Paola Tabet: On the Social Organization of Women’s Reproduction

Here is an excerpt from Tabet’s “Natural Fertility, Forced Reproduction,” an essay that offers important insights for conceptualizing the relationship between modes of production and the social organization of women’s reproduction. It provides a basis for further developing our analysis of the current attack on women’s control of reproduction.

The excerpt below deals with marriage as an institution that maximizes women’s exposure to pregnancy.

Interventions into the Capacity to Reproduce
Generalised Intervention:the Social Organisation of Exposure to the Risk of Pregnancy

“In a country where there are few illegitimate births, the beginning of the period of exposure to the risk of conception is marked by marriage (Léridon, 1977, p. 17).”
“Nubility is the average age at initiation of the capacity for conception (Hassan, 1981, p. 128).”

Reproduction, obviously, is consequent upon sexual intercourse. Demographers, however, have largely ignored this subject, and anthropologists have seldom given it quantitative treatment (Polgar, 1972, p. 204).

When we consider the ways in which reproduction is controlled, we are confronted by forms of constraint of varying degrees of violence. At the most explicit and obvious maximum, these verge on women being directly used as reproductive livestock, as was often the case with slaves on American plantations or women in the Nazi Lebensborn experimentation (Hillel, 1975; Thalmann, 1982).
Beyond these well-known cases, whose status in relation to other forms of reproductive manipulation will be considered later, there is a more generalised constraint to reproduce. This is obtained by a complex series of social, physical or ideological pressures, covering the entire reproductive sequence. The most important will be considered here.
Directly related to the tendency, noted above, to pose fertility as a property of women, very little attention has been paid to the means by which it is socially assured that women will be regularly, or even maximally, exposed to risk of pregnancy.

To situate this question correctly, we need briefly to mention certain biological facts about human reproduction. The human species is relatively infertile. For example, while a single artificial insemination of a cow has a 75 per cent probability of being effective, for women one must calculate three to four cycles with three artificial inseminations in each (during the fertile period of course). For humans, the probability of conceiving with a single coitus is therefore limited: statistically, one act of coitus is not sufficient to produce a pregnancy.11 Potter and Tietze’s calculations give ‘a minimal probability [of conception for a given menstrual cycle] of 28 per cent with a coital frequency of 6 per cycle, and a maximal probability of 45 per cent with a frequency of 12 per cycle’ (see Short, 1978, p. 198). (This assumes the length of the fertile period is 72 hours, which actually seems too high, see below.) On the basis of the results of recent research and studies of historical demography, Léridon has estimated the average probability of conception per month (the ‘fecundability’) of a married woman of (around) 25 years at about 25 per cent (Léridon, 1973, pp. 37, 40ff and 80).

To this relative infertility of the human species must be added the specific characteristics of sexuality among human females. First, women’s sexual drive is not tied to procreation by a regulating hormonal compulsion. In other words, there is no synchronisation of the moment of ovulation (hence, of fertility) and sexual drive. Sexual drive is intermittent and not cyclical or seasonal (unlike other mammals). Second, the fertile period is not signalled (there is no external manifestation), nor is it indicated by a particularly intense sexual drive.
Hence the difficulty—unlike other mammals—of determining the moment when conception is possible; or, as is said, when the female (woman) is ‘fecundable’ (can be impregnated).12 This difficulty in determining the moment when conception is possible is further accentuated by the marked variability of the ovulatory cycle. This involves:
(i) the (average) duration of the cycle from one woman to another (which can vary from 10 to 45 days);
(ii) the length of successive cycles for the same woman; (iii) the location of the day of ovulation within the cycle; and (iv) the age of the woman (Léridon, 1973, p. 15).
In addition, a large proportion of cycles are anovular. In other words, the ovulatory cycle varies to such an extent that, even in a cycle defined as ‘normal’ (i.e. with a duration of 26–30 days), ‘ovulation can occur between the 10th and the 18th day of the cycle: the zone of uncertainty therefore covers 25 per cent of the cycle’ (Léridon, 1973, p. 15, stress added).
Conception ‘results from the combination of a “calender” of the cycle and a “calendar” of sexual relations’ (Léridon, 1973, p.40). But without a sexual drive leading women to copulate when conception is possible, and without a precise knowledge of the fertile period, the maximum coverage of the possibility of conception can only be assured by regular and frequent exposure to coitus.13

This frequency and regularity seems precisely to be best and most often assured in human societies by marriage. Marriage thus appears as the social response to the specific characteristics of women’s sexuality: to the intermittent character of female sexual drive and to its not being necessarily tied to reproduction. If women are not biologically constrained to reproduce, how can reproduction be assured? Beach notes that it is not correct to describe women as always ‘receptive’ (though many do). Rather, he says, they are ‘always copulable’ (Beach, 1974). (Note the implicit or unconscious theorisation of rape.) And marriage does seem to be the basic agent that transforms ‘not always receptive’ into ‘always copulable’. Marriage is therefore not only an institution that creates kinship through the exchange of women, which ties men and women together in a division of labour, which legitimates children and gives them a social mother and a social father, and which controls the destination (allocation) of children. It is primarily, for our present purposes, the institution which seems to guarantee the greatest chances of fertility. Through marriage, generally speaking, permanent exposure to coitus, hence permanent exposure to the risk of pregnancy, is assured.

Statistical data seem to confirm this role for marriage. In Martinique, for instance, legitimate fertility in marriage is 7.9 children per woman, while the mean number of children per woman is 5.4 (Léridon, 1971, and Léridon, Zucker and Cazenave, 1970. See also Nag (1971) for a similar situation in Barbados).
Demographers attribute this ‘low’ fertility (which Léridon calls ‘apparent subfertility’) to ‘marital customs’. The instability of marriage or the presence of free unions seem to play an important role in this apparent subfertility. Think of the many societies studied by anthropologists where couples can separate easily and women may spend considerable periods outside marriage—periods which provide, among other things, the possibility of a lack of regular exposure to the risk of pregnancy (see Howell, 1979); and think also of the presence of free unions, concubinage and sexual friendships, which occupy years of women’s lives (as in the case of the Antillais, see Léridon, 1971) and which most probably do not carry the same regularity and frequence of coitus as marriage.
Society may nonetheless try to ‘remedy’ such ‘inconvenient’ non-exposure to impregnation of some women. For instance, among the Diola there is:
the practice of budji, or bayankatetin [which] periodically required all the widowed or divorced women to choose a husband in the village (whether for a few nights, a few months or longer) so that their wombs should not stay on holiday for too long (Journet in Echard et al., 1981, p. 384, and in Mathieu (ed.), 1985, p. 25).

On the other hand, regular exposure to the possibility of impregnation (to risk of pregnancy) means that in some populations of so-called natural fertility, women —being incessantly overtaken by a cycle of pregnancy-lactation-andnew- pregnancy—have no menstrual periods from the time of their first pregnancy up to their menopause. These include the famous Hutterites, the measure and favourite example of demographers, a model society constantly used to theorise about natural fertility:
The Hutterites are useful as a standard of comparison for fertility achieved by other populations—a calibrated yardstick—against which to measure the ways in which other populations fail to achieve maximal levels of fertility (Howell, 1979, p. 154).
In this North American, Anabaptist, sectarian population, women who spend all (or almost all) their reproductive life married, have a mean of twelve children (Eaton and Mayer, 1954; Sheps, 1965). This is very close to the maximum biologically possible.14

Such a reduction of women to reproductive machines does not produce the same quantitative results everywhere, but the mechanism is the same. Thus, among the Manus converted to Christianity, ‘that woman who never menstruates because she is always either pregnant or breast-feeding a child is regarded as most patriotic and virtuous’ (Mead, 1956, p. 328).

We must therefore ask how such perpetual child-bearing is achieved. Is regular exposure to the risk of pregnancy (the fact that women are permanently exposed to it) just a feature of marriage in itself, a ‘natural’ fact, present everywhere in the same manner? This means assuming marriage is (from the point of view of reproduction) nothing more than the optimal place for the spontaneous realisation of sexual drives. Or, at most, the place assigned to the natural and symmetrical desire of the two people involved; where desire could manifest itself, albeit with some compromises, in the place destined to lodge it. Maybe a little corner of paradise, where you might suppose each partner realises his or her sexual drive with reciprocal equality to choose the forms of expression, timing, etc.? As if men’s domination over women did not exist, and as if one could imagine sexuality and marriage to be hallowed ground, where power relations were off-limits?15
The anthropological and historical record shows clearly, however, that this is not the case. Consider, on the one hand, not only the many societies in which marriage is (or was) a relationship imposed on one or both partners, but also the forms of training (not to say ‘breaking in’16 and use of force) around sexuality; and, on the other, the huge variation that exists in the regulation of relations between men and women in marriage (including, among other things, the presence or absence of rules requiring the execution of ‘conjugal duty’), and hence women’s different margins of autonomy to manage their body, sexuality and reproduction (the management of sexual relations, contraceptive practices, abortions, etc.).

 

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