Sociologist response to "Wombs for Rent"
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.