Considering the Implications of Paid Surrogacy

By Rachel Walden — January 7, 2008

Recent reports have noted a booming business in India for women who are paid to act as gestational surrogates, who receive compensation many times a normal salary in the region to carry out a pregnancy for women in other countries (including the United States).

In the U.S., we have an uneasy relationship with anything that smacks of paying people for their bodies – prostitution is generally illegal, payment of egg donors has inspired much ethical debate (including suggestions that payment is okay, but only up to a point), adoptions must be carefully conducted to avoid the appearance of “buying babies,” and an organization offering financial incentives to drug-using women to be sterilized has been widely criticized. State laws in the U.S. on surrogacy vary, but several prevent compensation of the surrogate. While each of these issues has its own special considerations, the overarching concern tends to be whether payment for the use of a body can ever be anything but coercive when women in disadvantaged situations are the ones being paid for their bodies.

What, then, can we make of U.S. families skirting those rules to pay women in another country to serve as surrogates? One woman interviewed for the Marketplace piece on the issue notes the creepy kind of control that can be had over the surrogates (which she sees as an advantage), stating, “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,” and, regarding the surrogate’s behavior while pregnant, “…there’s no one policing her in the sense that you don’t know what’s going on.”

Judith Warner points to the language of empowerment being used by supporters of this trend and the conflict of that viewpoint with generally accepted rules of body-selling in the United States, observing:

“In the United States, lip service has long been paid to the notion that women can’t be instrumentalized as baby-making machines. Indeed, one of the ways that surrogacy survives here is under cover of the fiction that the women who bear other women’s babies do so not for the money – which would be degrading – but because they ‘love to be pregnant.’ But our rules of decency seem to differ when the women in question are living in abject poverty, half a world away. Then, selling one’s body for money is not degrading but empowering.”

Jill at Feministe comments on how this news fits into a larger narrative about race, class and labor:

“Addressing surrogacy as one service industry among many wherein the bodies of poor women of color are used to further the wants of wealthier white people would require us to look at the systematic racisms and inequalities that prop up the entire global economy. And that definitely does not go over so well. And so instead we get a story about entitled, selfish white women, and brown women who are doing the work we wouldn’t do, but who maybe should consider themselves lucky for getting scraps.”

This story, then, is not just about the strange news of women in India earning unexpected sums for completing a pregnancy – it is about outsourcing work and the conditions in which that work is performed in general, questions of coercion, “racisms and inequalities” (including the double standard in paying others to do what we will not allow our “own” to be paid to do), the control of bodies, and the ethics of payment for the use of those bodies. What’s your take on this issue?

6 responses to “Considering the Implications of Paid Surrogacy”

  1. The whole time I was reading this, I was thinking…If a woman was coerced into “womb renting” would I want her to carry my baby? It would seem to me if you choose to hire a surrogate, you would want someone who would like being pregnant, feel empowered by giving such an amazing gift and want to make sure she had the proper nutrition and prenatal care. I’m not sure that a woman who is being forced and/or lives in an impoverished country would be a great choice.

    Cyndi Gross

  2. Surrogacy is an industry in the United States as well as in India. Centers located in the states where commercial (as opposed to altruistic) surrogacy is legal advertise widely, both for women to bear children and for “buyers.” Of course, women here are generally paid more than those in India.

    But I think there is another difference in the way the proposition is presented. As far as I can tell from the new stories, the women in India are entering into surrogacy as a economic opportunity. In this country a lot of the sites recruiting women appeal to their desire to help others and the mystique of pregnancy. The pretense, at least, is that it isn’t about earning money. I wonder whether in some ways this isn’t more insidious than a blunt economic appeal.

  3. The entire idea of surrogacy bothers me, as does this idea that paying $100,000 or more for fertility treatments is a good idea. We have enough children in this country and abroad that need homes; yes, they may not be the healthy white infants, but they are children.

    These places in India that rent wombs make me very sad. They portray it as empowerment. Funding the education of Indian women and girls is empowerment. Funding sustainable development programs that target women and ethnic minorities is empowerment. Funding a woman to be removed from her family to act as an incubator for your child is not empowerment. It just reinforces the cultural stereotype that the only “good” thing a woman can do is have children and keep house.

  4. The moral and ethical issues that arise from surrogacy are quite staggering. Should a women be able to carry the child of another? I would be uncomfortable having another women have my child.

    Nick Gross

  5. Mystique or money…show me the money. There is nothing intriguing about pregnancy. The majority of the animal species have it far better than the humans. Give me the kangaroo pouch or sitting on eggs over the agonizing human experience.

  6. I am a sterile 36 year uterine cancer survivor. I am also a woman that tried before my hysterectomy for 2 years of fertility treatments to get pregnant. After long, careful, thoughtful deliberation, my husband and I chose surrogacy. Not because anything is wrong with adoption, or that is degrading to women, or that I am a wealthy woman. But because my husband and I wanted to be parents. When a couple choses to have a baby and cannot conceive naturally, I felt that people automatically assumed we were going to adopt. And at first we were. Until we looked into surrogacy. We sacrified very much and regret absolutely NOTHING! I hope to open hearts and minds as to the lovely, beautiful woman and her family that so very graciously opened themselves up to help two other human beings become parents. They did get paid – triplets was not part of the bargain for her! And believe me…she earned every single penny! We gave her unconditional love, support, named them Godparents and still talk to them every few weeks. They don’t live in the same state, but we send pictures and they have come to visit for their first birthday. This woman is an angel to me. She did something for me that I physically could not do for myself and I am eternally grateful to her. It’s not for everyone…you see? That’s why I had to have a legitimate medical condition with doctor’s records and a medical signed letter stating that I could physically not bear children. Not just wanting to maintain my figure. Even though I may have not believed it either, there is kindness out there and sometimes it is as simple as one family(surrogate mom) trying to help a couple that cannot have children. We now have two beautiful daughters a a son to show for it! Also, the information I was given on a very reputable surrogate agency in India, was very complementary as it showed a number of things. First the women have excellent medical care, housing, contact with their families by phone, and very substantial reimbursement. In fact the money for them is enough to help their family get a house or remodel one, have a child go to school, etc. Oprah did an entire episode dedicated to surrogacy in India. Thanks for your time!

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