- Seizing the Means of Reproduction by Michelle Murphy
By Michelle Murphy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. Pp. viii+259. $23.95.
Seizing the Means of Reproduction takes feminist self-help health care in Los Angeles as a point of departure for the examination of the intertwined developments of feminism(s), women’s health care, and technoscience from the 1970s through the present. The book joins Chikako Takeshita’s The Global Biopolitics of the IUD (2012) in its aim of outlining the uneven advances in the global biopolitics of reproductive technology, fertility management, and women’s health care.
The book is organized around four primary concepts. Michelle Murphy devotes a chapter to each one: “protocol feminism” (health-care practice as a set of easily learned and transferable tasks); the cervical self-exam and the subsequent creation of the female health-care subject as an “immodest witness”; the Pap smear; and two uterine evacuation devices, respectively called Menstrual Regulation (MR) and Menstrual Extraction (ME). The book charts “how specific feminisms were diversely animated by and entangled with histories of medicine, subjectivities, race, governance, and capitalism in the twentieth century” (p. 3). Murphy’s focus on widely available technological devices and processes illustrates the ways that different individuals learned about and used those devices and processes, which served as tools for “consciousness-raising” for some women and as materials of subjugation and exclusion for others.
The author describes her work as a topological and spatial, not merely chronological, history. Indeed, the book links the wide-ranging ways that [End Page 782] feminist self-care health devices and practices were appropriated into global health-care policies and practices for women worldwide. By tracing the development of “reproductive health” as an organizing concept, tying women’s health care to patterns of systemic racism and classism, and placing the history of feminist health care and biopolitics into a framework of neoliberal capitalism, Murphy has set herself to a substantial task, which she largely succeeds in completing by the conclusion.
The first two chapters, on protocol feminism and the cervical self-exam, are best understood if the reader has a previous chronological understanding of the history of the feminist health movement. The chapters’ deliberate non-linear structure highlights the broad themes and tensions of the American feminist health movement, with particular attention to the racism, classism, and poverty that differentially affected privileged and underprivileged women when they learned new reproductive protocols and technologies. Technologies like the cervical self-exam operated simultaneously to eliminate and to entrench racism and classism in the name of fostering women’s awareness of their reproductive health status.
The last two chapters, on the Pap smear and easy-to-make uterine evacuation devices, show more clearly how the reproductive protocols and technologies developed in white, middle-class, largely heterosexual circumstances in the 1970s and early 1980s, along with the language and images used to transmit them among diverse and individual groups of women, were adapted into the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In the final chapter, Murphy describes how the manuals for manufacturing ME and MR devices out of simple materials, as opposed to the devices themselves, became part of the ever-shifting landscape of contraceptive options provided to women of limited means around the world through governments and NGOs. The centrality of contraception and related technological instruction to international aid projects for women meant that “feminism itself became NGO-ized,” and that “NGO-ized feminist health care became the model for what population control programs should look like in the field” (p. 174). Murphy demonstrates how textual and visual contraceptive protocols developed in Southern California took on new life in shaping health-care policy, the aims and goals of NGOs, and the concepts of “reproductive health,” “family planning,” and “feminist health care” themselves.
The book would have benefited from some closer editing, as it introduces concepts and themes (such as the militarization of fertility and the related academic coming-of-age of women’s studies and science and technology studies) that are brought up once and then barely mentioned later. Such editing would also have eliminated distracting spelling and...