Friday, January 04, 2008

Sociologist response to "Wombs for Rent"

Sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman wrote me back with her perspective on my Wombs for Rent post that I wrote in response to Judith Warner's piece, Outsourced Wombs. (Warner's NY Times thread now has more than 150 comments.)

In my previous post, I had summarized what I had learned from Katz Rothman at a Breastfeeding and Feminism symposium last September. Here are her provocative thoughts written specifically in response to the Indian surrogacy situation:

"In the [NY Times] responses, I am struck by someone saying that it's 'just' her womb, not important like if it was an egg. It's amazing how totally the genetic imagery has taken over.

"Women's wombs don't walk around separately; we are not walking wombs. To be pregnant is a whole-body experience, as intimate a connection as one human being can have with another. Those who connected this to prostitution are right, it is an intimate physical relationship, but unlike the brief contact of a sexual encounter, this goes on for months and months. And the relationship is not with the paying customer, but with the created baby. At birth, babies recognize their mother's voices, are living in the rhythms of her day -- newborns, for example, tend to wake up at what was the pregnant women's busiest times of the day. This is not a 'surrogate' relationship, but an actual lived one.

"Yes, some women can apparently now become fathers: place their seed in a woman's body and have a baby 'delivered' to them. And they can do that in a loving relationship, as a lesbian couple might do or as sisters, cousins, dear friends might if they share egg and pregnancy. Or they can do that as slave owners did when they implanted their seed into their property to increase their slave holdings. Or they can do that in this new, outsourced way, in which they do not own the woman's body but rent it, with -- as Marx pointed out -- no ongoing relationship, no tie but money.

"And yes, in this brave new world, empowerment for women in poverty can mean selling these services, can mean prostitution, can mean selling organs. It truly can be better to do these things than not. As it could truly be better for a woman in Auschwitz to give sexual services to a guard in exchange for another bit of gruel. The problem lies not with the woman making the 'choice,' but with the situation. We women of the wealthy world profit from the exploitation of poor women, men and children with almost every shirt we put on our backs, almost every bite of food we take. We exploit people in poverty and never have to think about it. And now we can profit in our motherhood -- but unlike the shirt and the food, this time the product is going to grow up and demand an explanation."

Final thoughts from Mojo Mom: Katz Rothman's mention of slavery is a challenging idea for those who want to view the surrogacy arrangement in the realm of "individual choice." But I had thought about the slavery connection as well. Modern slavery is no longer about explicitly "owning" a person. It's about exploiting workers without having to be accountable: controlling people through threats, intimidation, violence, absolute economic dependency, trafficking, or other coercion. For more on this I recommend Kevin Bales' book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

We need to be vigilant about upholding the principles of reproductive justice. Just look at historic and modern abuses: coercive practices throughout the world, compulsory sterilization, historical adoption abuses and corruption in our own country.

Even contraception and medically-accurate sex education are under fire in the United States. Who would have thought we'd lose so much ground on those basic issues? And of course if Roe v. Wade is overturned, many states already have abortion bans drafted and ready to encact.

I am passionate about the principles of reproductive justice and I encourage you to learn about this framework. It's the lens I use to look at the world, and when I do, I am worried that women's basic rights to self-determination are under fire here at home and around the globe.

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Blogger Rebecca said...

Hell, yes. A hundred times YES to what you and Barbara Katz Rothman are arguing.

The fact that as a culture we can even contemplate gestational surrogacy as mere real-estate rental, temporary use of a depersonalized womb for some higher good (healing the wounds of infertility for the privileged few or raising a few people out of abject poverty) speaks VOLUMES about how deliberately, obtusely blind our culture is to the substantive risks and realities of the mother-neonate relationship.

I don't CARE if the genetic "material" came from someone else. That baby is CREATED by the woman who carries it to term and brings it to birth. And that baby is born knowing her heartbeat, her voice, the rhythm of her walk -- born knowing it and hardwired to find comfort and security in her arms and at her breast.

For anyone to argue that this rich, terrifying, natural miracle is something that is BETTER reduced to tidy and impersonal monetary exchanges, propped up by a legal environment designed to protect the desires of the wealthy over the human rights of the poor, is to deny the truth of how human beings HAPPEN on this planet. We are born of woman, and I will NOT acquiesce to a cultural logic of patriarchal exploitation that insists on erasure of that woman's real existence -- physically, intellectually, emotionally, ethically, or legally.

11:22 PM  
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3:43 PM  

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