XX proposes the idea of ovum-to-ovum fertilisation, of a world where two women can create life together without any male assistance. At its centre are lesbian couple Juliet and Rosie who gain a place in the first human clinical trial after the government vote to permit the technique. While the pair try to remain anonymous, their names leak and a media storm builds. XX is another in a long line of novels exploring feminist ideas in fictional form, with recent examples such as Joanne Ramos’ The Farm and Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season. Still, XX takes a gentler tone, concentrating on the impact of o-o fertilisation on the micro rather than macro level. In their simple search for a family, can Juliet and Rosie survive the maelstrom that the o-o fertilisation has unleashed?
Chadwick makes Juliet her narrator, an interesting choice since Rosie is the one who becomes pregnant. Juliet has always been ambivalent about motherhood, content in the pattern of her life with Rosie. She agrees to children as an act of love towards her partner. Initially they plan to use donor sperm but when the clinical trial is green-lit, the couple are excited by the possibility of a child who they would both be related to. Any other route to parenthood would, they feel, be second best.
O-o fertilisation is described as functioning in a similar fashion (and with a comparable success rate) to IVF. Ten couples are accepted for the trial and of these, two women conceive. Rosie is one of these. Predictably, there is a strong conservative backlash against the technique with politician Richard Prior, a recognisable proto-Nigel Farage figure, campaigning for it to be abolished. With the method using two ova, the resultant fetus will only ever be XX and never XY, so protestors claim that men will become an endangered species. And there are the more familiar nay-sayers who claim that all children need a mother and a father, that any variation from the nuclear family is unnatural, that the whole set-up is an abomination.
Having hoped to keep their participation within the trial private, conflict arises when Rosie and Juliet discover their names have been leaked to the press. The couple find themselves at odds over who might have betrayed them. Since Juliet is herself a journalist, pressure mounts for her to report on the story and her steadfast refusal to comment leads to a toxic atmosphere in the newsroom. XX manages a very successful commentary on the dog-eat-dog world of tabloid culture, side-stepping reporting on the science to instead cater towards the very lowest common denominator. In vain may the researchers behind the trial proclaim their academic credentials and explain all the work that has gone in, if Barry from Basingstoke says he thinks it sounds a bit iffy, then his opinion holds equal weight.
Chadwick manages to make o-o fertilisation seem highly plausible, this alternate world where it exists is otherwise identical to our own. On a personal level, the premise of the book did gave me pause as I remember having a conversation around fifteen years ago with a girl who insisted excitedly that this technology was not far way. She was thrilled at the possibility of having a baby with her then-girlfriend. Science has not arrived there yet but she died by her own hand nearly five years ago – we were never close friends but her passing haunted me nonetheless. I wish she could have read this book.
XX poses some thought-provoking questions on how two-mother babies might change the way our world works. The scientists suggest that it would have potential to help with endangered species, if two-ovum fertilisation could boost areas of low breeding stock. Heterosexual couples where the man is infertile could use a second egg from a female relative, akin to sperm donation. But then there is the undercurrent of concern. If women had a choice, would we not all wish to be guaranteed to produce a daughter? And with expectations of mothers so much higher than those of fathers, would even heterosexual women perhaps prefer to reproduce with a close friend rather than a feckless male who expects a round of applause every time he changes a nappy?
However, Chadwick only makes these points in passing. In contrast to The Growing Season, which implies that its imagined ‘pouch’ completely upends how humans reproduce, XX makes a case for how little things would change. It is a biological instinct to wish to reproduce with the one you love; I remember realising myself that I no longer simply wanted ‘a’ baby, but rather to have my partner’s baby. I fell in love with a whole new version of him when I saw him with our child. O-o fertilisation would never be able to undo that. I did wish that Chadwick had pressed home on the point about baby boys. I remember feeling very uncomfortable in an all female prenatal class as various women expressed disappointment at discovering they were having a son. There is something so very unsavoury about that rising expectation that all women must long for daughters, that a male child must be a disappointment. Not only does it feel like the worst ingratitude for a healthy baby, but there is something incredibly special about baby boys. If I were ever to have a daughter, I have no doubt that I would cherish her too but when my son was put in my arms, I would not have changed him for a kingdom.
However, I did find Chadwick’s depiction of Juliet’s maternal ambivalence to be deeply intriguing. In the heteronormative model of parenting, we are used to men being outsiders to the physical process of pregnancy. But in this imagined version, Juliet is a mother who is not pregnant. She never even felt very maternal in the first place. She is proclaimed as the first female ‘dad’ and between the natural upheaval that pregnancy brings and then the mounting stress of press persecution, Juliet’s well-being starts to buckle. By far the most rounded character in XX, Chadwick evokes vividly Juliet’s awkwardness and low self-esteem. She seems so vulnerable, trying to preserve her family unit and her dignity as the tide rises round her – I just wanted to give her a hug. With growing awareness around perinatal mental health issues, I did wish that Chadwick had drawn this strand back together. There is nothing unusual or unnatural about feeling overwhelmed about imminent parenthood even in these most unusual of circumstances.
The strange thing is that while the technology around the imagined o-o fertilisation may be a long way in the future, the debate around two-mother/two-father families belongs in the past. I am in my thirties now and a girl who I grew up with had two mothers – at least three decades of children born by donor insemination. Similarly, where once it was deemed unnatural for a child to be conceived in a test tube, these children too are long grown up and producing the next generation. We know that the sexuality of one’s parents has no bearing on the kind of person you grow up to be. We know that the method via which one is conceived is equally irrelevant. Other than the obvious fact that o-o fertilisation does not exist, all other arguments against it feel like narrow-minded bigotry.
XX bucks the general trend in feminist speculative fiction where the future is implied to be very bleak. Even though it is set in a world where post-truth right-wing populism also holds sway, XX has an optimism about what what the future might hold. Rather than fear-mongering about faceless corporations exploiting the fertility of women, XX keeps things on a personal level – two people who love each other decide to have a baby together. This is a story quite literally as old as time and yet whenever we see that two has become three, that a new life has begun, the human instinct is to rejoice in a new family’s happiness. Although other reviews have labelled XX as provocative, I actually found it to be the opposite. It is not about the technology, which as we know does not yet exist. It is about challenging our expectations of what a family should be. Rather than any attempt to be ground-breaking, Chadwick instead states the case quietly for small steps being the key to a more inclusive and diverse view of the nuclear family.
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on October 4th 2018
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