Reading Life (Un)Ltd: Feminism, Bioscience, Race

The newest edition of the Scholar & Feminist Online is entitled Life (Un)Ltd: Feminism, Bioscience, Race and “is devoted to new scholarship at the intersection of science and technology studies (hereafter STS), race/postcolonial studies, and feminist and queer theory” (Rachel C. Lee, “Introduction”). In reading the articles in this issue, however, I noticed another critical concept that is central to these intersections: the concept of morality.

In many ways, morality is an important concept to explore in a series of articles that largely aims to problematize our conception of science and technology as impartial and infallible—as objective “fact.” Yet the interweaving of morality within this edition of the journal was still unsettling, perhaps because the morality described by the articles was not a morality developed and maintained by bioscience based on the power it is given in society. Rather, many articles discussed a shirked responsibility to morality on the part of bioscience and an externalization and imposition of this morality to the individuals upon which the science is being acted.

The title of this issue addresses most directly this shirking of moral responsibilities on the part of science and technology that is increasingly commercialized through large corporations. The use of “Ltd.” calls to mind LLCs–limited liability corporations–that shield their investors from legal responsibilities while allowing them to reap financial gains. “Life LTD” recalls the human costs of these gains that are externalized to marginalized, laboring communities. This suspension of morality is taken up by Michelle Murphy in “Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency,” and Diane Nelson’s “Yes to Life = No to Mining:’ Counting as Biotechnology in Life (Ltd) Guatemala.” In both pieces, the authors problematize moral responsibility by adding a long-term temporal lens to corporate morality. In the case of river pollution and mining in Guatemala, respectively, the health risks of corporate behavior have yet to be realized, although it is well known they will appear later, and therefore allows corporate behavior to play risk games on the health and lives of others. How can we hold these corporations accountable before evidence of their moral disinterest develops? These discussions of the externalization and privatization of risk to the individual level–and carried most heavily by marginalized communities–provide an extension and science-based focus of much of the thinking of the last Scholar & Feminist edition, Gender, Justice, and Neoliberal Transformations

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Morality appears in several other articles with a different assertion: that science is often used as a tool to create, monitor, and maintain subjective moralities for specific ends. In “Double Exposure—Sex Workers, Biomedical Prevention Trials, and the Dual Logic of Global Public Health,” Melinda Cooper argues that public health intervention often condemns the practice of sex work through selective funding (PEPFAR being a prime example), while simultaneously relying on “high risk” populations, like sex workers, to participate in clinical trials for HIV/AIDS drugs. This moral judgement placed on sex work allows ignorance, or even destruction, of effective risk reduction techniques developed within the sex worker community to instead push for a biomedical intervention that brings with it the risk of infection.

Renee Tajima-Peña’s “‘Más Bebés?’: An Investigation of the Sterilization of Mexican-American Women at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the 1960s and 70s” traces the stories and influences of the documentary No Más Bebés Por Vida. The film follows a group of Chicana feminist activists working to expose and find justice for the group of women of Mexican origin that were coercively sterilized at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center (LAC+USC) during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Tajima-Peña’s article shows another violent incarnation of a biomedical morality. In this case, doctors informed by the Zero Population Growth Movement and extensive federal funding for family planning, turned the bodies of Mexican, African American, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Dominican, Native American, and poor white women into the site of this imposition of “morality.” In “Biopolitics of Adoption,” Laura Briggs also addresses this “biomedical regime” that desired to limit all families to a small, “modern” nuclear family. Briggs argues that adoption has become the new instrument for the type of monitoring of non-white bodies, stating that adoption further limits “who can be saved” by this “biomedical regime” from communities in need to individual children that deserve to be saved.

Stephanie Hsu discusses another type of sterilization in her piece “‘Transsexual Empire,’ Trans Postcoloniality: The Biomedicalization of the Trans Body and the Cultural Politics of Trans Kinship in Northeast Asia and Asian America.” Hsu argues that the requirement of sex reassignment surgery (SRS) for trans* people in North Asia seeking to change their legal documents has “increasingly become the neoliberal state’s primary technique for turning trans bodies into citizen bodies.” This, too, is an imposition of biomedical morality onto trans* bodies; by requiring trans* individuals to complete SRS in order to be (re)instated as documented citizens (as legal documents that do not accurately reflect an individual’s gender can be almost entirely useless, and often dangerous to use), the State is able to monitor and control a binary gender structure that erases and excludes difference therein. Furthermore, SRS limits the state’s engagement with trans* rights by leaving unquestioned issues of non-heterosexual marriage rights and non-traditional family structures.

The articles in Life (Un)Ltd: Feminism, Bioscience, Race are powerful reminders that science is not a neutral tool, but rather one that powerfully–and often violently–interacts with other facets of life to impose a morality that can be harmful to the bodies it reports to protect.

Adair is a senior at Barnard College majoring in Africana Studies and Human Rights. She is a Research Assistant at the BCRW.

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