We are facing the expansion of an ideology that treats people as objects, as commodities. It is an ideology that enables us to see not motherhood, not parenthood, but the creation of a commodity, a baby.
In 1988 the sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman referred to surrogacy in these terms. This understanding of surrogacy continues to be the most pervasive criticism of it. Namely, the assumption that through the process of surrogacy, menstruators, assigned as women at birth, and thus commodified as women, are treated as objects and products. In this same manner, the resulting baby is also considered a product. A product that is sold and purchased. The moral implications of this practice are thus vast.
However convincing this argument might be, it is difficult to escape its hypocrisies. Human bodies are commodified on a daily basis in various ways. Models, athletes, dancers, actors, most people in service jobs, such as waiters, most people in public jobs subject to scrutiny about their physicalities, such as newscasters, all use their bodies for profit. The way these bodies are used varies. Even so, at the end of the day, it is their bodies that are being exploited and on which they rely to make a living. One could even make the argument that all bodies are exploited, always. This statement, nevertheless, does not seem to give rise to the same level of moral outrage as the previous one has.
In any case, surrogacy raises similar questions as sex work does. Both practices involve providing a service through the use of bodies. Such as the above careers do. However, the outrage surrounding these professions is unique. Why? Is it the remnants of religious morality and the holiness of matrimony? Questions about the nature of consent and informed consent? Feminist outrage on the patriarchal control of women’s bodies? Patriarchal outrage on women’s financial control over the inevitable abuse of their bodies? So far, this topic has raised more questions than answers. However, one thing is clear to me. Although most bodies are in some way or another exploited, certain bodies are subject to additional levels of exploitation.
In November 2020, the European Network of Migrant Women made a statement on surrogacy. The statement argued that surrogacy leads to the exploitation of the poorest, most destitute, vulnerable, and, often, migrant women. Thus, It is often people with wombs in vulnerable economic and societal positions that resort to surrogacy. This dynamic is intensified through the practice of transnational surrogacy.
Going back to Rothman, in 1988, she asks, Can we look forward to baby farms, with white embryos grown in young and poor Third-World mothers? Well, Rothman, yes, the answer is yes. Fertility tourism, just as sex tourism, has now become a reality. India, for example, is known for its giant commercial surrogacy market. Thus, thousands of infertile couples from the Global North turn to India to escape prohibitive legal obstacles and, of course, to find cheaper surrogate mothers. This leads to complex exploitative interactions.
In a nation with a restrictive anti-natalism state agenda, fertility tourism flourishes. Let me put this in other words. In a nation where brown babies are discouraged, white babies are encouraged. Some women are coerced into surrogacy by their family whilst others overcome their family’s authority as a way to gain control over their own bodies and fertility, in the process gaining access to a medical system that was previously inaccessible to them. However, to gain this control, surrogates give their own racialised bodily resources to foster the growth of someone else’s white biological child. This reproduces and maintains a neocolonial global racial hierarchy.
Now, what if we add armed conflict to this already complicated operation? Ukraine is a popular choice for transnational surrogacy. Today, thousands of Ukrainian surrogate mothers face a violent ongoing war, whilst at the same time, pregnant with, giving birth to, or having recently given birth to, surrogate babies. These surrogates are oftentimes displaced, fleeing and distressed about their own family’s well being. All whilst caring for, and planning the evacuation of, another family’s baby who they have helped conceive. The amount of stress these surrogates are going through is unimaginable. At the same time, the intended parents suffer and worry from their homes, whilst hundreds of babies are left stranded. War is detrimental for everyone involved, however, just as gender makes certain people vulnerable in peacetime, these same people are made additionally vulnerable during conflict. Good reason to analyse war through a gender perspective don’t you think?
Finally, surrogacy raises many questions, many of which are exceedingly difficult to answer. But, before I finish off this entry, I wish to challenge the reader with some further questions. Can surrogacy, and particularly, commercial surrogacy deconstruct the traditional nuclear family and lead to a change? Will the technology that is used for surrogacy open the doors to a day when the menstruating female-gendered body is no longer needed for reproduction? Could this change potentially lead to the liberation of all genders? Could a practice enmeshed in exploitative dynamics lead to liberation?