Baby Miles: Reproductive Rights, Labor, and Ethics in the Transnational Korean Reproductive Technology Industry

Date: 

Thursday, February 14, 2019, 4:30pm to 6:30pm

Location: 

Thomas Chan-Soo Kang Room (S050), CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street

Kim Koo Forum on Korea Current Affairs
2.14 KKF Poster

Sunhye Kim
Soon Young Kim Postdoctoral Fellow, Korea Institute, Harvard University

Sunhye Kim earned her Ph.D. in Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland in 2018. Sunhye’s dissertation, “Baby Miles”: Reproductive Rights, Labor, and Ethics in the Transnational Korean Reproductive Technology Industry, examines the transnational assisted reproductive technology (ART) industry in South Korea to demonstrate how the concepts of reproductive rights and labor have been contested, negotiated, and reconstructed by various actors—including infertile couples, gamete donors, gestational surrogates, state agents, and medical professionals—across national boundaries. Drawing on three years of multi-sited ethnographic research conducted in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Ukraine, she positions this project to dispute the unilateral understanding of ART, which is typically conceptualized as having a unidirectional flow from the “West” to Asia, by focusing on the complex relations between Korean intended parents and non-Korean gamete providers and gestational surrogates. For the research project, she received a research fellowship from the University Maryland and a grant from the Korean National Institute for Bioethics Policy. Previously, Sunhye received her B.A. and M.A. in Sociology at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and worked at the Korean Women’s Development Institute as a researcher.

Sunhye’s research and teaching interests are related to the politics of human (re)production in transnational Asia; in particular, her research centers on the study of the transnational circuits of the assisted reproductive technology (ART) industry as a site of interdisciplinary inquiry. She is currently planning to expand on her dissertation work to focus on the Korean men involved in ART. By examining historical constructions of masculinity in relation to fertility and sexuality in South Korea, she plans to write a book integrating such findings with her earlier dissertation work. In addition, her future research projects will broaden examinations of the ART industry to include other East Asian countries to explore how the concepts of Asia or Asianness are contested in the baby-making industry for East Asian customers.

Chaired by Carter Eckert, Yoon Se Young Professor of Korean History; Interim Director, Korea Institute, Harvard University

Abstract:
This research project examines the transnational circuits of the assisted reproductive technology (ART) industry in South Korea to demonstrate how the concepts of reproductive rights and labor have been contested, negotiated, and reconstructed by various actors—including infertile couples, gamete donors, gestational surrogates, state agents, and medical professionals—across national boundaries. In order to analyze the transnational circuits of the ART industry, I use the term “baby miles” to show the great distances people, capital, and technology travel as they interact in the baby-making process. This study envisions reproductive ethics as part of a transnational feminist agenda by examining the ethical issues raised by the complicated relationships between intended parents and gamete donors/surrogates. Although feminist scholars and bioethicists address issues of how intended parents practice their reproductive rights and how egg providers/surrogates’ bodies are commercialized and exploited as they navigate the transnational ART industry, very little exists in the way of an integrated framework that allows us to understand the interdependent relationships between intended parents and gamete providers/surrogates, even though both are “users” of ART technologies as well as “patients” of medical procedures. Furthermore, while current research successfully examines the ethical problems of the transnational ART industry, it unintentionally reinforces the binaries between Asian women as exploited objects and White Westerners as liberated subjects. In order to address these issues within the current literature, I position this project to dispute the unilateral understanding of ART by focusing on the complex relationships between Korean intended parents and non-Korean gamete providers and surrogates. Drawing on three years of multi-sited ethnographic research conducted in Seoul, Bangkok, Taipei, and Kiev, which included in-depth interviews as well as participant observation, I argue that while the increased baby miles create unprecedented legal, social, and ethical issues, prohibiting commercial baby-making industries and returning to a “local baby” is not a solution as it reinforces both the ideology that motherhood is “natural” and the stratified reproduction system.

The Korea Institute acknowledges the generous support of the Kim Koo Foundation.