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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Flesh of My Flesh-Eating Flesh

A new form of birth control would teach the female body to attack itself, in pursuit of egalitarianism.

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(Starikov Pavel/Shutterstock)

A new form of birth control would teach the female body to attack itself, in pursuit of egalitarianism.

“Let me be a woman.” The famed words of Elisabeth Elliot became the title of a book of essays she offered her only daughter, Valerie, on the day of the daughter’s marriage. Elisabeth, wife of the evangelical missionary Jim Elliot, used the phrase and stories of women in the Bible to respond to a growing sect of Christian egalitarians in the American mid-century, arguing that this movement made a “caricature” of womanhood. Egalitarianism, she advised her daughter, is not a thing to be desired but “a dehumanizing distortion.”

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Elliot’s ideas have been echoed by numerous writers since then, but the dehumanizing distortions have continued apace. One recent distortion is the pursuit of a new form of birth control, which would work by attacking the female body itself, teaching it to produce antibodies to fight its own pregnancy-supporting processes. You read that right: The tech optimists are pursuing a birth control vaccine

According to a piece in the Atlantic last week, the vaccine would work by teaching the female body to produce antibodies to a hormone that is present exclusively during pregnancy to stimulate the production of progesterone: human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG. Such an idea seems far-fetched and barbaric—“to immunize an animal against itself.” But that hasn’t stopped Indian doctor Gursaran Pran Talwar from finding a way to generate a “set it and forget it” shot to guarantee months, and perhaps even years, of infertility. 

Apparently, this feat is very close to being accomplished. In an early clinical trial, of the 119 women whose antibody levels reached the “protective threshold” outlined by Talwar, only one became pregnant over a period of almost two years. “Several participants also went on to conceive after opting out of boosters,” the Atlantic writer adds, “a sign that the shot’s effects were reversible.” How soon or how many women found these effects reversed is uncertain, however: “People with especially enthusiastic immune responses” could end up infertile for several years

In order to coerce a living organism to attack its own reproductive tissues, to combat its very nature, the immune system has to be especially riled up. This is of special note in the case of birth control, due to the demand for near-perfect effectiveness: Standard forms of hormonal birth control boast up to 99 percent pregnancy prevention. In order to match that, a vaccine would have to evoke a powerful attack from the female body against its own pregnancy-supporting processes. Unsurprisingly, side effects in clinical trials of Talwar’s vaccine already consisted of “painless but prominent nodules,” or hard, cyst-like bumps on the skin, which may be related to a hyperactive immune response.

The use of the word “vaccine” is a bit of a misnomer, of course. Vaccines treat infectious diseases, of which pregnancy is not one. But there is power in the word—even if there are also drawbacks in marketing it—most importantly, in its potential to pave the way to every drug maker’s dream: admittance onto a vaccine “schedule.” With the list of required shots for admittance to preschool growing longer each year, it’s not hard to imagine why Talwar is rushing to create a birth control tool under this banner. 

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Should he succeed, the rationale for requiring the shot for women pursuing high school athletics, or college, or a military career would be as undeniable as asking whether you are in favor of teen pregnancy. If you want your child to succeed, if you want your athlete or your student or your soldier to be unhindered by unintended pregnancy, you’re giving her the shot. As it is, the military aggressively promotes birth control to female troops. 

But what comes of immunizing a woman against herself? For this is precisely what a birth control vaccine would do. Where other forms of contraceptives attack the female body’s natural cycles, a vaccine would deputize the work of pregnancy prevention to her own flesh, teaching her cells to become belligerents against their own. It would bring the war on womanhood right down to the cellular level, teaching her body to strip itself of the very thing that makes it female, as though the loss of her feminine appearance and natural modesty in the public square already were not enough. 

Such self-mutilation at a chemical level also plunders the primary physical aspect of a woman’s femininity, her capability for carrying children. This also is true of other abortifacient forms of birth control, but no others make the woman’s body itself the agent in doing so. This is significant. A woman with no children is still, most emphatically, a woman—of course. But neither is her physical nature merely accidental to her femaleness. The pangs of the infertile would-be mother are so painful precisely because her condition is a distortion of nature. They are a tragedy, not a thing to be desired. 

To strip a woman of her fertility intentionally, to teach her body to wage war against herself and the babies she was made to home, is to preach empowerment by becoming "unwoman." The logic of the birth control vaccine says fertility, and thus being a woman, is antithetical to full personhood, insofar as childbearing hinders self-actualization. In the name of progress will women be uncreated. 

But we do not have to be bound by such dehumanizing distortions. We do not have to affirm a worldview that calls us less for being what nature has made us to be. Let us, instead, be women.

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