Introduction: Setting the Context: Sexuality, Reproductive Health, and Medical Technologies in the Middle East and North Africa
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1 INTRODUCTION Setting the Context Sexuality, Reproductive Health, and Medical Technologies in the Middle East and North Africa Angel M. Foster and L. L. Wynn To paraphrase Claude Lévi-Strauss (as anthropologists are wont to do), technologies are “good to think” with (Lévi-Strauss 1969, 162). That is because technologies are “society made durable” (Latour 1990). This is nowhere more true than with sexual and reproductive health technologies. Emerging reproductive health technologies are particularly important to study because they are life and death, both literally and figuratively. In a world where “unsafe sex is the second most important risk factor for disability and death in the world’s poorest communities and the ninth most important in developed countries” (Glasier et al. 2006, 1595), sexual and reproductive health technologies make the difference between life and death. Medical technologies such as contraception, abortion, interventions in childbirth , and treatment for sexually transmitted infections have a tremendous impact on the well-being of women, men, and families. Assisted reproductive technologies offer the possibility of new life—a child—to infertile individuals seeking to become parents. Emerging sexual and reproductive health technologies are important for social scientists to study also because they are metaphorically about life and death, touching as they do on sex and the beginning of life, two of the most moralized areas of society (Wynn and Trussell 2006). Assisted reproductive technologies, pregnancy termination technologies, and new forms of contraception all intervene in or prevent early human life, placing “new technologies of reproduction within an interpretative space where different ontologies of fetal existence and human coming-into-being compete” (Gammeltoft and Wahlberg 2014, 209). When new reproductive health technologies emerge or are taken up in society , these technologies crystallize social debates, reminding us that culture is not static or uniformly distributed within society; rather, culture is the “orga- 2   Abortion Pills, Test Tube Babies, and Sex Toys nization of diversity” (Wallace 2009). This organization of diversity is vividly illustrated in the robust debates the contributors to this volume document over the uses of new technologies across the Middle East and North Africa. Studying these debates about emerging reproductive health technologies reveals social attitudes toward ideal and proscribed sexuality, assumptions about and challenges to normative gender roles, beliefs about families, cosmologies about when life begins and how an individual relates to God, and expectations about the role of government and medical experts in individuals’ sexual and reproductive lives. As products of scientific knowledge, technologies sometimes appear to be culturally neutral, but both technologies and the science that produce them are always products of social networks and cultural discourses (Roberts 2007, 3). Therefore, Bruno Latour urges us to not ask “ ‘is this social,’ ‘is this technical or scientific’  ” when we study technologies, but rather to see how technologies are never one or the other, but are always a chain of the connected social and technological (1990, 110). Another way of thinking about the sociality of technologies is in terms of Star and Griesemer’s account of “boundary objects,” which they define as “scientific objects which both inhabit several intersecting social worlds . . . and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them” (Star and Griesemer 1989, 393). This insight explains why technologies sometimes appear to be socially and culturally neutral. Technologies are easily reconfigured and adapted for use in different social and cultural settings, and yet at the same time they retain a common identity that allows them to circulate transnationally in forms that are mutually intelligible. It is that shared identity that allows technologies to appear universal, and it is their plasticity, their translatability across diverse social worlds, that makes them ubiquitous. That technologies are simultaneously concrete and abstract has implications for the chapters in this volume, where contributors both present the biographies of material things and invoke imaginations of social worlds. Some technologies are materia medica—that is, medical materials, including but not limited to pharmaceutical products, that have “social lives” (Appadurai 1988) and “vigorous commodity careers” (Whyte, van der Geest, and Hardon 2002, 3). Others are less material and more ephemeral, yet nevertheless are technologies: surgical or laboratory techniques, taught in medical school or improvised by innovative physicians, deployed on or through women’s and men’s bodies, and debated by ethicists, religious authorities, and laypeople. Both concrete and abstract, physical and metaphorical, medical technologies thus have “deep and abiding presences in our bodies, our persons , our selves” (Downey and Dumit 1997, 5). Although the term technology often connotes innovations at the...

Subject Headings

  • Human reproductive technology -- Middle East.
  • Human reproductive technology -- Africa, North.
  • Birth control -- Middle East.
  • Birth control -- Africa, North.
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