Stop Surrogacy Before
it is Too Late
Surrogacy doesn't liberate us from biological constraints — it turns women’s bodies in factories.
By Kajsa Ekis Ekman
Illustration by Daniel Gray
What do Elton John, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ricky Martin and Nicole Kidman have in common? The answer — happily reported by celebrity site Glamour Magazine — is that all had babies with the help of surrogate mothers. And these stories are invariably accompanied by photos of the couples holding their babies and beaming with joy. Well, if you asked me, I ‘d answer rather differently — they are all participating in reproductive prostitution and child trafficking.
Surrogacy — or ‘contract pregnancy’ — involves a woman being either inseminated or having an embryo implanted in her uterus. When she gives birth nine months later, she surrenders the child to the commissioning parents — and almost always in exchange for money. Since the 1970s, over 25,000 babies have been born in the USA via surrogacy. But the practice is increasingly outsourced to countries like India, Ukraine, Thailand and Mexico. In India alone, the surrogacy industry is valued at over 450 million USD per year. Countries all over the world are faced with the question: ban or regulate surrogacy?
The media mostly portrays surrogacy as a win-win situation: childless couples can fulfil their dream for a child, and poor women can earn money by helping others. Hello! magazine showcases Elton John saying that surrogacy “completes our family in the most precious and perfect way.” Vanity Fair features Ricky Martin and his twins, declaring: “I would give my life for the woman who helped me bring my sons into this world.” And Nicole Kidman comments: “Our family is truly blessed … No words can adequately convey the incredible gratitude that we feel for everyone … in particular our gestational carrier.” Martin and Kidman conspicuously avoid the word ‘mother’ when speaking about the women who bore children for them. The gratitude of the recipients of the surrogacy arrangements is paraded as success, but ultimately disguises the inherent power inequity in the arrangement: the parent is the one who pays, not the one who bears the child.
If we turn to philosophers and sociologists such as Helena Ragoné, H.M. Malm and Christine Sistare, surrogacy is seen as equally positive, but they describe it as a way to “break the biological paradigm,” to deconstruct nuclear families and heterosexual norms and to “allow women to transcend the limitations of their family roles.” These two narratives seem to be in conflict, yet they both support surrogacy.
But surrogacy is far from liberating. As a feminist and a humanist, I argue that surrogacy is emerging as a new form of women’s oppression which has more in common with prostitution than one might think. While the sex industry commodifies women’s sexuality, surrogacy commodifies women’s reproduction. As Elizabeth Kane (a US surrogate mother who became opposed to surrogacy) has written, surrogate motherhood is nothing more that the transference of pain from one woman to another. One woman is in anguish because she cannot become a mother, and another woman may suffer for the rest of her life because she cannot know the child she bore for someone else. Surrogacy also turns children into commodities and is, effectively, baby trade.
The trade in pregnancy originated in the USA back in the 1970s. Following the Supreme Court decision in landmark Roe v. Wade (1973) which legalised abortion, the supply of newborns for adoption decreased drastically. While many US couples turned to international adoption, some did not want to adopt a child with a different ethnicity from themselves. Soon, advertisements began to appear asking for fertile young women who were prepared to be inseminated and then give up the resulting child. These ads were often placed by the men whose wives were infertile but still wanted childen genetically related to themselves. Agencies sprung up in response to this new market, connecting childless couples with young women, often from working class backgrounds. By the 1980s, this had grown into an industry whose unethical strategies for signing up potential surrogates were revealed by investigative journalists such as Susan Ince, who went undercover as a potential surrogate.
When custody battles started taking place after a number of surrogate mothers such as Mary Beth Whitehead in 1985 changed their minds after giving birth, many US courts declared surrogacy contracts invalid. They said the rights to a child could not be handed over in exchange for money, and the birth mothers were found to have righteous claims to their children. But the surrogacy industry devised new ways to get around the courts. The intended parents would now also hire an egg donor, so that the surrogate mother would carry a child that was not genetically related to her. This became known as ‘gestational surrogacy’, and in cases where the birth mother changed her mind and wanted to keep the baby, courts would state that she was not the mother, only a ‘carrier’. Embryo implantation also enabled the industry to move to countries such as India — an Indian woman could now carry a Caucasian or Japanese child for a much cheaper price. As Indian surrogate mother Salma tells researcher Amrita Pande:
Who would choose to do this? I have had a lifetime’s worth of injections pumped into me. Some big ones in my hips hurt so much. In the beginning I had about 20–25 pills almost every day. I feel bloated all the time. But I know I have to do it for my children’s future. This is not work, this is majboori (a compulsion). Where we are now, it can’t possibly get any worse. In our village we don’t have a hut to live in or crops in our farm. This work is not ethical — it’s just something we have to do to survive. When we heard of this surrogacy business, we didn’t have any clothes to wear after the rains — just one pair that used to get wet — and our house had fallen down. What were we to do?
Last year, the Indian government banned surrogacy for foreign singles and gay couples in an attempt to stop the country from becoming a haven for reproductive tourism. This has led to discussions of morality, sexual identity and definitions of what constitutes a ‘real’ family. Critics of surrogacy are called conservative, moralist and anti-gay. As a feminist, I think surrogacy should be discussed not on the basis of who the intended parents might be, but on the basis of what surrogacy itself is. My questions are: Is surrogacy reproductive prostitution? And: Is surrogacy baby trade?
The first question startles many. At first surrogacy looks like the reverse of prostitution: it is reproduction without sex, not sex without reproduction. We see images of cute babies and happy families, not of seedy brothels. The ‘holy uterus’, not the vagina, is put on the market. The archetype of the benevolent Madonna, not the whore, is projected. Yet in spite of these differences, they are both about selling a part of the female body. They both perpetuate the ideology that women’s bodies exist for the purpose and purchase of others. We are told that women need to offer sex to men who are single, disabled or have special needs — as if sex were a human right. We are told that gay couples, single men and infertile women need children — as if having children were a human right. In both cases, women are obliged to surrender: to have sex without wanting it, to give birth to babies without getting to know them. Women are turned into factories: have sex for the purpose of others, have children for the purpose of others. In both industries, women are used as tools, not as human beings with feelings of their own.
Swedish intellectual Nina Bjork has written that one sign of an affluent society is having difficulty distinguishing desires from needs: we learn to desire the things we don’t need and to call these desires needs. And our so-called needs become ever more specific: the longing for children becomes the right to use another woman’s womb for our own purposes. Behind this slippery logic stands the forceful, violent logic of profitability which makes it all to easy for the wishes of economically strong groups to be transformed into self-evident rights.
The second question concerns the children. This is where surrogacy differs from prostitution. We are no longer speaking only of a buyer and a seller but also of a third party: the child. In commercial surrogacy, the child is de facto turned into a product. A few thousands dollars are paid to the mother when she delivers the newborn baby. This, by all definitions, constitutes baby trade. It is the buying and selling of children. But even in altruistic surrogacy, there is a drastic change in the way we look at children: as products to be exchanged through contracts. The children are denied the right to be with the mother who carried them in her body for nine months.
Lately, American children born from the early wave of domestic surrogacy in the 1980s have begun to speak up. Thirty-year old Jessica Kern campaigns to outlaw surrogacy and said to the New York Post: “Like I would choose this for myself? When the only reason you’re in this world is a big fat paycheck, it’s degrading.” ‘Brian’ writes on his blog Son of a Surrogate: “Yes I am angry. Yes I feel cheated … It’s a shame and it sucks for me. Hell it sucks for all of us.”
Do all children born of surrogacy feel this way? Of course not. But the stories of Jessica and Brian should make everybody stop and think twice about surrogacy. We are dealing with an industry that, if we don´t stop it, will grow as big as the prostitution industry. In both cases, capitalism is expanding into the most basic structures of what it means to be human. What is being commercialised are our origins themselves. The surrogate sells not a ‘thing’ she produces, but her own body and her child. In another unfortunate mirroring of prostitution, we are seeing reports of women being trafficked into Thailand and China for the purposes of surrogacy.
No matter how much we might feel for Elton John, Ricky Martin or Nicole Kidman, we must ask ourselves the question: are there some things in life that should not be bought and sold? Such as the most important thing: ourselves, our origins, our bodies? If the answer is yes, I call on everyone to help stop the surrogacy industry before it is too late.
Kajsa Ekis Ekman is a Swedish journalist and critic. Her book Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self was published with Spinifex Press, Melbourne, in 2013.