by Merle Hoffman
It was the pots and pans that finally activated me. I had followed the case for days in the media with a somewhat distant intellectual curiosity, but then I read that a psychiatrist had testified that Mary Beth Whitehead was an unfit mother because she gave her child stuffed pandas to play with instead of pots and pans. Stuffed pandas? How extraordinary that our psychiatric system regarded the image of an animal so loved and rare as a panda as subverting the normal growth and development of a 20th century female child. The implied sexism of giving a little one year old the tools of the kitchen was certainly not lost on me either. Another psychiatrist then testified that Mary Beth was a bad mother because she was “overmeshed” with her kids and still another testified that Mary Beth was “narcissistic” because she dyed her hair, that in fact her hair was all white, creating a true “whitehead”. Having turned grey at the age of 24, I could definitely empathize with the desire to change hair color to meet the societal demands of what it means to be attractive.
What message was this bastion of the psychiatric establishment trying to do? That women who love their children too much are immoral and evil that stuffed animals are subversive, that normal American consumer vanity is somehow pathological?
The next day I was in Hackensack, New Jersey trying to find out. Standing outside the courtroom in the cold harsh daylight, I found myself speaking to women who were also drawn there by their sense of outrage and urgency. How could any one of us withstand the scrutiny that Mary Beth had to go through?” asked one. “My God, if they were to have put me on the stand I would have lost my child 10 times over,” said another. Indeed how could any of us withstand the kind of character scrutiny and psychiatric attack that Whitehead, this child of the working class, this unexpected heroine, had to publicly endure day after day.
I literally almost ran into Mary Beth Whitehead. I was coming around the corridor in the courthouse hurried and distracted; she was walking, head down, with her lawyer, Cassidy, toward the press room. Most of all I was struck by her collectedness, her almost natural sense of historical importance. I got the impression that she was consistently aware of being the center of attention. Always alert to being on stage, held up and driven forward by a sense of her own particular destiny, everyone around her naturally evolving into supporting players in her own peculiar drama.
In the rage and storm of controversy surrounding this case, most feminists have found themselves in the position of publicly understanding” both sides of the issue. Both sides – both women, Whitehead and Stern.
Elizabeth Stern, the ultimate 1980’s feminist.
Possessed of two graduate degrees, M.D. and Ph.D. Stern is the quintessential feminist paragon. Married to a “supportive professional husband” who did not by all reports force her into childbearing, she is successful in her field – so much so that she even diagnoses herself and decides that she has multiple sclerosis and is unwilling to take the risk of biological childbearing. Therefore, she enters into a commercial arrangement with Whitehead, or more specifically with Whitehead’s womb.
Whitehead, high school graduate, ex barroom dancer, mother of three, wife to a Vietnam Vet with drinking problems. A woman who takes pride in her role as mother.
Whitehead and Stern – the symbolic imagery overwhelms me. They are two sides of the same coin, the Janus head. Whitehead and Stern, mirror images of woman – mirror images of each other. Whitehead is passion, where Stern is mind. Whitehead is blood, tissue, guts, need, sex. Stern is intellect, control and alienation. Whitehead is mother. Stern is career. Whitehead is bad girl. Stern is good girl. Whitehead is whore, Stern is virgin – indeed Stern is immaculate conception. – The Janus head – both dark, with bangs and similar long gaunt stark faces. Madonna/whore, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Locked in history and in life in the eternal struggle of mind and the body. The intellect and the sexual Athena and Venus.
Whitehead’s passion, her lack of social controls, her use of any manipulative tool to fight her battles, the infamous tapes on which she threatens to kill herself and her child, her seeming lack of deference for the system make her somewhat of an uncomfortable spectacle for many feminists and an unacceptable role model for anyone’s definition of a good mother. Any wonder that public sentiment rides with Elizabeth Stern, the woman whose love is limited by the desire for genetic perfection, whose motherhood is not dependent upon sexual intercourse -whose body is somehow removed from the act that so traditionally defines woman?
Baby M -the perfect product, the perfect child, race congruent, color congruent. She had to be. Whitehead by contract was to have an amniocentisis in the fourth month of pregnancy, and if the test proved positive for fetal abnormalities, if the product wasn’t perfect, the contract with Stern was to be null and void -Whitehead’s remaining options included abortion or assuming sole responsibility for the child. Baby M – -“Sara” to Mary Beth – “Melissa” to Elizabeth. Both Whitehead and Stern used the name Elizabeth for the middle name, Elizabeth, which in the original means “child of God.”
Stern and Whitehead and Baby M. Mothers and child. All children of God. All children of mothers. Mothers who are good and bad by someone’s definition. This surrogacy case brought into the harsh daylight intense discussion and debate on the multiple theories of mothers and mothering. Leaning heavily on traditional stereotypic definitions of the “good mother” all differences of class, personality and style were psychologized and manipulated into medical models so that there was no room for rational effective disagreement – there was in fact no room for dissent! How complicated these competing definitions of mother had become.
So much of the continuing conflict over abortion has to do with the struggle of who would be in control of that definition of mother. Why is it that freedom and autonomy, a major theme in the feminist definition of mother (including the right to decide to choose whether or not to be a mother) was so much a part of the rhetoric for the abortion debate, and yet Mary Beth’s desire to keep the child of her womb was viewed as aberrant and regressive? Could it be that feminists had disowned their previous definition of mother – disowned or were they just unclear?
I thought to myself that Whitehead was first and foremost a dissident, a radical challenge to the system of old definitions and consumer mentalities. Whitehead was really an innocent harkening us back to the world’s first order of survival and primal love. That was why she was being so vehemently attacked by the feminist and non feminist establishment. It was not so much that she wanted to sell her baby, after all that is the American way – you have a product, you put a price on it, you sign a contract and then you deliver it. Whitehead’s problem was not that she did not follow the process, it was that she reneged, she pulled her product out of the marketplace -she did not deliver, she dissented!
“Where love rules, there is no will to power and where power predominates, there love is lacking.” – Carl Jung. The ultimate and accepted societal definition of requited and unconditional love is idealized in the concept of “Mother, Mother’s Love”. Love: unconditional, accepting, non questioning, affirming, supportive, self denying, sacrificial. This love so much associated with the myth of mother and the maternal that the battle of surrogacy seemed not only to be about power and possession but about the struggle to define and own the concept of mother.
Is there a reality of mother beyond what we condition it to be? Is there mother in the pure platonic form? Is she wild in the fields somewhere sans Saks or the Garden Club -alone naked in the forests -and if she is, what is she, who is she? Is she loving, kind, nurturing, or demanding, egotistical and self serving? Is she Whitehead? Is she Stern? Is she both?
It came to me that Mary Beth Whitehead’s real sin was not one of inferior class or maternal ambiguity. It was the fact that she did not buy into the primal reality of our society -the reality having to do with rituals concerning consumerism -consumerism as a modality of thought and systems that regulate control and direct all energies of the society. Consumerism as in Elizabeth and William Stern – their erotic energy and desire capitulated into the demands of the marketplace.
Everything – all things – all reality through the manipulation of technology become products, goods and services. The human creative forces now strive untempered by doubt, awe or fear and trembling towards defying the established natural order of things.
The power to create life should allow for the power to define it. The momentous political, moral and religious struggles over reproductive technology and reproductive freedom is just this. Whether we as individual women or as a feminist class accept and integrate the ruling male establishment’s definition of mother, child and family, or whether we begin to allow our own to emerge.
It is true that a real danger to the established order arises when individuals or groups begin to see and define their realities differently – to question as the feminist movement has done so resonantly in multiple ways the basic assumptions of our society. But these assumptions must be consistently and passionately challenged, because with the recent ruling on the ability to patent new forms of animal life, the commercialization and the drive towards all of reality becoming marketable is almost complete.
In a comment by Jeffrey J. Miller and Albert G, Tramposch in the Sunday New York Times of April 26th, addressing the issue of patenting life: “The New Policy acknowledges the reality that there is no separation between life and technology. Life itself is crafted. We are on the threshold of being able to invent life. This is not playing god. Rather it is being fully human, as humanity is expressed in the 20th century.”
“There is no separation between life and technology.” The system of contract law, tax accountants, and mutual funds would have us believe this but women have been creating life with their bodies since the beginning. This ultimate power has been a thorn in the side of the male power establishment since its formulation. So that it is now possible for them to think in terms of the creator – to truly become God – to dispense with the mundane primal mystery and reality of blood and tissue and issue edicts that allow men to make animals – to make laws that allow people to buy and sell children.
The entire issue of surrogacy is another arena for this commercialization of humanity. It seems as if science has no master. If life itself is crafted by the father and man is the child of the father, made in his image, then the ability to create and patent life, surrogacy, renting wombs becomes a sacrament. Women as beings, as products, are imperfect. The gene pool cannot be a lottery. It too is imperfect as defined by the establishment so that any technological advancement equals improvement.
Indeed, with men patenting animal life, it would seem that this envy of women’s ability to give and make life has reached a collective, industrial, institutionalized level of frightening proportions. Not satisfied to merely control the reproduction of animals and women, the scientific establishment through governmental bureaucrats have moved into formulating new forms of animal life that will result in them being ultimately more serviceable and marketable – to be better products, more saleable, more usable, more able to conform to standards and fads.
If our gazes would move away from the mirror, we would notice that miracles are being created all around us. In Beltsville, MD., a genetically altered pig makes his trance onto the world’s stage. Carrying cow’s growth hormone, the animal has difficulty walking on his short legs, suffers arthritis and visual impairment and probably will not live to be two years old. A recent article the Drovers Journal, a beef industry publication, speculates that, in theory at least, it will be possible to so change the genetic makeup of animals that a kind of “breathing lab of beef” could be produced without the need for legs, a brain or a nervous system.
According to New York Magazine, July 13, 1987, another brave new world is being created by a group of transplant surgeons who are experimenting on ‘bridge surgery,” that is the use of chimpanzee parts implanted into human beings as a temporary measure until a human heart can be provided. One of the surgeons involved in the program, Keith Reemtsma, is quoted as saying that using chimpanzee hearts to reduce the risk of patients dying while waiting human transplants will “signal an extension” of what he calls the “golden age surgery”. Working on chimpanzee to human kidney transplants at Tulane since 1963, Reemtsma says “I picked a window in story when it was ethically acceptable to this.” Any discussion of the “ethical acceptability” to utilize a species that is now endangered and has 99 percent of the same genetic material that makes up a human being has to be heard in the context of a world that has just witnessed the birth of its billionth citizen (New York Times, July 12, 1987) – a world with an alarming level of worldwide hunger, poverty, war, famine, infant mortality, etc., etc. David Rothman, an expert in medical ethics, is quoted in the New York Magazine article as saying that we gave the moral right to rescue humans with the use of nonhuman hearts.” It is especially saddening that Rothman does not see is moral necessity extending to rescue all who suffer silently in a society that disregards their needs and issues as being relevant.
The transplanting of monkeys’ hearts to humans of course necessitates the death of the animals but, according to the New York Magazine article, the researchers fought against experiencing any emotional involvement or attachment to the creatures at all. “We all got very attached to that animal. There are pictures of Rob Michler holding her, the monkey got so attached to Rob she’d sit on his lap and groom him. It was tough to know that she was a control and she was scheduled to die.” Of course any natural attachment or involvement would have to be consistently and seriously fought – removed with the surgical precision of an experimenter’s knife.
In a way this is similar to the difficulty some surrogate mothers are reported to experience when they have their children taken away from them. There has even been discussion of having the babies removed from the surrogates immediately after birth when their “biological” mothers are still under anesthesia, to avoid the problem of unnecessary sticky emotional attachments to the child. Indeed this problem of attachment or connection seems to be a difficult one for a society that has control and manipulation as its tools of power. This primal discomfort with biology the way it is expressed through nature, through women, is a leit motif that runs throughout much of the scientific and political power establishments of this country. It makes for difficulty in completing adoption and surrogate transactions. It slows up and convolutes the ultimate goal – the higher order of things which is the making and the remaking of the world according to man.
In a recent New York Times editorial, Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation On Economic Trends said “a handful of non elected bureaucrats in a government agency, sealed off and isolated from the public participation, have taken it upon themselves to reduce all living things to the new lowly status of manufactured processes”. Lowly status indeed. Lowly in absolute moral terms, but certainly not in terms of cost and profit. By turning everything that lives and breathes into potentially marketable items, man has finally and ultimately achieved the dominance of nature that he has long and continually sought. Perfection, control, manipulation. A view of power that is limited and confined to external trappings of position, status and props. The world and reality is seen in segmentsm, disparate parts without an overriding transcendent purpose. A world that is not seen as a whole, but simply as parts to be controlled, changed and manipulated, becomes a world where everything becomes product, goods and services. Everything serves the ultimate material capitalist bottom line.
This seeming consistent inability of people to accept life as process creates vacuums of screams that echo the words “me” and mine”. Now the bureaucrats have replaced the Supreme Court, the legislators, the will of the people and the dicta of established religions. A few men have determined that it is O.K. it is all right to mix, to match, to cross gene pools, to make and define creatures, to regulate and create new forms of animal life.
If there is a driving vision to create a “breathing slab of beef”, then is it so far fetched to consider a desire to create a “breathing slab of womb”? or a “breathing – group of eggs”? The Oocyte Donation Program, the first in the country to set up a – pool of anonymous donors matched by physical appearance has done just that. Estimating that there are approximately 100,000 women in the United States who are unable to conceive, Dr. Martin M. Quigley, director of the program, developed a plan whereby eggs would be removed from a donor (who would have to be between 18 and 35, and if married. have the consent of her husband) fertilized in a laboratory by the sperm of the recipient’s husband, and then placed in the uterus of the recipient in order to attempt to achieve pregnancy.
Necessity is the mother of invention. The necessity we are witnessing is the medical and scientific establishment capitalizing on some people’s consuming passion to have children, children who now have become the ultimate product in the marketplace. If the machine (woman) is defective, science and technology the new God mother will do it for you. And, of course, the donors and recipients can be matched according to national origin, height, weight, hair color, eye color and blood type – all the better to achieve the perfect product – so serendipity here! No chance for the unexpected a real improvement on nature, who has been known to create errors.
The new reproductive technologies attempt to meet a need. They tell us that this need is primal and biological and that this need must be filled. That this need for women and men to have children of their bodies and genetic histories is so driving and so profound that it will allow for, indeed demand, any type of technological creativity. The question of course remains whether this need is in fact primal and biological or the result of social conditioning. Is it that people now assume they have the right to own and create anything that they can imagine?
The abortion and surrogacy debates stand out in bas relief against this background tapestry. Women may soon have to worry about their lives being controlled by some minor bureaucrats in the federal government patent office with the power to make determinations on the ultimate meanings of life and living organisms. The fact that the ruling allowing the patenting of animal life was not greeted by a massive outpouring of feminist rage reveals a political short sightedness about a near and present danger that is not adequately perceived. It is clear that feminists must mount a prophetic challenge to this subtle white coated brave new world.
Our age old patriarchal assumptions and “givens” require a fresh vision. Feminists must both individually and collectively enter a state of radical dissidence – a dissidence that not only opposes the status quo, but one that incorporates an innocence of vision. A quality of innocence that is not a defense or state of ignorance, but one that is a radical redirection of thought and action. Innocence of mind, openness to dissent, choosing to see reality and opportunity without the previous stereotypic conditioned definitions that so severely limit our human potential. A profound and passionate innocence that calls up the courage to create an evolved consciousness congruent with the needs and demands of our present state of technology and world systems.
A major political tool of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was pure genetic class engineering, where women’s uteri were bypassed and feti were grown in bottles. Another modern prophet, George Orwell, created a robotized society where double-think was employed. Peace was war, love was hate, good was evil and lies were truth. We have now arrived at a point surpassing even this. God is man, prayer is science, beauty is technology and love is control.
It is clear that the time has come for us to enter more than merely a “brave new world”. The world that feminists should take part in creating must have courage, truth, love beauty and peace as integral parts of its lexicon. We must all broaden and deepen our definitions of mother”, so that we do not remain anesthetized as our world is slowly wrenched away from our arms.
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.