Biomedical Sciences and the Maternal Body

Attendee Fran Bigman reports on the recent PG CWWN Symposium.


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On Saturday, 21 February 2015, the PG CWWN organised a symposium on ‘Biomedical Sciences and the Maternal Body’ at the University of Southampton with kind support from The British Society for Literature and Science. There were four short talks by postgraduate students and early career researchers and a keynote, ‘Maternal Impressions,’ by Professor Clare Hanson of the University of Southampton, followed by a spirited discussion by participants from disciplines including obstetrics, bioethics and medical law, philosophy, and literature.

Fran Bigman, who gave the first talk, juxtaposed interwar and contemporary reprodystopias by British women writers in which the oppression of the state is symbolised by the denial—by male-controlled technology—of women’s right to mother. While suggesting that these novels naturalise maternal desire in problematic ways, she also read them against the grain as condemnations of the state that deprives women of the right to mother by any means, including the withholding of access to IVF.

Laura-Jane Devanny’s discussion of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb (2011) used Susan Bordo’s concept of pregnancy as an other within oneself to discuss the novel, in which a virus attacks pregnant women and the teenage protagonist volunteers to be a ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ or sacrificial foetal incubator. The novel, Laura-Jane argued, refuses to cast the protagonist as either a victim or a heroine, deliberately denying us a simplistic answer to the debates around motherhood and autonomy. Discussion focused on examples of nature and technology working together in these novels, the marginal role of fathers in these dystopian narratives, and the return of biological essentialism in 21st-century feminism.

Philosopher Elselijn Kingma contrasted the “foetal container” model of pregnancy with the idea that foetuses are part of a pregnant organism and that birth can be likened to splitting or budding; it follows that one organism becomes two only at birth. She discussed the incompatibility of the views that the pre-birth foetus is a human entity and the idea that human entities have certain characteristics such as separateness and autonomy.

Charlotte Stroud discussed the work of A.S. Byatt in relation to Iris Murdoch’s and the biological turn in New Materialist feminism, demonstrating the influence of biological form on her novelistic form: stories mutate and people interact like cells. Stroud illustrated how Byatt’s prose explores her character’s bodies on the level of cells and organisms, allowing her to explore the mind-body problem from new angles. Discussion of these two papers covered topics such as the idea of multiple possible futures, which might help the law distinguish between foetal tort cases and abortion, and Byatt’s problematic appropriation of Darwin.

Professor Clare Hanson’s keynote highlighted the rise epigenetics, or the renewed focus on environmental factors instead of genetic determinism. Epigenetic discourse, she argued, is used to blame the problem mother, usually the working-class mother, for not providing her child with the right (home or foetal) environment—pregnant women who are overweight (obesogenic), experience stress or are exposed to certain chemicals or smoke are held responsible not only for the impaired health of their child, but their grandchildren and even further on. Professor Hanson demonstrated how this rhetoric oscillates between the promise of care and support and a neoliberal insistence on individual responsibility and touched on works such as Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) to illustrate the notion of epigenetic memory.

Thanks very much to the PG CWWN organisers of this symposium and to all the speakers and participants for a stimulating day!

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