October 27, 2017


Reassembling Motherhood, edited by Yasmine Ergas (pictured) et al.
Reassembling Motherhood, edited by Yasmine Ergas (pictured) et al.

Yasmine Ergas, the director of SIPA’s specialization in Gender and Public Policy since it was established in 2013, is a lecturer in discipline in international and public affairs and senior advisor to the University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. She is also a member of the Committee on Global Thought, and co-chair of Columbia University’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Council.

Ergas recently spoke with SIPA News about her newly published book, Reassembling Motherhood: Procreation and Care in a Globalized World (Columbia University Press), a collection of essays edited with Jane Jenson and Sonya Michel. The book’s launch will be celebrated with a panel discussion on Wednesday, November 1.

How did the book come about?

I’ve been working on issues relating to women’s rights for a long time—from child care policies to international surrogacy to abortion. And I’ve also been interested in the effects of globalization on the everyday lives of ordinary people for a long time. I think these two sets of interests, together with my own experience as a mother, led to a basic intuition: that, despite the many ways in which motherhood is understood and structured within and across societies the world over, globalization, technological innovation, and changing gender norms were converging to profoundly impact who was, who could become, and what it meant to be a ‘mother.’ And because ‘motherhood’ is central to so many women’s lives (including because, for so many, not having children has been accompanied by stigma and socioeconomic insecurity), what happens to ‘motherhood’ is directly related to women’s life chances. And, of course, what happens to women—and how reproduction is organized—is of direct relevance to social and economic organization.

So, on that premise—that we needed to understand the convergence of globalization, technology, and changing gender norms and the new possibilities and constraints that were being generated—I organized a workshop with the support of Peter Bearman, then ISERP director (and now INCITE director), and Elazar Barkan of the Institute for the Studies of Human Rights. Afterward, my colleagues Jane Jenson and Sonya Michel and I brought together some of the participants of that workshop and other authors to address the range of issues we felt were important.

What are your key findings?

The conclusion we came to was that motherhood has been liberalized in many ways, but it has been very unevenly democratized. And the global chains of procreation and of care that have emerged have both facilitated liberalization and, to a certain extent, exacerbated inequalities. What is a global procreative chain? A process through which people assemble the ‘components’ involved in childmaking in various places: intended parents might, for example, procure gametes in one (or more) countries, undergo—or arrange for—fertility treatments and gestation in another, and, finally, bring the child into a third country (usually the one in which the intended parents themselves reside). A global care chain is one in which workers—most often women—migrate from one country to another to provide care for families in another country. Often, they leave behind their own families, including their own children, who now have to be cared for by someone else.

Both procreative and care chains have been immensely facilitated by the development of the internet and other communication and transportation technologies. But procreative chains have also been based on reproductive technologies that previously did not exist. These reproductive technologies have been key to the liberalization of motherhood. Many people who previously could not bear children can now do so. Many physiological conditions that used to make it impossible to have children have or are being surmounted. At the same time, the liberalization of motherhood has been grounded in really important policy developments: adoption has been legalized in large parts of the world, so has access to contraceptives and to abortion; and in several countries, surrogacy is now also a legally sanctioned options. So, choice has increased.

On the other hand, access to ‘motherhood’ is stratified. In many countries, for example, there’s the question of who has access to assisted reproductive technologies. And, everywhere there are women whose ability to keep their children and mother them is limited by discriminatory factors. For example, research shows that women in disadvantaged minority groups in the U.S. and other societies may have their children taken away from them by the state for foster care services more quickly than white women in similar situations.

There are also new forms of potential exclusion from motherhood. For example, in the whole debate on surrogacy, there is the question of how rights are distributed between women who bear children and women (and men) who are their intended parents. There are conflicting perspectives on the enforceability of the contracts that underlie surrogacy arrangements, as well as concerns over the potential exploitation of the women involved. And, there is the fundamental question of whether childbearing really is something we want to subject to contractual arrangements. Some of these issues also arise in in the context of adoption. There’s also the fact that maternal mortality persists: the preventable death of mothers is perhaps the greatest exclusion from motherhood we can envisage. On the topic of childcare, there is the basic issue of the capacity to care for their children of women who migrate to take care of the children of others. Some commentators have talked about the ‘care deficits’ being created in countries of emigration. All of these are very real problems, but we also think that new understandings of motherhood are developing that encompass these changes. So, there is not just one perspective: this book highlights questions on which there is, and there has to be, an open discussion.

How do you treat this wealth of issues in your book?

This is a topic you have to address in a multidisciplinary way, so we have historians, political scientists, public health experts, and lawyers examining many aspects of motherhood.

One of the essays is by an art historian who writes about how the figure of the fetus-as-evolving-child gets represented in a way that disjoins it from the body and the person of the mother. (This is an important part of the abortion debate—the way in which the mother gets completely marginalized as a figure and the attention is entirely directed at the future self-standing child.)

Another terrific essay is by Alice Kessler-Harris, one of the great historians here at Columbia University, who writes about the connections between domesticity and childcare and the work of women. Political scientists discuss the social organization of policies with respect to childcare. We have an anthropologist who did her research in India on the experiences of women who give their children up for adoption. We have lawyers talking about adoption, surrogacy, and access to assisted reproductive technologies. Public health experts write about the lack of attention paid to the physiological impacts of reproductive technologies on the women who undergo fertility treatments. But to talk about motherhood you also need to talk about paternity: the first essay is by Nara Milanich, a historian at Barnard, discussing the search for ‘certainty’ in the attribution of paternity.

Why do you say motherhood is a global issue?

When we think about childcare and procreation, we are disassembling motherhood into a series of tasks, each one of which exists on the market. The fact is that reproduction is a central function of society and motherhood happens to be a key element in the organization of reproduction. Whether women choose to have children or not is very significant for societies. When we don’t recognize the central role motherhood plays in the society, we are forgetting that motherhood—as a basic element in reproduction—is the precondition for what happens in all aspects of a society.

What we have is a global market in procreation and care. What the book does is to examine both of these and their intersections. It is about one of the major effects that globalization has had. It is about how motherhood has, in many ways, ceased to be a local experience. It’s organized on a global scale. And as with all global markets, there are ways the development of the market has been liberalizing but also ways in with it has generated new inequalities. We need to start thinking about these issues in global market terms.

Why do we need to think about these issues now?

Because we need a view of how motherhood is changing and how we can start to address some of these changes. Lots of different stressors and transformative factors had been converging: globalization, technology, and developing theories and beliefs in gender equality. The question is how these vectors, if you like, come together to raise the question of who and what a mother is and what mothering entails from a series of different perspectives.

We have to think about these questions in terms of social justice, choice and fairness.

What’s in store for motherhood in the future?

The big questions are: how to organize care and how to recognize its value; who has what kind of claim to parentage; and what technologies are going to enable. These are questions that entire societies have to address. It is not just a private matter.

We don’t know how any of this is going to be resolved. We don’t know whether 20 years from now a woman or a man who takes care his or her child, stays home, supervises homework, and facilitates feedings, is going to be able to claim motherhood and compensation. This is not a book about answers. It’s about how confluence of a series of major social trends has created a set of questions that we all need to think about.

This interview, conducted by Mia Shuang Li MPA ’18, has been condensed and edited.