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Author Pinki Virani.
Author Pinki Virani.

Pinki Virani unravels secrets of the ‘repro-tech’ industry

The author on her new book, 'Politics Of The Womb', why assisted reproduction is anti-women and being child-free

Author Pinki Virani opens the lid on silent societal malignancies. In 1988, her book Aruna’s Story took readers uncomfortably and rivetingly close to the nurse, a rape victim who for years lay in a Mumbai hospital in a vegetative state. Shouldn’t she be allowed to die, Virani asked. In Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse In India (2000), she reported on the silence around child sexual abuse decades before Aamir Khan scratched its surface in his social issues talk show Satyamev Jayate

Her new work, Politics Of The Womb, is an important Indian feminist work. It has the rigour of extensive research, as well as Virani’s own unflinching view that assisted reproduction is anti-women. Her prose is prosaic and cool, and also polemical—in a way that it never feels the two are mutually exclusive. It has expert views from the world over, but Virani’s subjects are mostly unidentified women who have, by choice or circumstance, opted for in vitro fertilization, surrogacy and modified, “designer" babies.

At the book’s centre, is a distilled, feminist anger about the womb’s vulnerability to risk and suffering because children have to be born. She writes in the foreword that this is a book about informed choice, about wives who are “hyper-hopped and yet drowning very, very slowly in the quicksand of hormones, in the cause of their deficiency-driven zeal for parenthood".

In this interview, Virani talks about what made her write this book, male infertility and being “childfree" herself. Edited excerpts:

Politics Of The Womb: By Pinki Virani
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Politics Of The Womb: By Pinki Virani

Was there a trigger for this, your fifth, book?

I chanced upon a small news-item, in 2007, on the reports being received by America’s national health organisation that babies with conspicuous birth-defects were being born post-Ivf; that the risks to children from certain forms of forced reproduction were much higher than those to children born naturally. What immediately sprang to mind was—what, then, is happening to the mother’s uterus? Clearly, something is not right if this is the result upon an innocent newly-born. Is it because of acute hormonal violence, and if so what is it doing to the woman’s womb? After the release of my novel Deaf Heaven in 2009, I was supposed to write its diptych which can also be read standalone Bloody Hell. Instead, I found myself researching, actively, for what was happening in that part of the universe which so magnanimously calls itself “assisted" reproduction. I wasn’t prepared for the almost casually-vicious level of hyper-medicalisation which I would encounter and which Politics of the Womb–The Perils Of Ivf, Surrogacy & Modified Babies places for the first time in the international public domain.

You write about “oocyte trafficking" and “reproductive slavery" while describing the pain and risks that women undergo in IVF and other assisted reproduction. Why do you belive assisted reproduction is anti-women?

Every woman’s reproductive autonomy gives her the right to choose whether, or not, she wants to be a biological mother—that is, genetic [egg-giving] plus birth-giving. If she does, and finds herself unable, it is as much her right to choose if she wants to try external forms of assistance. But only upon herself, not upon any other woman’s body. As Politics of the Womb proves, the dangers of third-party reproduction—be it surrogacy, someone else’s oocyte or sperm—are deeply damaging to both, women and children. However, for any woman—as also any man, families, societies—to make a truly informed choice, there needs to be information which has been hitherto unavailable and Politics of the Womb provides it. People—including those who have chosen to be childfree or are involuntarily childless—have the right to know that there are secrets being kept by the repro tech industry. That there can be broken babies and breaking women as a consequence of that which was sought out as “assistance".

For some women it may be an intensely personal choice to try getting all possible help to get pregnant. Do you sympathise with that point of view?

I wrote, in the book, “The right to choose to not choose to have a child" as much for males; till the time men don’t fully grasp this too, women will continue to bear the burden. They will—for such are their hearts and their wombs (and sometimes both are the same for some women, whether birth-givers or not)—paint themselves into a susceptible corner. Has she taken upon herself the onus to get pregnant at any cost when it may be male-factor infertility or joint-factor infertility? Is it actually her close female-friend who has a child, her mother, mother-in-law, her husband, this new “promise" which is pushing her , even though the failure rate of Ivf is around 75%? And if she goes into it, what forces might come into play in which she, herself, will vanish? “Let’s insert several embryos and have twins"? “Triplets"? “This fertility clinic has a good record of sons, how about the first few cyles"? How many cycles; when does this poor woman get to stop in what she thought was her intensely personal choice?

Is male infertility researched and written about enough, is it talked about enough?

There is a sense of quiet satisfaction in knowing that Politics of the Womb is as much a global-first on the issue of male infertility. The book also urges men to speak up about fatherhood-by-choice, and for women to support them. Those men who are made to feel compelled about furthering their genes through their sperm being manipulated in laboratories, need to know that its hazmat after they turn 40 years of age and that there are very real risks of deadly diseases, deformities and disorders in what they hope will be their offspring. There is also some likelihood that the male offspring may inherit the father’s inabilities—thereby, in effect, turning into yet another perfect-payer for the repro tech industry.

I am an adoptive mother. It would appear that all women, at some point, have to deal with the idea of being, or not being, pregnant. There are so many doctors who think the cure-all for “women’s problems" is pregnancy. Have you faced this too?

My husband and I are childfree-by-choice. We have been a couple for close to three decades now, more than half of which has gone in receiving gobsmacked looks. They think it’s all my “fault", others say, “So sad, some family problem, no?" When I state that both of us have perfectly useable reproductive plumbing, they take it personally. They demand to know the reasons. Then I ask, “Well, do you have any reason for having one? Some? No? Similarly, there is no reason for having none." However, I do see this changing, even if very slowly. Younger people, including in India, are beginning to see that biological parenthood is not the only parameter of responsible adulthood.

The world-over there are people obsessed with having biological children, they justify it as a primal need to keep their genes going.

As a biologist states in the book, having sex is the primal need; children may, or may not, be a result of it. There is also a quote from the well-received book Genome which points out that individual gene-lines peter out, no matter what. So if evolution chooses to pass them by for reasons of infertility or sexual preference, it’s advisable to adopt a common-sensical approach—it’s really not the end of the world, it’s just some DNA dying when they do.

And yet, insisting upon genetic posterity, there will be unjust and outrageous exploitation through assisted reproduction.

And nowhere was this more apparent than after India recently announced its decision to join all those sensible countries which have completely banned commercial surrogacy and restricted altruistic surrogacy. The reaction was a staggering parade of patriarchy from ultra-liberals—almost a “santaan sansthaa"—who even advocated free-market principals as their right to be included in the medical exploitation of a poor woman’s body. The upcoming winter session of India’s Parliament should make for some more interesting politics of the womb when the Surrogacy Bill 2016 is presented.

You combine a passionate voice with the coolness that research demands. Was it difficult to balance the two?

Global experts—from Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Europe, India, Israel, Sweden, the UK, the US—have shared academic and scientific evidence for this book, so that the proof can reach the widest number of people possible. My role, when writing about their work, was presenting it in a manner that would be easily understandable. As to the tone and tenor, somebody had to give voice to that which is forced into existence through the surrealism of hope, hype, hormones and high expense. Plus, at such heightened risk of it having to live with short and long-term health consequences, some of which might be significantly detrimental to its quality of life. Politics of the Womb speaks, as much, for the unborn.

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