WIT welcomes Kristen Daley Mosier as a guest poster. Her full bio is available on her first post with our blog.
Motherhood is a defining moment for many women. So for those of us who cannot, or choose not to, become mothers, how are we to understand ourselves as women? To say we are women because we have the capacity to bear new life into the world feels false. It may have been true, for me, at a younger age but after a season in the black hole of infertility, to speak of an innate capacity that is definitive of ‘woman’ leaves me outside the gates of what it means to be a woman. Adoption does not provide a workaround in this line of thinking, either. What does it mean, then, to be a natural woman when one’s experience diverges from nature? When technology plays a role in sparking life, is it any less natural?
Birth and new birth are archetypal motifs of the most elemental nature. Roughly half of the human population is born with an internal cavity and the hormones designed to fill and nourish a child who develops in that space—whether or not we ask for that to happen, desire it, expect it, or hope for it. As women we are seldom seen for who we are, individually, as a whole person. The phrase, “when you have children” can communicate a sense that life and one’s existence are incomplete without kids. Once a woman is (visibly) pregnant, she is then “eating for two,” which, as a couple friends recently noted, that doesn’t technically start until after the baby is born. So it seems that under the public eye a woman without a child is only a partially formed individual, while a woman with child is already losing her individuality.
One theologian who has a difficult time (in his writing) of differentiating real women from typologies is Leonardo Boff.1 His work conflates the Spirit with Mary, and nature with the feminine. In seeking ‘sources of inspiration’ for a ‘new covenant’ with nature Boff employs an essentialist understanding of women and the feminine that seeks to subvert patriarchal dualisms, yet nonetheless flow directly from those dualisms. Looking across his work, there is an underlying logic that perpetuates static notions of male and female even when he places them in (purportedly) dynamic relation. In The Maternal Face of God, he describes male and female to be in dialectical tension. “[M]an and woman really exist only in their reciprocal otherness. To insist on their mutual exclusivity, on the grounds of the differences just examined, is to lose sight of the sexes’ genuine meaning and reality.”2 Following on this logic, when he turns to ecological thought he must emphasize “feminine” characteristics as a means of offsetting “masculine” tendencies to destroy life. “By instinct and by the unique way that they are constituted, women grasp and live out the complexity and interconnection of the real. By nature women are connected directly to what is most complex in the universe, namely, life.”3 Frankly, his compliments sound a bit backhanded, albeit with organic, all-natural cotton gloves. Boff sees women’s contributions to theology in the area of ecology as particularly significant only because they have a ‘special’ relationship to life; they can engender new life, and their whole being is oriented to nourishing and caring for that life. Yet somehow, everyone may participate in the feminine in order to develop an “ethic of care” in relation to the environment.4 It sounds so…romantic, when said by a priest. And it really irritates me.
Pregnancy is supposed to be the most natural thing in the world, yet we live in an environment filled with unnatural chemical, technical, and pharmaceutical interventions (of our own creation). For those of us who cannot naturally conceive, to speak of spontaneous or organic flourishing of life within is disorienting. Am I still a woman?
When I think about moments when life in my body felt exceptionally unnatural, two episodes come to mind. One, when I was lying flat on machine bed with a catheter injecting fluid into my uterus. On a screen to my right I could follow the flow of the dye as it ballooned within the open cavity, my womb, and through my fallopian tubes. Nothing prohibited the solution from moving through the empty space. The other time, I was stirrupped while a nurse navigated a handheld ultrasound device from one ovary to the other. She pointed to the monitor a few feet away, providing commentary as she went, noting that my follicles appeared to be ‘sputtering out.’
It is a strange experience to witness one’s own insides. In Technology and Human Becoming, Philip Hefner describes a time when he watched his own colonoscopy (that’s commitment), which prompted his reflection on humanity’s relationship to technology, and notions of interiority/exteriority.5 In his discussion, he makes reference to reproductive technology, particularly genetic cloning, yet I cannot help but wonder, to what degree do women and men internalize technology differently from one another? Hefner’s encounter with his colon sounds like the setup for a crass old age birthday card, which is to say, it is not gender-specific. But what of the reproductive technologies focused solely on women? When conception is no longer natural, when pregnancy/gestation must be aided by supplements and tests and the like, what impact does it hold on a (distinctly) woman’s experience?
Hefner lays out questions about our relationship with technology inside our very bodies as he reflects on the pharmaceuticals, machinery, and procedures needed to keep up a certain quality of life, as well as the computers and devices we use in order to bring creative projects to life. He suggests, citing Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that technology is not an external device that aids humanity in its quest for progress, but that it is part of a larger evolutionary process. “Human becoming is a deeply spiritual and religious process. I do not say ‘becoming human,’ because that sounds as if being human is a final destination… ‘Human becoming’ expresses the idea that we are always in process, we are a becoming, and being human means that the journey is the reality—there may well be no final destination. This journey is a religious reality, a journey of the spirit, and if technology is a part of it, then technology is also a religious and spiritual reality.”6 Hefner offers a shift in perspective from seeing technology as merely an aid or adversary, to almost a co-subject place alongside humans, even as humanity produces said technology.
To consider how technologies—the unnatural—coexist and participate in conceiving and bearing children I believe is crucial to moving away from an essentialized notion of what it means to be a woman, defined by her uterus, and towards a more prismatic vision of what makes one a gendered human. One aspect of gestation that Leonardo Boff missed was the role of the partner. New life does not simply happen in a woman, but requires two elements: egg and sperm. When couples find themselves in need of reproductive technology, both elements are scrutinized. Women may be the ones to carry life, but we do not generate it independently. Technology—be it in the form of pharmaceuticals pushing out more eggs, or implanting a fertilized zygote—has become more than a handmaiden. It enters us in our most intimate, interior places in order to spark new life. This begins to sound spiritual, possibly even sacramental. Which is odd because taking medications, administering shots, and having instruments examine our cavities feels anything but divine.
Augustine’s definition of a sacrament is that it is a visible sign of an invisible reality. Boff describes sacraments in terms of transparence, that which embraces both transcendent and immanent realities. Women, given this schema, appear to embody sacramentality as they are the ones to carry and nourish new life. When we (those of us with the privilege and socio-economic access to reproductive technologies) incorporate technology into the experience of conception and pregnancy, are we not inviting the Holy Spirit to spark new life in a rather unnatural way? And is that no less sacramental? With every treatment, every round of drugs, every transfer, comes the prayer, the epiclesis, Come, Holy Spirit, bring new life to this body. During my own brief period visiting the reproductive specialist, with every blood draw I thought of Jesus’ blood poured out for all that all may have abundant life. These are prayers not found in any lectionary, yet they hover over pill bottles, syringes, and ultrasound machines, moving through hospital labs and windowless bathrooms. And while our partners may join us in prayer, for women undergoing treatment, the words resonate at a molecular, hormonal level. Come, Holy Spirit. Mary, be my guide.
- Leonardo Boff is a liberation theologian from Brazil who has written extensively since the period following the 1968 Medellín Conference of Roman Catholic bishops. This essay attends to recurring themes from his texts Sacraments of Life, Life of the Sacraments (1987); The Maternal Face of God (1987); and Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (1997). ↩
- Leonardo Boff, The Maternal Face of God: the Feminine and its Religious Expressions, trans. by Robert R. Barr and John W. Diercksmeier (Harper & Row, 1987), p. 41. ↩
- Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, trans. by Phillip Berryman (Orbis, 1997), p. 26, emphases mine. ↩
- Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, p. 26. ↩
- Philip Hefner, Technology and Human Becoming (Fortress Press, 2003). ↩
- Philip Hefner, Technology and Human Becoming, p. 5-6. ↩