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  • On Becoming a Cyborg and Paying for It: Invocations of Motherhood in the IVF Industry
  • Susi Geiger (bio)

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

Kahlil Gibran, “The Prophet,” 1923

Of Mothers, Goddesses and Cyborgs

Over 80 years after the Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote “The Prophet,” a website for an in-vitro fertilization clinic uses the quote above for advertising their services. Artificial reproduction technologies, or “life’s longing for itself,” have over the past 25 years revolutionized paths to conception, procreation and parenthood. While its technologies have come to be largely accepted in many societies, a debate about just how artificial reproduction transforms what we understand mothers and fathers to be has been essentially missing from the public arena. In the absence of this public debate, the industries selling this technology have developed their own (marketing-led) discourse and metaphors of the brave new world of parenting and childhood in the era of artificial reproduction.

The starting point for this essay is the author’s interest in feminist views of new technologies. Two decades ago, Donna Haraway hailed the advent of the cyborg—the human being in his/her technological becoming—as something that may fundamentally democratize gender balances and that should be fully embraced by feminists.1 In the context of reproductive technologies, her famous dictum “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” could be interpreted as a hope that the new technologies of reproduction could release women from the yoke of Western conceptions of patriarchal procreation. A hope for some: for others, a fear of the technology’s subversive potential that was discernible in early policy discussions of reproductive technologies.2 Whether new reproductive technologies are able to liberate women from putting their bodies under the service of reproducing the nuclear family under the patriarchy remains contested. At its very least, however, the cyborg image of genesis unchained from sexuality challenges our ways of thinking about women, about families, about mothers and about our own identities—a challenge that, as mentioned above, has so far been largely left to the devices of the very industry that is promoting reproductive technologies. This essay will attempt to answer this challenge by deconstructing the discourse created by the in-vitro fertilization (IVF) industry—the reproductive technology that will be examined in this paper—in its website-based marketing imagery.

“A Live Baby or Your Money Back”: Marketing in the IVF Industry

Since the world’s first test-tube baby Louise Brown’s birth in 1978, over three million births worldwide have been in-vitro fertilizations.3 Currently, in many industrialized countries 1% to 4% of all births stem from in-vitro conceptions,4 spawning a highly lucrative procreation market (see Debora Spar’s recent writing for an economic analysis of this market5). IVF and related technologies of “assisted” reproduction (also known, poignantly, as ART) have allowed thousands of women to fulfil their dreams of motherhood, often outside what was commonly considered the traditional nuclear family. As is the case for many health-related products and services, the reproductive industry is subject to regulation of its marketing techniques and communications in many parts of the world. A particular concern for regulators in many countries seems to be “truth in advertising and reporting the rates of success” of individual clinics, as most marketing communication for IVF services emphasizes “product performance”—that is, rate of live births—ahead of any other message.6 An Australian self-regulatory body additionally recommends that the use of personal endorsements or success stories should be avoided in order not to create false hopes in prospective patients.7 Interestingly, rather than solely focusing on “quality” measures, US clinics in particular have recently started to compete on pricing messages, promising “A Live Baby or Your Money Back” to target low-fertility couples who may not otherwise have considered IVF procedures.8 These “outcome-based plans,” offering a sense of guaranteed success in a service industry where failure rates of 75% have seen...

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