The Reproductive Sociology Research Group supports research and teaching on the social and cultural implications of new reproductive technologies.

ReproSoc is led by Professor Sarah Franklin at the University of Cambridge.

Borders as Reproductive Technologies

Borders as Reproductive Technologies

Image credit:  Karen Patchell

Image credit: Karen Patchell

Michal Nahman and Siggie Vertommen, April ‘19

On 1st of February Bristol was covered beneath a carpet of white snow that brought the city to a halt. Bristol airport was shut down, the campuses of University of the West of England and most offices and shops were closed for the day, because of an unexpected snow storm. Yet, our long awaited international conference on ‘Critically Mapping Cross Border Reproduction’ took place nonetheless. Thanks to the generous support of the British Sociological Association and the Wellcome Trust and the incessant persistence of the conference organisers and participants who conquered icy cold temperatures, we spent a full day reflecting on and discussing ongoing her/histories of cross-border reproduction.

Borders were the protagonists of our conference. We started the conference with two brief snapshots that underlined the stratified nature of current flows and scapes of globalised reproduction, and brought into view the various borders shaping these stratifications.

The first story was that of Stacy and Chris Hayter, a British couple from Somerset, that finished two rounds of IVF and four frozen cycles in the UK with no positive result, i.e. a take home baby. Desperate for a child, they weighed up the costs of going for one final round of expensive treatment at a private in London, they did some research and found a clinic in Greece that reported much higher success rates. Chris stated: "their success rate was so much higher and not only that but the money would provide us with two full cycles and cover us living in Greece for a month". So they went to Greece and after just one cycle they had their pregnancy and 9 months later their baby girl Athena . In the UK, NICE guidelines suggest that the NHS should provide up to three cycles of IVF. In significant tension with this, 80% of Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in the UK fail to provide the recommended 3 cycles of IVF . It is in this context that people such as Chris and Stacy are faced with the decision of whether or not to travel abroad. For many couples it is simply not an option to go privately in the UK or to pay out of pocket here. The reduced cost in other countries is simply the only option if they want to have a genetically related baby. On one level, this is a story of the success of a white heterosexual couple entering into nuclear familyhood. It demonstrates the liberatory nature of crossing borders for some, under an increasingly privatized healthcare service.

The second story was that of Rosa, a Latin American woman who was married to an EU citizen working in the UK, and who had a five-year UK residence card on that basis. She and her husband later separated but were not divorced. She then started a relationship with another EU citizen who had been working in the UK, and they went together to her home country for a year. When they returned she was stopped at the airport because her residence card had expired. The immigration authorities at the airport contacted her husband to verify that she really was the wife of an EU citizen, and then (unnecessarily) issued her with a tourist visa to re-enter the UK. Soon after her return to the UK Rosa discovered that she was pregnant. Although she told the hospital where she booked for maternity care that she was married to an EU citizen, she was informed that she had to pay as she had a tourist visa in her passport. It took numerous letters from Maternity Action’s (2018:32) legal adviser and a threat of legal action before the hospital cancelled the charges”.

In contemporary Britain, where the ‘hostile environment’ is the new norm, migration and borders are the toys that the politicians play with. One way in which this hostile environment has most poignantly been enacted is in the lives of pregnant women who are undocumented migrants in Britain. Their asylum claims have failed or they have overstayed a visa. Such women are now being charged 150% more than the normal tariff and being asked to pay for the right to care in labour and birth.

Borders are racialising reproductive technologies. Crossing borders facilitates economic and personal reproduction. The passing through borders as people like Chris and Stacy do, reproduces the heteronormative family with people feeling that they “have to choose” to have babies (Franklin 1997). Their example also demonstrates how the British state outsources to countries such as Greece and Spain the reproduction of the next generation of workers. Sometimes crossing borders is experienced as liberatory. Yet the contradictory economic and social outcomes may not be. In stark contrast to this, is the example of precarious and vulnerable migrant women who are made to pay for maternity services. Migrants are boundary figures. Migrant women are eminently extractable for waged and unwaged labour. Desired by capital, for providing cheap labour and being relatively disposable , migrants are also the tool for pitting differently situated workers against each other, heightening racialised nationalisms, fueling discussions of closing down borders.

As these coupled snapshots provide different magnifications and views of the border, the conference explored how this manifests in terms of markets, mobilities, methodologies and solidarities (which were the titles of the four panels of the conference).

How do transnational practices and transactions of reproduction reinforce state borders, and racialised national identities? What ways do these processes support economies of scale and profit? In other words, how does the romance of love and the nuclear family through babymaking reproduce the status quo of the state, promote the interests of capital, whilst producing immeasurable change and sometimes pleasure and financial benefit for the individuals engaged in the labours of providing eggs, gestation, and commissioning parents?

These repro-stories are a form of ‘border traffic’ between different women’s bodies, private/corporate medicine and public medicine, religious and national conflict (Nahman 2013). Borders not only separate countries, nations and territories but they also manifest in terms of separations, dichotomies and binaries between the domains of the private and the public, the mind and the body, biological and social reproduction, as hierarchies of gender, race, class, as disciplinary divisions between cultural and political economy accounts of ARTs. The conference aimed to tear down or make cracks (this is how the light gets in) in borders, divisions, binaries - epistemologically, disciplinary and ontologically – or at least make ‘partial connections’ (Strathern, 2004) through the borders.

In our own research on the politics of assisted reproduction in Israel/Palestine, it was Strathern’s (1992) analytical move of not separating the reproductive domain from the broader political-economic realm that inspired our attempts at “de-domaining” the arenas of cross-border reproduction from Israeli state’s practices. Michal’s book Extractions (2013), for instance, was concerned with the material and ideological attempts by the Israeli State at constructing borders that enclosed ever more Palestinian land and dispossessed more Palestinian people, while at the same time constructing laws for egg donation and facilitating businesses that would outsource reproduction to countries such as Romania. This outsourcing, or expansion of the reproductive border to Romania, where the economic and legal systems allowed for circumvention of systems of informed consent, safe care of donors, and understandings of trafficking—is central to the State’s own self-perpetuation. Similarly, Siggie’s work on the political economy of global fertility chains between Israel and Georgia, analyses practices, policies and infrastructures of transnational surrogacy as operating at a double frontier - a demographic frontier and a commodity frontier, at the crossroads of ongoing histories of biocapitalism and settler colonialism in Israel/Palestine.


Our work follows a Harawayan (1991, 2016) tradition of diffraction, i.e. creating new ways of critiquing by tearing down the disciplinary borders of domains of knowledge and conceptual frameworks. This is messy, but important. If our goal is to promote reproductive justice and social change, then we need to “stay with the trouble”, and refuse to keep the domain of colonialism, capitalism and global patriarchy outside the frame of the story of cross border reproduction. Including Palestinian, Romanian and Georgian women’s stories in our repro-stories, is therefore a political act of resistance in the tradition of Lila Abu-Lughod, Nadia Abu El-Hajj, Smadar Lavie and others—of whose story gets to hold centre stage and be our frame of reference for analysis,  for making theory and social change.

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