Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics

Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical EugenicsMelinda Tankard Reist

Spinifex (2006)
ISBN 1-876756-59-4
RRP: £12.95

An Australian writer and researcher with a special interest in bioethics and women’s health, Melinda Tankard Reist is clearly an advocate rather than merely a writer of such issues. In this her second book, published by the leading feminist publishing house Spinifex, the author writes of the increasing desire for physical perfection and the consequent pressure such desire is placing on women to terminate ‘imperfect’ foetuses diagnosed by prenatal technology.

The book roughly divides into three main sections. Firstly, the author offers a comprehensive and substantial 70-page introduction discussing the main premise of the book, namely that the widespread practice of prenatal screening and abortion are a continuation of eugenics and that despite claims that such screening is supposed to give women more power it often takes the power of choice away from them. Twenty narratives then follow of women who have continued their pregnancies despite immense pressure from medical staff, family members and social expectations. These accounts make for stimulating, shocking and sympathetic reading and yet they do not all follow a repetitious story line. Some of the stories documented concern women who, despite being told to abort their babies because of the possibility of abnormalities, resisted the pressure to ‘conform’ and gave birth to perfectly healthy babies. Conversely, other accounts are told of women who have given birth to babies with various sorts of complications, despite being warned of the risks. There is something refreshing in having these stories, as they not only communicate how character can be shaped and developed from bringing such a child into the world but also of the enrichment they bring to the lives of others. As Teresa Streckfuss writes, “It’s about love. It’s about our babies”. A sentiment also conveyed in the story of Julia Anderson, concerning her son Andrew, “Andrew’s life saw us often wondering what we had done to deserve so much difficulty. His passing sees us wondering what we did to deserve so rich a blessing as his short six-month life was ultimately meant to be”. Furthermore, stories are also shared of those women who have disabilities themselves and who in the face of much opposition and disapproval have given birth to their babies anyway. In conclusion, the author expresses her hope that the book will inspire and stir other women in similar circumstances to take courage in the midst of immense pressure to conform and resist giving birth to babies that fit in the rigidly constructed categories of what is acceptable in today’s society.

Despite the fact that the length of the introduction may put off some readers, it nevertheless helps to establish the context for the stories that follow. Paucity of sources is no issue here as the author writes in a lucid manner, drawing in relevant research and information concisely and intelligently. Despite initial thoughts that one might have of the passing of Nazis history heralding a new epoch of value and respect for all humanity, Tankard Reist convincingly writes of the incessant undercurrents that have continued to ‘bubble away’ over time that are now once again fuelling the quest for a perfect society, or at the very least a society populated by perfect people. Emerging medical technologies are helping to propel society all the more to what is commonly termed as the ‘brave new world’. Pregnancy as it was known only a decade ago has been completely transformed as a result of many scientific advances such as prenatal screening and the growing understanding the medical profession possesses concerning genetic bases. Whilst the author rightly acknowledges the usefulness of such tests, it is how these test results are being used to coerce women into making decisions that the medical profession deem to be correct that is questioned by the author. Should a possible medical problem or defect be detected by the tests, there is only one of two options that the women can take; either proceed with the pregnancy or abort. If there is even the slightest chance the baby will be “less than perfect”, it is advised that life is simply disposed of in favour of trying again and getting it right next time.

Into this context, the author asserts three main tenets of belief. Firstly, that through the branding of prenatal screening as a simple ‘routine procedure’, a women’s autonomy is undermined and they are deemed irresponsible when the medical profession and society at large determine they have not exercised the ‘right’ choice. Secondly, due to the ‘benevolent tyranny of expertise’ women are obligated to put all their faith in the absolute expertise of medical staff and test results. This is a worrying state of affairs to be faced with, states Tankard Reist, as some of these predictions of possible abnormalities are not certain and do in fact turn out to be incorrect. Conversely, those who do succumb to following the advice never know whether or not the doctor’s advice was right or wrong. Thirdly, through such manipulation, what masquerades as “purely health, reassurance and beneficial reasons” in favour of screening, is in fact an eugenic philosophy, weeding out the imperfect in pursuit of the perfect. Two forces seem to drive such a philosophy, namely a reductionistic view of humanity coupled with economic factors. A reductionistic view determines the value of a human being to what they can do as opposed to who they are, whilst economic decisions are made based upon costs and benefits. Simply put, it is cheaper to kill a baby with an abnormality than invest money into the necessary care and provision such a baby requires in order to live.

Whilst the title of this book may not attract a large male readership, this young male reviewer would certainly call for it to be read widely by both male and female audiences alike as the issues it contains pertain to all of society. It is simply not a matter for women to deal with exclusively. Whilst the book does not champion the cause of the medical profession, this very fact may cause the book to be the provocation that is required in order to see further balanced and informed debate and discussion take place concerning these issues.


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