Considering the Implications of Paid Surrogacy

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?

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