- Reproductive Acts: Sexual Politics in North American Fiction and Film by Heather Latimer
In March 2015 an Indiana court found Purvi Patel guilty of feticide and sentenced her to twenty years in prison. This ruling represented the first time a 2009 Indiana statute meant to enhance sentencing in cases of violence toward pregnant women had instead been used against a pregnant woman. Patel’s sentencing, one of many recent attacks on women’s reproductive rights, underscores the continuing need for feminist theory as activism. Heather Latimer’s recent monograph Reproductive Acts: Sexual [End Page 365] Politics in North American Fiction and Film does just this. By analysing contemporary representations of reproduction in terms of the legal and social landscapes engendered by Roe v. Wade, Latimer helps to explain how and why the pregnant woman and her fetus have come to appear as antagonists. Drawing on the work of feminist theorists such as Judith Roof and Valerie Hartouni, Latimer makes the counter-intuitive argument that abortion laws in the United States and Canada are part of the problem. Reproductive Acts’s unique contribution is its looking away from law, medicine, and social discourse and toward narrative, where Latimer finds nuanced reflections on abortion, assisted reproduction, and motherhood. Her incisive readings of these texts produce a counter-archive of feelings from which to craft new postures of resistance and solidarity.
“Reproductive Déjà Vu,” Latimer’s theoretical introduction, leads readers through her central contentions. First and foremost, she argues that abortion rulings in the United States and Canada should be seen less as positive statements of women’s rights than as limited suspensions of the state’s interest in governing reproduction. Roe v. Wade makes this especially clear. Premised on a woman’s right to privacy but constrained by the fetus’s right to life, the legal logic of Roe v. Wade set the stage for fetal personhood initiatives. The “life” versus “choice” debate merely mirrors the original ruling and leads to “repetitive, paradoxical debates.” By the same token, these terms fail to capture the multiplex relations around reproduction, instead flattening the thick relations that cling to any act of reproduction. Latimer writes, “Fundamentalist concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ can rarely make sense of reproductive decisions.” Such complications get full treatment in her readings of contemporary fiction and film.
The chapters that follow consider work by Canadian and American women writers whose insider-outsider perspectives fatten up the flattened space of reproduction in popular discourse. The first chapter, on novels by Margaret Atwood and Kathy Acker, hews the closest to the introduction’s concerns, though with the additional claim that abortion medicine can also be used to express contempt for women. Chapter two takes up novels by Nancy Huston and Toni Morrison to explore ethical relationships to the maternal. Here Latimer stresses Lacanian feminist readings of the abject female body: messy, leaky, and potentially devouring. This chapter and the next pay close attention to narrative strategies that fracture the illusion that “experience is ever unmediated, and that identities are stable and singular,” which Latimer sees as subtending the legal frameworks of abortion law. Her third chapter, on Shelley Jackson and Larissa Lai, moves out from pregnancy and maternity to illuminate the way abortion discourse contours reproductive acts of several kinds, especially technologies of assisted reproduction. Latimer argues that Jackson and Lai use retellings of the Frankenstein story to give reproductive technologies [End Page 366] back their disruptive power to remake kinship systems, which has largely been offset by the naturalization of fetal imaging.
Reproductive Acts concludes by breaking the pattern it established. The final chapter is devoted to an extended reading of Children of Men, directed by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón, in dialogue with queer theory and biopolitical theory. This itinerary—from abortion to indefinite detention—indicates the range of social and cultural concerns structured through reproduction. At the same time, however, the book never fully explores the structure that connects them or the implications it might have for a future in which biotechnology looks...