choice is choice is choice

A couple of weeks ago, there was some buzz about a post by Judith Warner, a feminist writer who writes the blog Domestic Disturbances for the New York Times. Warner wrote "Outsourced Wombs" in reaction to an NPR piece about women in India who are bearing surrogate pregnancies for wealthy American couples.
The voice was commanding, slightly disdainful and officious.

"The legal issues in the United States are complicated, having to do with that the surrogate mother still has legal rights to that child until they sign over their parental rights at the time of the delivery. Of course, and there’s the factor of costs. For some couples in the United States surrogacy can reach up to $80,000."

This was "Julie," an American thirtysomething who'd come to India to pay a poor village woman to bear her baby. She went on:

"You have no idea if your surrogate mother is smoking, drinking alcohol, doing drugs. You don't know what she’s doing. You have a third-party agency as a mediator between the two of you, but there’s no one policing her in the sense that you don't know what's going on."

Would you want this woman owning your womb?

The Indian surrogate mothers quoted along with Julie in a report on American Public Media's "Marketplace" on NPR last week didn't much appear troubled by that kind of thought. After all, the money they were earning for their services — $6,000 to $10,000 – might have been a pittance compared to what surrogates in the United States might earn, but it was still, for their families, the equivalent of 10 to 15 years of normal income.

They couldn't hear Julie speaking in her awful, entitled tone. And if they had, would they have cared? "From the money I earn as a surrogate mother, I can buy a house," said Nandani Patel, via a translator. "It's not possible for my husband to earn more as he's not educated and only earns $50 a month."

We, however, can hear the imperious tone, so much more audible in radio than in the troubling print reports that have surfaced lately on Indian surrogate mothers' "wombs for rent." And we should care about how things sound.

Because what's going on in India – where surrogacy is estimated now to be a $445-million-a-year business — feels like a step toward the kind of insane dehumanization that filled the dystopic fantasies of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. (One "medical tourism" website, PlanetHospital.com, refers to the Indian surrogate mother as a mere "host.") Images of pregnant women lying in rows, or sitting lined up, belly after belly, for medical exams look like industrial outsourcing pushed to a nightmarish extreme.

I say "feels like" and "look like" because I can't quite bring myself to the point of saying "is." And in this, I think, I am right in the mainstream of American thought on the topic of surrogate motherhood.

Unlike in France, where commercial surrogacy is banned, or in Italy, where almost every form of assisted reproduction is now illegal, laws in the United States are highly ambivalent on this most drastic use of reproductive technology. Commercial surrogacy is legal in some states, illegal in others and regulated differently everywhere, and little that's clear and conclusive about where a birth mother’s rights to a baby end and where the fee-paying mother's rights begin.

Like Warner, my first reaction to this story was revulsion.

On one side, I saw wealthy, spoiled Americans for whom the world is a giant marketplace of brown people who can be paid to take care of their every need.

Like many women my age, I know lots of women who have struggled with infertility and pregnancy loss. Intellectually I know we all want what we want, and the pain of not getting what you want from life is very real.

But in a deep, emotional sense, I have very little sympathy for people who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments and make a biological pregnancy the centre of their lives. Frankly, they make me sick.

I'm not especially concerned with whether people can have babies or not. Some can, some can't. Adopt. Or build a life without children. Accept that life doesn't always turn out as we plan, and move on. If infertility is a painful truth to live with, so is disability, so is cancer, so is losing a partner, so is... lots of things. Life is full of pain, and we adapt, and we transcend, and we move on. You can't buy your way out of everything.

And on the other side, I saw exploited women, forced by circumstance into selling their bodies. Of course, I immediately thought of The Handmaid's Tale, a nightmarish vision of women reduced to their reproductive functions.

But then I started reading the comments on Warner's post. And my mind started to change. Some excerpts:
While I have mixed feelings on this, it seems the wowen in this particular story are not being harmed. Rather, they are given excellent treatments and a chance to better themselves and their families. One article I read on the same clinic even mentioned how the women took english and computer classes during the day ro pass the time. I say let the women themselves and the parents of these babies decide if someone is being harmed in all of this. It seems that there is a degree of desperation on both sides, but at the end of the day, both parties seem satisfied.

. . .

A poor Indian woman does have other choices — she could always sell a kidney, couldn't she?

. . .

The Indian women quoted in your article are happy with the arrangement. YOU are squeamish. Under the guise of "protecting" women who are happy with the arrangement, you analyze its morality. Why are you qualified to set the moral standard?

Aren't you projecting YOUR "very meaningful" pregnancy experience onto theirs? And rather horrified, perhaps, that something that was very meaningful for YOU — is for sale by others & they are GLAD?

You have plenty of money. They don't. It's their call how to use their bodies.


Every day on the college campus where I worked, I saw solicitations for sperm donors, egg donors, and healthy medical research participants. These all seemed to pay well, and would be tempting to the college student in need of some extra cash. I agree the idea of "outsourced" pregnancies seems more disturbing, but perhaps it's just because the visual is more disturbing. Surely getting paid to take experimental drugs/vaccines or taking hormones in order to have eggs extracted is also "selling your body," and could be dangerous, as well.

Many jobs pay extra because of the physical risk involved. Why is only surrogacy problematic?

Commenters took all sides of the issues.
While I frequently find Ms. Warner's comments insightful and intelligent, I found this piece to be judgmental, harsh, and moralistic. Before you decide what is best for the infertile woman and her surrogate - walk in their shoes.

. . .

I have to say this is absolutely ridiculous! A woman who has to pay someone to have her child because they are soooooo desperate to be a mother needs a therapist. If a woman cannot physically give birth to a child she does one of two things. 1)Accept it and move on with her life, or 2) Adopt a child. There are thousands of children around the world who are in need of good, loving parents. A woman's world will not come to an end because she cannot give birth to a child.

. . .

This makes me ill.

. . .

Of course impoverished people are desperate enough to sell their bodies. Does that mean we should buy them? Should these people forever be resources to the "developed world" rather than further their own progress? And I don't understand the need for a surrogate 'womb' - please - there are millions of children that need parents. If it's a problem with the adoption system, fix it. Really, I don't get it. I'm a woman who is very very eager to have children but you know what, if it doesn't happen there's no way I'm going to pay someone to do it for me.

. . .

Am I missing something? What, exactly, is wrong with renting out your womb for a boatload of money (at least in your own country's economy)? It's not your egg or your partner's sperm. It's just your womb space. And you get a LOT of money. And medical treatment. In fact, as part of your rental contract, you have to be (oh horrors!) as healthy as possible for 9 months. Yes, I can see the moral issue here... oh wait, I can't. What's the big?

As part of the Haven Coalition in New York, I had the opportunity to work with feminists much younger than myself, whose attitudes I found more practical and less judgmental than many of my feminist peers. I had several Haven friends who had done egg donation to pay for college tuition, and I knew women who did sex work to finance their art. Their attitude: use what you have. It's my choice. Why shouldn't I?

There's little doubt that it would be a better world if these Indian women had more options through which to provide for their families. But that's not the world we live in, here and now. We can work towards that world, but these women can't wait for that day.

Once on this blog, I plugged a local food bank, and reminded people to give to the food bank in their own area. A commenter mentioned he doesn't donate to food banks "on principle," because charities relieve government from doing its job. I also think governments should do more to alleviate poverty. But what does that do for hungry people today? They can't wait for utopia to come to town.

It's all well and good to say "women shouldn't have to do this!" but then what do they do?

All my life, I've fought for the right of all women to control their own bodies. That goes for these women in India, too.

And if I'm disgusted at the lengths some people will go to have a biological child, my opinion doesn't change their reality. Likewise for the women who serve surrogates.

If this issue interests you, I recommend scrolling through the many comments at the Domestic Disturbances post. Good reading.

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