Friday, January 04, 2008

Wombs for rent in India

Judith Warner has a must-read Domestic Disturbances blog post about "Outsourced Wombs" in India. Warner is troubled but can't quite reach the point of calling this callous exploitation of Indian women, who earn the equivalent of 10 to 15 years of normal income for serving as a gestational surrogate for rich Western couples.

The post and the reader comments are all worth reading to see the variety of angles that people take on this issue. I am haunted by the AP Photo of anonymous surrogate mothers in Anand India dressed in surgical scrubs, complete with masks. They might as well be wearing burqas. (I can't reprint the photo here; be sure to follow the link to see it.) The women are wearing blue or pink scrubs, which I assumed corresponds to the gender of the baby they are carrying. How would you like to have your identity covered over with a label representing the fetus you were carrying?

I think it's ultimately harmful to all women any time women are objectified solely as baby-making machines. These are people, adult women with lives, thoughts, personalities, human and reproductive rights. Some will argue that this includes the right to rent out their wombs, much as some people would argue in favor of sex work or selling body organs. I can't support the concept of commercialized surrogacy in any way, shape or form.

Think about the larger social implications. Women are poor--hey, they can rent out their wombs, right? Indian families can't afford to take care of their children--no problem, just gestate an extra baby for a white American couple. Is this what colonialism looks like in the 21st century? What about Indian women who can't have children? What about the effect on the women's families while they are "away" gestating? What does it mean about the way we view women's bodies as a commodity? What does this say about the value of Indian children?

Would we assume that women like us could carry a baby for nine months and give it up with no emotional attachment? What does it mean to be a mother? Is it all in the "seed," the genetic material in the egg and sperm? What about the contribution of the mother who nourished those two cells to grow into a human being?

Last September I heard Dr. Barbara Katz Rothman, a sociologist and adoptive mother, give a provocative keynote address at the Symposium on Breastfeeding and Feminism at UNC. Taking a look back at my notes, she argued that the language of "seed" is the language of patriarchy, the language of control, the language of getting the women to do the right thing. In this framework, the baby belongs to the man, to the state. The woman has nothing to add. Nurturing becomes about minimizing the damage you do, because you can't improve the original essence.

Economically-driven surrogacy seems to invoke all these dynamics, perhaps allowing the paying women clients to assume the man's role in this "seed driven" world, but that is a hollow victory in a process that ultimately exploits human relationships.

I didn't become a feminist so that some day I could exploit other women as well as a man can. Did you?

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11 Comments:

Blogger PunditMom said...

I haven't read Judy's piece yet (I will), but even in the best of surrogacy arrangements that happen here in the U.S., there is some form of reimbursement to the woman who physically carries the baby through birth. The law struggles with all of this -- I wrote my law review article on the laws at the time of the Baby M case -- and it is such a tricky issue. Payment? No. Reimbursement for expenses? Yes. Splitting hairs? You be the judge.

As an adoptive mother, these articles and arguments always make me realize how tricky it is to navigate the desire to become a parent when one can't biologically create a baby. And how those of us who can't are judged so harshly.

1:52 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

I don't want to judge people for wanting a baby but in this case I thought it was important to take a stand about the transactions we might enter in order to become parents.

You should definitely read Judy's piece, and highly recommend comment #19 by "fjd" as a well-reasoned analysis of the asymmetry and moral complexity of the situation, especially as it relates to agreements between rich and poor people.

I worry that our American "parenthood at all costs" culture is a large part of this problem.

The recent Salon.com piece, The baby I turned away examines one woman's experience pursuing international adoption. The American writing the article was very honest about some of her fantasies about motherhood. Cultural issues come up there as well. The piece and responding letters are worth reading--most of the reader letters had an intelligent balance of compassion and perspective rather than just taking the easy route of bashing the author.

2:08 PM  
Blogger PunditMom said...

That commenter is a thoughtful one. However, I find it difficult to read articles like this, and others, when they refer only to problems with adoption, the rare adoptive parent who harms their child, or generalizes about international adoption.

Just as I cannot speak to the issues, both physical and emotional, surrounding pregnancy, I have a difficult time reading pieces by those who have not been through the process yet offer judgments as though they have a right to do that.

I did not mean to suggest that you are judging in any way. Rather, pieces like Judy's (and I hesitate to say this because I know her), written by someone who is not truly familiar with the whole process, can be misleading and then misinform others.

I agree we seem to have a parenthood at all costs society -- that is borne out by how huge the fertility business has become. I would go so far as to say that we have a biological parenthood at all costs society -- if we didn't, there wouldn't be so many foster children or orphans around the world.

3:06 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Pundit Mom commented: I have a difficult time reading pieces by those who have not been through the process yet offer judgments as though they have a right to do that.

I know that I cannot personally understand the feeling of what it is like to seek adoption or reproductive assistance, but I do not think that disqualifies me from having an opinion on the practice of commercial surrogacy.

I have not run a transnational company or worked in a maquiladora but I have opinions about immigration and globalization. I have opinions about civil rights, discrimination, capital punishment, U. S. military engagement, slavery, etc. which again involve things I have not necessarily experienced directly.

Becoming a parent is a personal experience but when the issues involved impact society, the rest of us do have the right to evaluate them on a larger level, even as we try to have empathy for the often heart-rending desires of the individual people involved.

I know it's a fine line that is difficult to draw. I don't want the public sphere intruding into my bedroom or my marriage. But with commercial surrogacy, especially across cultural, racial and economic lines, the ethical issues go beyond a "personal choice/consumer choice" transaction between two parties, and I stand by society's role to weigh in with judgments on the ethics of this practice.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

"Is this what colonialism looks like in the 21st century?"

This is a powerful and pivotal question. We are so accustomed to having our economic discussions in the safe confines of economic theory; political discussions in the impersonal abstracts of political preference. Free market morality does lead to some uncomfortably free places, doesn't it?

Something and someone must hold the imperialists in check, but what and who will it be? Who determines and defends the common good?

5:41 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Amy, I completely and totally agree with you. This blog entry is an insightful and cogently-argued application of feminist theory to a globalized reproductive rights issue.

Wanting a baby of one's own genetic material, no matter how heartrendingly sincere the desire is, does not give one a free pass on all ethical issues. And can we PLEASE move beyond the "they chose it, they're being paid for it, it must be a-okay then" level of non-analysis? (That question is not directed at you or any of the previous comments here, but rather at some comments to the NYT article.)

8:17 PM  
Blogger PunditMom said...

Amy, I didn't mean your opinions, which I found very thoughtful. I was speaking more broadly of others who write about the topic and judge.

I did not mean to suggest that you were doing so and I apologize if my comments were taken that way.

7:52 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

PunditMom, I always appreciate your perspective and I was also worried about offending you. We are taking on a challenging topic and I think it's wonderful that we can do so, and perhaps disagree, but appreciate each other and remain friends. This is important to me! It takes courage to disagree forthrightly but I think we have to take that leap.

Thanks for writing.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Helaine said...

Hi Amy,

I'm checking in and found we wrote about the same issue! My take is different though -- I think to address the topic in a meaningul way, one needs to look at what is driving the fertlity biz and what needs to be done to change things. I'd love your take when you have time:

http://helaineolen.com/blog/?p=26

9:11 PM  
Blogger Ginny-Gin-Gin said...

I stumbled on this blog while researching this very subject for a school project.

While I feel your opinion is valid, I see Wombs for Rent more as a opportunity for both the genetic parents and surrogate mother. With this money surrogate mothers can make a difference in the lives of their family by paying for their children's schooling and staying at home instead of working constantly!

Also, I am quite close to someone who has miscarried more than a dozen times (literally) and has tried pretty much everything humanly possible. If someone could help her and she could help them at the same time, how could that be degrading to either party?

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Ginny-gin-gin said...

I stumbled on this blog while researching this very subject for a school project.

While I feel your opinion is valid, I see Wombs for Rent more as a opportunity for both the genetic parents and surrogate mother. With this money surrogate mothers can make a difference in the lives of their family by paying for their children's schooling and staying at home instead of working constantly!

Also, I am quite close to someone who has miscarried more than a dozen times (literally) and has tried pretty much everything humanly possible. If someone could help her and she could help them at the same time, how could that be degrading to either party?

9:03 PM  

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