Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘marriage’ Category

The Kevin Mitchell Theory of Jewish Continuity

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by David

There’s a new Pew survey that seems to be prophesying doom for the American Jewish community. The most alarming figure, for those who care about these sorts of things, is the 58% intermarriage rate among Jews in the United States. The number is of course even higher for the non-Orthodox Jews who struggle to keep members. In the past, the Jewish community has employed harsh rhetoric to try to prevent intermarriage, comparing it to “finishing Hitler’s work.” Today, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, as well as some Conservative, have come to see the error in this approach, and are maximally welcoming to the non-Jewish spouses in intermarried couples. Still, the numbers on Jewish retention, across non-Orthodox denominations, among children of couples in-married and intermarried, are not promising. For those communities to survive, new rhetoric is needed. An unorthodox approach, if you will. Let me present to you: The Kevin Mitchell Theory of Jewish Continuity.

Kevin Mitchell was a professional baseball player in the 1980s and 1980s. He played infield and outfield for several teams, was rather injury prone, but quite good in the his prime. In 1989, he hit 47 homeruns, won the NL MVP and along with Will “The Thrill Clark” led the San Francisco Giants to the World Series, where they lost to the earthquake and the Oakland Athletics. He was also, according to this 1997 Sports Illustrated profile, quite a goofball.

For our purposes, however, Kevin Mitchell’s most important contribution came in October of 1986, in Game 6 of the World Series. He played for the Mets then who were facing the favoured Boston Red Sox. The Bosox led 3 games to 2, and went into the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six in New York with a 5-3 lead. What happened next was one of the most famous/infamous moments in baseball history, a Met rally culminating in Red Sox firstbaseman Bill Buckner’s error leading to a Met victory, followed by a series clinching victory in Game 7.

With two out, Gary Carter got the Mets’ first hit. But who got the second? None other than Kevin Mitchell up to pinch hit. A base hit to centerfield. He would go on to score the tying run that inning. Asked about his at-bat years later, he said:

Damned if I was going to go down in history as the man who made the last out. 

That, precisely, is the attitude the Jewish community needs to inculcate in terms of advocating Jewish continuity. Not harsh rhetoric about Hitler and the Holocaust. Indeed, nothing about intermarriage at all. Keep it simple, stick with baseball. We don’t need a homerun. We don’t need everyone marrying rabbis and sending their kids to the yeshiva. Just keep the rally going. Keep it alive. You’re intermarried? Ok. All we need is a base hit, even a hit by pitch. Just get on base. How? Maybe give your kid a copy of a Philip Roth bookTake your sons and daughters to a Jewish museum. Play them an old recording of Jackie Mason. You don’t have to win the game outright. But don’t let that game end. Think of Jewish history as a late-inning rally, a brilliant, hilarious, exciting, yet potentially tragic rally, where you don’t want to make the last out. Make Moses and Kevin Mitchell proud. Now let’s stop counting numbers and put those rally yarmulkes on.

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Written by David Weinfeld

October 15, 2013 at 15:45

Marriage Equality in New York

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By Wiz

I stopped by the big Pride Parade yesterday, which, for obvious reasons, was pretty exciting this year. I parked myself on Christopher and Bleecker Streets, a place which I figured had some pretty historic connotations and took some pictures (click on them to blow them up), which I thought I’d share along with some thoughts.

1. The only moment, in my life, where I’ve seen so much authentic and unscripted joy was election night 2008, when the whole city burst into spontaneous celebration. New Yorkers are a pretty rude antisocial bunch, but the mood in Greenwich Village was completely jubilant and communal. Everyone was talking about the bill in every coffee shop and restaurant. I heard strangers discussing it in the Strand bookstore, and the level of authentic joy and happiness, including among the many straight people, was infectious.

The Cutest old Gay Men. Sign says Together 54 Years.

2. If anyone still thinks of the gay rights movement as a rich white movement, they haven’t spent much time in New York City. It may be that marriage equality was able to pass because rich white New Yorkers, by and large, either supported it or didn’t care. But both the crowd and the marchers were appropriate for New York: a completely diverse, rowdy, and democratic bunch. There were the South Asian gay marchers, the Orthodox Jews, the Latina Women, the Asian marchers, etc…I’d like to think it would make Walt Whitman proud, on a whole bunch of levels.
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Written by Peter Wirzbicki

June 27, 2011 at 16:14

More Debate on Birthright

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by Weiner

A few more thoughts and links on my recent post on Birthright Israel, in response to Kiera Feldman’s critique of the program in The Nation. 

Blogger Phoebe alerted me to a 2007 article she wrote with a somewhat similar critique of Birthright. Unlike me, Phoebe thinks Birthright should be more Zionist and less about making Jewish babies. She provides an interesting exploration of early Zionist thought, including the well-known Theodor and the less well-known Jacob Klatzkin. She comes to what in my mind is a pessimistic conclusion: the Jewish future lies in either Israel or Judaism (that is, Jewish religion). Secular Jewishness in the Diaspora is on its way out. Here’s how she puts it:

The future of the Jewish people is in Israel and, to a certain extent, in religious observance. Guilt and vaguely familial pressure will not and, frankly, should not be what keeps people Jewish. Those who care about the continued existence of the Jews as a people must either become religiously observant and live in closed communities of other observant Jews, or they may move to Israel, the only country where, as Momo enthused, the hot girls on the beach are, more often than not, Jewish.

Critics will counter that cultural Judaism has existed throughout the modern era. True enough. Communities of Jews tied together not by religion, language or nationality are kept away from intermarriage and full assimilation when society around them is sufficiently antisemitic to keep them so. In a liberal, secular community, in which Jews blend in and are not systematically subject to discrimination, those who lack specific interest in things Jewish – or, to put it in less negative terms, whose interests lie elsewhere – will fall out of the Jewish people, and their descendents will not be Jews.

I fear Phoebe may be right, but I hope she is wrong, and will do my darndest to keep the secular Jewish faith alive (though not in my academic career, where I strive for objectivity). In any case, read Phoebe’s piece. It’s great.

More recently, Brian Schaefer, a Dorot fellow (that’s a 10 month fellowship for recent college graduates that I applied for in 2005 and was rejected from), offered his own critique of Birthright on the Jerusalem Post blog. Schafer thinks Birthright especially falls short in comparison to programs like Dorot. While he praises Dorot for the depth and nuance the fellowship offers, he calls Birthright a “free 10 day educational vacation” and concludes: “The main difference between the two programs is not their duration; rather it is how they conceive of and treat their participants: as consumers and cheerleaders, or as stakeholders and advocates.”

In response,  Gil Troy, an American historian at McGill and Hebrew University and a Zionist activist who heads Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee, wrote a defense of Birthright in the same Jerusalem Post blog. Troy writes:

Yes, it is true, Birthright is fun. This exuberance is part of the Birthright magic and its success — 90 percent of participants reach Birthright thanks to word of mouth.  When is the last time we read in the Jewish press a complaint about Jewish kids having too much fun at an organized Jewish community event?  If Diaspora communities offered more exciting, exhilarating, engaging, enriching, enlightening programs for Jews growing up, we would not need the last-minute intervention of programs like Birthright to encourage young, frequently alienated, Jews to restart and reorient their Jewish journeys.
A gateway program, Birthright welcomes many Jews who are on the way out.  The gift comes with “no strings attached,” meaning no ideological, theological, political, or institutional demands beyond participating constructively. And it is a populist program – although most participants attend or graduated from America’s top 50 universities.  But to assume therefore it is all “Goldstar and humous,” misses its multi-layered educational process, both formal and informal. Birthright succeeds in being pro-fun and profound.
The jury is still out on how effective the Birthright program is in bolstering Zionist attachment and/or renewed Jewish commitment and identity. But I urge interested commenters to offer their thoughts on any or all of these pieces. Would love to hear from Birthright alumni or alumni of other Israel programs or those generally interested in the topic.

Written by David Weinfeld

June 24, 2011 at 14:54

Birthright Israel is about Birthing Babies, not Zionism (and That’s a Good Thing)

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by Weiner

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/9e/Birthright_Israel.jpgBirthright Israel is a program that provides Diaspora Jews ages 18 to 26 with free 10-day trips to Israel. Founded in 1999, and funded largely by American Jewish philanthropists, especially Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, along with some help from the Israeli government, Birthright has spent nearly 600 million dollars to send over 260,000 Jews on all-expense paid tours of Israel.

The program is not without its critics, especially from the left. “The Romance of Birthright Israel,” appeared in the pages of The Nation last week. Its author, Kiera Feldman, “a baptized child of intermarriage,” recently participated on a Birthright trip, and has lots of complaints about the large doses of Zionist propaganda she received.

A new era is dawning for Birthright. What began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine, pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel.

Feldman is right about Birthright’s origins, but wrong about its current incarnation. In fact, Birthright, like William James called Pragmatism, is “a new name for an old way of thinking.” Like the very pragmatic American Zionism of yore, it exists primarily to bolster the American Jewish community, not the Israeli one.

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Written by David Weinfeld

June 21, 2011 at 17:48

Two Weddings* and a Funeral

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by apini

This has been a pretty dramatic week, between the Royal Wedding, the storms in the South, Obama’s hilarious White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, and finally, the death of Osama bin Laden.

Did you watch the Royal Wedding?  I missed it, unfortunately, but the CNN coverage I caught afterwards was still great to watch.   The commentary has mostly been fairly bland – journalists seem so thrilled to write about something positive!  Simon Schama wrote a piece about the meaning of the British monarchy in this season of Arab uprisings against monarchs and dictators.  He noted that this dynasty seems pretty harmless and that’s why people are happy to celebrate them, whereas the Arab dictators being overthrown have poor records and dynastic legacies who would be even worse.

What I think is notable is the role of empathy.   A lot of people have had a wedding (or hope to) or have seen friends get married, or family.  It’s a moment that brings joy and that people (want to) relate to.  The wedding being a marriage of monarchs has very little to do with people’s fascination.  You could televise just about anyone’s wedding and if they were good looking and the pomp was enough, that many people might watch.  Particularly if they were well known  (David Beckham, for instance?).

Very few people have been, or want to be, or know someone who is a monarch, however.  Or a dictator.  Or an international terrorist.  So I suppose it’s not surprising that people in other countries are generally less moved by their overthrow or death.  Except that people seem to be very moved by the death of Osama bin Laden.  In a curious way. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

May 4, 2011 at 05:01

The Tiger Mom and Ethnic Identity: The Jewish Angle

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by Weiner

I recently attended an interesting panel on Jewish secularism put on by the Posen Foundation. The speakers were historian David Biale and philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein. In her talk, Goldstein insisted that Jewish secularism was alive and well, judging by all the book competitions she had been asked to judge, requiring her to examine numerous volumes which served as examples of the subject. In the Q and A, however, I asked about what this all means to the Jewish demographic future, noting: “Secular Jews are good at producing books, but not so good at producing children.”

This leads me to a belated follow-up to my previous post on America’s most infamous mother, Amy Chua (pictured left), and the discussion in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about the constructed nature of ethnic identity, as well as what Chua’s family tells us about intermarriage and Jewish demography.

Lots of Jews have responded to Chua, chiming in with references to the stereotypical Jewish mother, as featured in novels such as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (my favourite book of all time). There’s this little bit in The New Yorker. Ayelet Waldman, who famously claimed that she loves her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than her children, thus rendering her the exact opposite of the crude stereotype (the caricature of the Jewish mother dotes on her children and castrates her husband), nonetheless defended Jewish mothering in The Wall Street Journal, the same publication that printed the excerpt from Chua’s book that caused all the controversy. Wendy Sachs takes a more benign view of the Jewish mother than Roth does in her comparison. The best of these pieces, believe it or not, is by neoconservative royalty John Podhoretz in The New York Post, who closes his commentary with this perceptive analysis:

My guess is that [Chua’s] book gives us a portrait of Chinese tradition that is ultimately about as deep as the “ancient Chinese secret” that was revealed, in that classic 1970s commercial, to be Calgon detergent.

J-Pod isn’t completely right here: I think Chinese and Asian parents more broadly have in general a good parenting method that produces hard-working and successful children. But he is right to point to the constructed, artificial nature of Chua’s Chinese identity, and indeed, of ethnic identity in general.

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Written by David Weinfeld

March 14, 2011 at 16:35

How Octomom Became a Contagious Cyborg: A Reflection

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by Luce

In January 2009 the media midwifed a new hybrid species and dubbed it Octomom. Octomom was 33-year-old Nadya Suleman, a California woman who had an unknown number of eggs implanted using IVF and gave birth to octuplets on January 26, 2009, bringing her total brood to 14. Since then Octomom has never quite left us. Just last week she appeared on Oprah to talk financial difficulties.

Once it became known that Suleman’s octuplets, only the second set to be born alive in the United Sates, were no miracle but the result of an assisted reproductive technology [ART], that all her other children had also been born through IVF, and that Suleman herself was single and unemployed, a media storm blitzed its way through the nation. The public spiritedly lambasted Suleman as a selfish woman who had irresponsibly used ARTs to bring 14 children into a world in which she and 11.6 million other Americans were unemployed.

Yet just a decade earlier in December 1998 Nkem Chukwu became the first American woman to successfully give birth to octuplets. Chukwu also used IVF to achieve this feat, but the American public did not gnash its teeth at the announcement. Chukwu was portrayed as a tired woman in a wheelchair next to her husband, a woman who discussed how her faith in God had brought her through a hard pregnancy, and who explained that she had refused a selective reduction operation during her pregnancy because she “could not find such words in [her] Bible.” No one pointed out that neither could she have found “IVF” there. Chukwu sacralized the births: “I wanted to have as many babies as God would give me,” and in turn the media portrayed the pregnancy as miracle rather than monstrosity.

In contrast no mention was initially made of Suleman’s refusal to undergo the same selective reduction procedure. A bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania called the scandal an “ethical failure” and there were invocations only of Suleman’s obsessions, not God’s gifts. Of course Suleman embodied one of the media’s favorite objects of fascination and reproach: young, female, desirous, and with a body that performed feats unknown to natural woman. Like other media favorites, Suleman even got her own hybridized nickname, Octomom, but unlike Brangelina, the hybridity was maternal rather than romantic, interspecies rather than intra-; Octomom was part-mom, part-(marine)-beast, and implicitly part-machine.

Though at first the nickname Octomom seems to reduce Suleman to the sum of her eight kids, the focus on Suleman’s desire or “obsession” instead reduced her eight newborns to herself. The scorn heaped on Suleman’s actions carried the implication that the children should never have been born in the first place, a curious stance for a society obsessed with abortion, celebrity children, and big families like the conservative Christian Duggars and John & Kate Plus 8. But Suleman made no attempt to explain her extraordinary pregnancy outside her own personal desires, and she lacked the trappings—husband, comfortable income, religious belief—that might have normalized it socially.

As a result, Octomom became a symbol of selfish enhancement, artificial excess, and irresponsible motherhood, and a reproductive technology that has been used to conceive over 250,000 pregnancies in the United States since the early 1980s suddenly became the focus of intense public discussion, giving bioethicists a platform to point out that while IVF is widely regulated throughout Europe, the US federal government only demands that ART clinics track their success rates.

Was the reaction to Octomom merely symptomatic of society’s anxiety about the impact of new technologies on society, or was something deeper at work concerning our contemporary understanding of maternal agency? I think Carl Elliott’s Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream [2003] is an interesting place to start thinking about the relationship between society, agency, treatment, and enhancement. Elliott theorizes that Americans’ obsession with identity and authenticity helps explain why Americans appear uneasy with enhancement technologies yet seek them in droves:

We need to understand the complex relationship between selffulfillment and authenticity, and the paradoxical way in which a person can see an enhancement technology as a way to achieve a more authentic self, even as the technology dramatically alters his or her identity.

This authenticity often depends on the assertion of deficiency. By turning a characteristic into a deficit, such as the lack of social ease in those prescribed Paxil, an enhancement becomes a treatment.

Of course this construction of deficient or disabling conditions is an ever-evolving social process with consequences for a person’s understanding of his or her authentic self. Today social phobia is the third most common mental disorder in the US, but 15 years ago it was a rare problem. Diseases are not just culturally symptomatic, they are causal and therein lies the risk. Ian Hacking’s looping effect suggests that the identification of a disease creates the conditions for the manifestation of that disease in others. For instance the emergence of the idea of gender identity disorder gave people a means to conceptualize and reinterpret their experiences around a single idea, in this case a disorder with a surgical solution.

Elliott calls this semantic contagion, and while it is a more complex idea than the gloss I give it here, its relation to the idea of copycatting may help explain the suspicion and fear with which certain diseases or disabilities are approached.

In general, Elliott is sympathetic to those who make use of the possibilities of biomedicine like pharmaceuticals or sex-reassignment surgery to achieve self-fulfillment because he sees bodies, technology, and identity as co-constructive entities. He is even sympathetic to voluntary amputees, who want to cut off their limbs as surgical treatment for what they claim is a psychological condition, asking which is worse: to amputate your leg or to live with an obsession that controls your life. Elliott provocatively suggests that voluntary amputation is fair game in a world where you can “pay a surgeon to suck fat from your thighs, lengthen your penis, augment your breasts, redesign your labia, implant silicone horns in your forehead or split your tongue like a lizard’s.” Thirty years after the first test-tube baby, is Octomom just what society should come to expect?

In an America that takes its individual responsibility seriously and its babies very seriously, how a gestating mother behaves and what she ingests has become increasingly socially and medically monitored. Authors who have explored the construction of fetal alcohol syndrome or tracked the impact of obstetric tools like ultrasound have argued that this has resulted in the objectification and erasure of the mother, and her individual needs, as she comes to embody the potential life within her.

In The Making of the Unborn Patient: A Social Anatomy of Fetal Surgery [1998] Monica Casper traces the implications of what in the 1990s was the relatively new medical field of fetal surgery. In fetal surgery a woman’s fetus is partially taken out of the uterus, operated on, and, if it survives, placed back into her womb for further gestation. In 1998, fewer than 100 fetuses, all of which would otherwise have died in the womb, had been operated on. Only 35% of the fetuses survived the surgery.

Though the numbers suggest that most women will miscarry or choose to abort a fetus that is likely to die in the womb, Casper sees fetal surgery as contributing to the materialization of the fetal patient at the expense of the mother. The mother and fetus are first separated as subjects, and then one is given preference over the other. Pathologization in this case doesn’t result in the reorientation of an identity but instead in the creation of one subject and the erasure of another.

Casper obviously sees her book as a warning signal to women; they should be aware that in being made invisible, their agency risks obliteration. In becoming patients, fetuses problematically become persons. Casper surely uncovers a discursive realm, with very material consequences, that represents a serious threat to maternal agency. But does she overstate the extent to which the creation of a fetal patient necessarily erases the pregnant woman, or the extent to which such erasure necessarily threatens the woman’s agency?

If we take Carl Elliott’s biomedical world as our own, then bodies are frequently objectified and technologized for one’s own interests. Does the materialization of another subject through this technologization necessarily threaten those interests? I am not doing Casper, who recognizes that both fetal and maternal interests could be valued in fetal surgery and argues that the field is a ripe area for a women’s health intervention, full justice. But I do want to challenge the idea that invisibility, in the face of social and bioethical surveillance, is necessarily a handicap to a pregnant woman’s agency. In a world where increased biomedical capabilities has engendered a field of bioethicists, of which a substrata warn the public to value mystery in the face of mastery, do efforts to regulate maternal behavior in fact intensify when a pregnant woman’s own subjective desires and agency become visible? In other words, are pregnant women in fact more free because the gestating woman is absent from the sonogram?

The case of Octomom would seem to confirm the idea that unmediated maternal agency provokes surveillance and can even reverse a typically pro-life discourse (though not necessarily its anti-choice iteration). Obviously the media’s issue with Octomom was partly the abnormality of giving birth to eight children at once, combined with the perceived social disadvantage of the children as members of a 14-child family led by an unemployed, unmarried mother. I want to argue, however, that the intense media circus surrounding Octomom suggests that we, benefactors of the biomedical era, owners of our own bodies, who need merely pop a pill each day to prevent pregnancy and who can pull out a fetus and put it back in, whose obsession with identity grants us leave to do most of what we want with our bodies, have centered many of our anxieties surrounding the blurry divide between perfection and freakishness, human mastery and mystery, on the bugaboo of maternal hubris.

Yet how to explain the fact that most women who undergo IVF are not seen as hubristic cyborgs? In Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies [2005] Charis Thompson details the small everyday negotiations that are made to normalize ARTs in fertility clinics. She argues that not just babies but parenthood is constructed in the reproductive clinic, and that we exist in a new biomedical era which requires us to reconceptualize objectification, agency, and naturalness. Rather than seeing a sharp division between personhood and non-personhood, for either the fetus or mother, Thompson sees many forms of fetal personhood that operate in direct relation to the mother’s own expressions of agency:

The clinics deal on a daily basis with human gametes and embryos, which function in this clinical setting as questionable persons, potential persons, or elements in the creation of persons. Embryos, for example, can go from being a potential person (when they are part of the treatment process), to being in suspended animation (when they are frozen), to not being a potential person (when it has been decided that they will be discarded or donated to research), and even back again to being a potential person (when a couple has a change of heart and frozen embryos are defrosted for their own use or for embryo donation.

As in Casper’s narrative, the pregnant woman still comes to embody the potential life attributed to the embryos, but Thompson asserts that this ontological change contains not just objectification but agency and subject-formation—a dense choreography on whose merits Thompson makes no explicit judgments, though she herself used IVF to give birth to her daughter. Just as Elliott’s voluntary amputees objectify their own bodies to achieve a more authentic conception of themselves, women using ARTs allow the medical objectification of their bodies in order to assume the identity of motherhood.

Thompson traces how the work done in reproductive clinics naturalizes kinship and procreative intent, smokescreening patients’ exceptional agency in selecting gametes with certain characteristics or constructing non-normative, and previously impossible, bio-social family structures. Significantly, of course, IVF actually has a high failure rate, and many women often require three or four rounds before an embryo implants, though this fact doesn’t necessarily obscure the appearance of extraordinary control, as the ambivalent reactions to the NY Times story of the Twiblings recently demonstrated.

Because of the costs involved, many of those who use ARTs embody a certain socially desirable profile: white, heterosexual, partnered, middle to upper class. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, there was a shift in focus from childrens’ to parents’ reproductive rights, corresponding to a legal trend protecting privacy in the bedroom. Infertility has become pathologized so that some states now mandate that insurance companies cover a certain number of treatment cycles. What were once called artificial reproductive technologies, denoting enhancement, are now called assisted reproductive technologies, denoting aid and treatment. Finally, the language of genes has helped reconstruct kinship ties whose traditional linearity can sometimes be disrupted by ARTs. A mother who uses a daughter’s egg to give birth to her daughter’s sister can focus on genetic kinship rather than processual kinship. An Italian-American woman can invoke the idea that genes code for race and ethnicity to seek gametes that appear to represent a specific group identity.

All these factors contribute to the strategic naturalization of ARTs. When the biological facts of parenthood are underdetermined—for instance when a woman gestates a different woman’s egg—legal, medical, and familial conventions step in to naturalize kinship. In turn, biological entities, like genetics, are used to substantiate the social. In this biomedical process neither the natural nor the social is essentialized—elements of each work together and contribute to a recognizable process of “family building.”

The irony then is that a woman can achieve a great deal of agency by putting herself at the mercy of medicine so long as the desire and control that technology grants her to achieve an exceptional, nontraditional pregnancy in form or substance, is mediated, normalized, and  made invisible. And when other forces fail to naturalize an IVF procedure, abortion politics and its close companion, contemporary American religion, have a significant role to play in shaping public perception, as demonstrated by the Nkem Chukwu narrative.

Octomom incurred scathing public scorn and initiated a debate on the regulation of a reproductive technology that has been around for nearly three decades because Suleman made visible—literally embodied—the potential abnormality of ARTs and did nothing to mediate this abnormality through socio-naturalization or by deploying a supernatural discourse of God and miracles. Instead, Suleman’s story was told through the language of human “obsession,” “desire,” and “fixation.” As a result tabloids painted her as selfish and irresponsible, a drain on society’s resources, and the pregnancy as regrettable, the work of human hubris and misappropriated technology.

Ten years ago when Nkem Chukwu had her eight children there was no media storm; in fact the Chukwu octuplets were largely forgotten until Octomom. Nearly two years later, Octomom is still with us. An image of her very pregnant stomach photographed eight days before giving birth saturates the internet—in this photo both Suleman’s stomach and her face, which looks directly into the camera with a half-smile, are distinct and memorable. In October 2010 news sources began to report on the California trial of Suleman’s doctor for negligence. Paparazzi follow Suleman around and blogs speculate about post-pregnancy plastic surgery, the great symbol of American artificiality.

Childbearing in the US is tightly bound to narratives of self-sacrifice—whether it’s the mother who gives up drinking during pregnancy, her career to stay home, or her body to fetal surgery. And while we have reached a point where we endorse a normalized agency and right to parent that supports such sacrifices and naturalizes ARTs as treatments rather than enhancements, maternal self-interest must be mediated and muted, better off obscured than exposed.

Suleman was unusual in her use of reproductive technology to achieve an extraordinary birth, but she was also unusual because she made no effort to portray her pregnancy as natural, therapeutic, miraculous, or self-sacrificial. As a result she became an object of fascination, a much-photographed freakish symbol of hubristic enhancement. Yet the sudden public attention on the question of legal regulation of IVF thirty years after its American birth suggests that Suleman and her pathologized self-interest were also seen as potentially contagious. The border between extraordinary reproductive enhancement and typical treatment was a little too blurry. A fence had to be built, and the media have always been excellent fence-builders. They drew up plans and the easiest way to build it was to turn a woman into a cyborg.

Written by Kristen Loveland

January 25, 2011 at 11:06