At some stage in every workshop on the art of memoir somebody raises the question of ethics, of privacy, and of who has the right to tell a version of a story. How far, the author of Reaching One Thousand asks, is she prepared to ‘sacrifice other people’s privacy’? What betrayals will she ‘perpetrate on others’?
At the outset of Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy poses a thought experiment. Each year 1.6 billion passengers fly around the world. We do so with remarkable ease. Just imagine, Hrdy asks, if our fellow human passengers suddenly morphed into another species of ape. We would be lucky to disembark with all ten fingers and toes still attached, or with any babies on board still alive. Bloody appendages would litter the aisles. It would be mayhem.
In The Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970, the feminist Shulamith Firestone argued that the inequality between the sexes results from the different reproductive functions performed by women and men. In having to go through pregnancy, childbirth, and breast-feeding, women are dependent on men for support. The natural reproductive functions performed by females are not only enslaving women, they are also barbaric in themselves. ‘Pregnancy is barbaric’, Firestone argued, and women should be freed from the ‘tyranny of reproduction by every means possible’. Just as contraception had already been a liberating force for women, so would other new reproductive technologies. Firestone envisaged that ectogenesis – the growth and development of a foetus outside the womb – would be the answer for women, as long as ‘improper control’ was not exercised by men.