons I previously articulated, no law should recognise the personhood of a feotus.

Women should hopefully find allies on this issue within the queer movements, and I encourage women to embrace this issue as an intersectional one, to oppose the medicalisation of sexual bodies.

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