SUZANNE VIERLING: Womanhood is erased, even as Big Pharma profits from women’s bodies

In our rapidly evolving fourth, soon-to-be fifth industrial revolution, we somehow have to ask the question "What is a woman?" The answer to this question, you would think, would be incontrovertible, and yet all around us we see evidence that the very idea of womanhood as an identity, a legal status, a source of rights, or even as a full human being, is being dismantled.

In this new world, women have faced many losses that would’ve once been unthinkable. We have been reduced to terms associated with female genitalia and reproduction: “birthing body," “people with the capacity to give birth,” "breeder,” “chest feeder,” “bonus holes,” “uterus haver," "menstruator,” “egg donor,” and – most shockingly (and tellingly) of all – “medical waste.”

We have lost rights to sex-segregated spaces such as sports, prisons, and bathrooms. We’ve witnessed the dismantling of Title IX, where men's and women’s sports are no longer divided by sex and men can opt in to compete in women’s sports. Finally, we’ve to watch as lawmakers erased the terms “mother” and “woman” from public discourse, declaring these ancient ideas bigoted. 

Instead, we must adapt to new terminology to describe our biology in order to be inclusive of those who claim to have been born with women’s brains in male bodies. In short, in this new world, the subjective feeling of gender has replaced the biological reality of sex. Men and women are now allowed to legally identify into any sex category, or none at all. Now, women must accommodate males who feel like women in their spaces. While these changes claim to be well meaning and inclusive, the new language and laws inadvertently erase, degrade and endanger women.

And yet, there is a place where the terms “woman” and “mother” are not only understood, but exploited: the biotechnology, biopharmaceuticals, and regenerative medicine sectors don’t need to ask, "What is a woman?" They're too busy riding womanhood all the way to the bank. Women’s placenta, Wharton’s jelly, amniotic fluid, blood cord, eggs, menstrual blood and embryos are in stem cells and are a pathway to medical miracles that can heal every disease known to man. What is a woman? A medical wonder, that’s what. Even as hospitals label a woman’s biological parts as 'medical waste', that 'waste' finds its way into the research halls of science—only to turn a profit on Wall Street.

And what is the wholesale price for this “waste?” Let's just say it's not pocket change. We're looking at sums that can pay the rent, tuition, and a down payment on a house, just for a milliliter of amniotic fluid. The paradox is glaring: as women's bodies are being simultaneously devalued in legal and public spaces, at the same time they have become vital assets to the health sector.

What is to be done about this? Should women withhold the precious birth materials they normally gift to science in protest? I would not go that far. But our society needs to do a better job both of acknowledging and (more importantly) valuing mothers’ contribution to our collective health and well-being. The legal purging of “woman” and “mother” from our collective vocabulary, along with the effort to rename women with dehumanizing terms against their will, is inexcusable at the best of times. But for our society to do so while turning women’s body parts into merchandisable commodities without their knowledge is the height of hypocrisy.

This grotesque paradox has to be reconciled, and in women’s favor. Everyone should thank a woman, and especially a mother, for donating her body for medical research. People are walking around with brand new knees and hips from the stem cell procurement process. One day we will all cry tears of joy when stem cells—more than likely alongside some adjunctive robotic device—allow a man or woman to stand up straight, tall, and paraplegia-free.

Which means that, at minimum, our society should be able to answer “what is a woman” honestly. Technological advancements that pushed us through three industrial revolutions never questioned the biological existence of 50 percent of the population. The question of how to define that 50 percent of the population should not be on anyone’s to-do list today.

If a mother’s eggs and birth material are good enough to cure diseases, uplift society's health and well-being, yield jobs, and generate investor profits, then women are more than good enough for our rights and her existence as a sex to be not only acknowledged, but celebrated. Enough of reducing us to the sum of our parts. We are, and always have been, an integral part of society and should be seen as such—in our laws, our language, and our lives.

And frankly, the vast majority of our society knows what a woman is. What is required now is the full restoration of women’s rights. This means, among other things, that we need a reinstatement of Title IX that keeps sports intact and fair for women, and we need to make our prisons, bathrooms, domestic violence and sex assault shelters secured specifically for women. Bluntly, unless this takes place, and women are valued as full, whole human beings, then exploiting our body parts is morally indefensible.

Image: Title: pregnant woman
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