As the old adage goes, “never judge a book by its cover.” However, as an historian of abortion and its technologies, I was immediately intrigued by the cover of Michelle Murphy’s Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Entanglements of Feminism, Health, and Technoscience for two reasons: its clever, patterned use of the Del-Em apparatus, a homemade menstrual extractor (and for many American women, a subversive manual suction pregnancy terminator during the period of abortion criminality) that was a byproduct of the self-help/women’s health movement of the 1960s and 1970s; and, the book’s title, which incorporates one of the main goals of this movement—“seizing the means of the reproduction”—from patriarchal hands, just as Marx had called on the proletarian class to seize the “means of production.” The work’s title also serves as a nod to a classic in abortion studies: Pauline Bart’s 1987 article in Qualitative Sociology, “Seizing the Means of Reproduction: An Illegal Feminist Abortion Collective—How and Why it Worked,” which traces the development of Jane, the famous grassroots, feminist, Chicago abortion service that operated during the height of the women’s health movement.
If one could mine all this from the cover, the work itself, I reasoned, would yield volumes. My expectations for Murphy’s text were therefore substantial, and I certainly was not disappointed. Continuing where works such as Sheryl Burt Ruzek’s The Women’s Health Movement: Feminist Alternatives to Medical Control (1979) and Sandra Morgen’s Into Our Own Hands: The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1969–1990 (2002) end, Seizing the Means of Reproduction reexamines the women’s health movement of the 1970s and 80s through a feminist technoscience framework made possible by the epistemological shifts that have occurred in technology studies over the past decade.
While much of the material explored in the work itself is not “new,” per se (an entire literature exists on the women’s health movement, especially on its self-help strands), Murphy’s refreshing theoretical approach exposes previously unexamined critical junctures, in particular the tension between feminism and technology, and the reality that while 1970s feminists seeking to seize reproductive technologies recognized the political power of what they were doing, they often overlooked the racial power-dynamics of the technologies in question. This became a concern when, as Murphy’s scholarship elucidates, American “second wave” feminist healthcare activism and self-help technologies (such as the plastic speculum and Del-Em apparatus) went transnational and were deployed, usually by other feminists, NGOs, and mechanisms of globalized (often capitalist) biopower, to undergird late-twentieth century phenomena such as the expansion of American empire/imperialism, population control/neoeugenics, and political movements (e.g., neoliberalism).
Murphy’s work not only makes a significant contribution to our understanding of how reproductive technologies have been politically, socially, culturally and racially transformed and maneuvered since the 1970s, but it also elegantly, and intricately, conveys how the “economy of reproduction” functions in both the developed and [End Page 248] developing worlds, especially in the age of genetic engineering, cloning, sex-selection, and continuing contraceptive battles.