Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology
Susan Merrill Squier. Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology . New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1995. xiii + 270 pp.
The "new flesh" and the "new edge," as they have been so aptly dubbed in technocriticism, constitute the two major strands of contemporary technological change, with the former referring to biomedical technologies (examples would include genetic engineering and surgical sex changes) and the latter to communications technologies (the mass media and the information highway). For the past twenty-five years cultural critics have focused almost exclusively--and unfortunately in my view--on the "new edge." Thus I especially welcome Susan Squier's richly researched and valuable study of that aspect of the "new flesh" that appears to be most troubling to us--reproductive technologies or, as she puts it in her inspired title, Babies in Bottles.
Squier opens her book with compelling present day images of what today we call "test-tube babies," images that represent conception and gestation outside of the maternal womb with the aid of technology. Tellingly, these are images in which the figure of the mother is nowhere to be found. One of the underlying purposes of Babies in Bottles is to understand the historical roots of this virtual separation of [End Page 227] mother and child and to put, as it were, the mother back into the picture, to assert the prominence of the reciprocal relationship between the pregnant woman and the child she is carrying. In the process Squier draws knowingly on the feminist critique of science both past and present and contributes significantly to it.
With great clarity and with generosity to other scholars and cultural critics, Squier uncovers an important history in the British decades of the twenties and thirties that has decisively influenced our contemporary debates over reproductive technologies. In particular, Squier is concerned with the modern history that anticipates our postmodern moment today when, as she astutely puts it, "gestating woman and fetus are increasingly constructed as deadly adversaries in a pitched battle." Deftly organizing each chapter around a topic that is of especial interest today (among them, the role of analogy in the production of knowledge, the figure of the cyborg, the rewriting of modernism to include the sentimental romance and the melodrama, and technologies of the visible, in particular the cinema), Squier concentrates in Babies in Bottles on the work of an exceptional and interlocked group of British men and women.
They include Julian Huxley, a zoologist who was also a writer of popular science and involved in the making of scientific documentary films; his younger brother Aldous Huxley who initially wanted to study science and medicine but as a result of a debilitating eye infection turned to writing about the implications of technoscience instead; the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane who in 1923 launched an influential series of pamphlets that debated "ectogenesis," conception and gestation outside of the mother's body; his first wife Charlotte Haldane, a feminist editor and novelist who wrote about sex selection and "intersexuality"; and Naomi Haldane Mitchison, the younger sister of J. B. S. Haldane, whose work serves Squier as a striking parable of a feminist science.
This, however, only begins to suggest the wide range of materials and contexts in which Squier grounds her research as she adroitly moves from the present to the past and back again. She refers us, for example, forward to Robert Edward's and Patrick Steptoe's 1981 A Matter of Life (their account of perfecting the technique of in vitro fertilization), back to the work of organizations such as the Eugenics Education Society (established in 1907) and the World League for Sexual Reform (founded in 1928), and forward again to the recent report of [End Page 228] the Warnock Commission in Britain which debated the parameters of research on human embryos.
This historical perspective enables Squier to draw many challenging conclusions, of which I can here mention only three. First, she convincingly shows that the link made by contemporary feminists between recent fetal imaging technologies and the invisibility (or effacement) of the woman's containing body is not at all new. It has a history that can be clearly seen in the work of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (I would add here that we can also see this link in x-ray photographs of fetuses that were taken well before the turn of the twentieth century).
Second, Squier brilliantly reconstructs the historical lineage of the notion of the pregnant woman as cyborg that has recently been proposed by feminists as a liberating model of gestation and birth. This model, Squier argues, is altogether untenable. The cyborg itself, she demonstrates, " originates in ectogenesis ." "Foundational to the fantasy of the cyborg, with its denial of the mind/body link, is," she writes, "an earlier denial of the relationship between fetus and gestating woman."
Third, she concludes that women's writing in the late Victorian and modern periods is distinguished by the " use of scientific language to advance the feminist cause of female agency and autonomy. " I must say that I don't think that the range of texts Squier discusses is broad enough to permit this sweeping inference. But as a working supposition it is altogether provocative. It is also critical to understanding Squier's own stance toward science. A strong and thoughtful feminist, Squier wisely refuses to join those who would condemn outright all scientific and technological control over reproduction as a patriarchal plot (I might note that the word "control" here contributes itself to this view; we would not refer, for instance, to a hearing aid--a technological device--as "controlling" our hearing but rather as "enhancing" it).
Squier is clear that we must evaluate the uses of technoscience in its different contexts. At stake for Squier is also the reconceptualization of the scientific method itself, one that might be based not on scientific objectivity but, in words that refer us to the work of Mitchison, "scientific empathy." In the fascinating chapter that concludes Babies in Bottles Squier discusses Mitchison's study of guinea pigs when she was a girl. In contrast to her brother who was interested in experimenting on them, Mitchison was interested in observing them, going so far as to learn to distinguish their individual voices and even to taste their milk. [End Page 229] Squier also introduces us to Mitchison's relatively recent bioscience fiction novels Memories of a Spacewoman and Solution Three . Both of them sound as if they should be required reading for people interested in ethical and epistemological questions regarding reproductive technology. So too should Squier's illuminating Babies in Bottles.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee