Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Feminist perspectives on surrogacy

Recently my best friend and I discussed whether or not we want to have children. We both confessed that one of our greatest concerns is the physical process: carrying the child, the delivery, and the pressure of losing weight afterwards. We talked about adopting, but then you miss the entire experience of passing on your genetics and noticing little pieces of yourself in your child.

Camille Grammer and family
Eventually our discussion turned to surrogacy, but the topic seemed taboo. I have read about a few celebrity couples who paid women to carry and birth their children, but the stories are always accompanied by justifications as to why the genetic mother was unable to carry the children herself.

Sometimes I wonder whether people are truthful about their motivations for choosing surrogacy. For example, Camille Grammer of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills insists that she hired a surrogate mother to carry her children because she has irritable bowel syndrome. Come on Camille, we all know you didn’t want to ruin your hot bod! Not that I blame her; she looks great. Plus, I think a lot of women would do the same thing if they could afford it.

This got me thinking, is surrogacy taboo because it is innately bad? Or is there something more? I think it is helpful to view the practice through the lenses of various schools of feminism.  

While there are different types of surrogacy and surrogacy arrangements, I will focus on gestatory surrogacy or full surrogacy: the commissioning couple's egg and sperm have gone through in vitro fertilization and the surrogate mother is not genetically linked to the child. Moreover, my focus is on commercial surrogacy as opposed to altruistic surrogacy.
From an equality perspective, acting as a surrogate mother can be framed as an economic opportunity. In her book, Birth Power, Carmel Shalev argues that the “reproducing woman” should be treated as an autonomous moral and economic agent. Women who wish to act as surrogates should be free to enter into contracts. While most women would not choose to be a surrogate mother, I think Ruth Bator Ginsburg would argue that some women might. Surrogacy is an economic activity and the decision to participate should be respected. 

Equality feminists also evoke separate spheres ideology. Having children is associated with the private sphere. Surrogacy can be viewed as a way to question this separation and blend the spheres.

A difference perspective recognizes that women’s childbearing capacity is distinct and valuable. Men and women are not similarly situated. The debate over the best way to recognize women’s unique childbearing capacity reflects the divergence of views on women’s caregiving role.  Some argue that surrogacy depreciates women’s special role. Women become merely a means to an end and babies become commodities. Conversely, others argue that women should be able to add economic value to their role.

From a dominance theory perspective, surrogacy is problematic because men will use it to debase and dominate women. Andrea Dworkin compared surrogacy to prostitution: surrogacy sells what prostitution sells without the stigma of prostitution because there is no penile intrusion. Men will inevitably control the surrogacy process and use it to vindicate their own economic interests. See Dworkin, Andrea., Right-wing women: the politics of domesticated females. (The Women's Press, 1983).

Finally, an anti-essentialist perspective evaluates how the practice of surrogacy affects different groups of women. Less privileged women provide physical, menial labor, while privileged (white) women can pursue more fulfilling careers or other passions. See generally Dorothy E. Roberts, Spiritual and Menial Housework, 9 Yale J.L & Feminism 51 (1997). Women abroad should be given special attention as a group because they are especially at risk of exploitation. The high costs or blanket ban of surrogacy in many first world countries, lead couples to turn to poor women in undeveloped nations. Recently there has been a focus on surrogacy in India. The following segment highlight the issues:

Personally, on the question of whether surrogacy is inherently bad, I am drawn to the equality perspective of choice and economic opportunity. I also think that it is an important way to challenge the separation between the public and private sphere. Women like Camille Grammer should be honest and admit she wanted a surrogate because she wants to have it all.

That being said, I find anti-essentialist and dominance perspectives particularly compelling when we look beyond the question of whether surrogacy itself is unethical. There is something more that we are concerned about—the abuse and exploitation of certain groups of women.  While the decision to become a surrogate mother is more easily framed as a choice in the U.S., women’s situations abroad are very different. 

Ultimately, it seems to me that making surrogacy more available here would help to diminish exploitation abroad. Domestic regulation may decrease the outsourcing of surrogacy to countries where we have no control over the process. I am interested in hearing which perspectives you find compelling and any solutions you have to offer.  


KB said...

I tend to lean toward the perspective that women should have the choice and be able to economically benefit from being surrogate mothers if that is their desire. However, the women most likely to take advantage of the economic opportunity are, as KSergent alluded to in her post, women who are less privileged. Allowing women to be paid for surrogacy beyond an amount needed for normal pregnancy expenses could lead women in need to become career surrogates. While being a surrogate may seem like a “choice,” for those in economically dire situations it may not be much of a choice. I cannot imagine such a career would be good for a woman's body or emotional state. While the child may not be the surrogate’s genetically, the surrogate mother would still experiences pregnancy as any pregnant woman would and in the end would have to “give up” a child repeatedly.

tzey said...

I personally dont plan on having children. My older sister has asked me if I would ever consider being her surrogate if she was unable to have her own children. There is no reason to believe she would not be able to have her own children but she asks anyway. My answer to her was if there is no way for you to adopt then yes. I think that for me helping my sister have the family she has always wanted would be worthwhile. I know I would never do this for anyone else regardless of pay.

For me gestational surrogacy is something that if a woman wants to be a part of she should be able to. I think there should be laws to set the parameters of what types of payment are ok. While i agree that women from more disadvantaged economic backgrounds are going to take advantage of surrogacy contracts, why shouldnt they be able to. Lots of people have dangerous jobs. As long as they are not forced to take unnecessary risks women should be allowed to rent out their wombs.

CET said...

Something that I have always found interesting about surrogacy is the issue of breastfeeding. Does the surrogate breastfeed the baby? I would imagine during the first few hours of recovery after birth, the surrogate would breastfeed the baby and then the biological parents feed the baby formula or donor milk.

What really interests me is the fact that babies can smell the woman who carried them up to 20 feet away, regardless of if they were breastfed or formula fed. The smells are based on the smell of amniotic fluid so I would assume neither biological parent would trigger this smell for the baby. This connection via smell is critical for bonding and soothing of the baby. I wonder how this plays out with regard to bonding between the baby and his or her biological parents.

Regardless, I agree that the decision should be between the surrogates and the biological parents. I think if a woman wants to carry someone else's child, she should be allowed to do this. It's a kind thing to do for another who is unable to do it herself. I am, however, concerned about women who hire a surrogate so they don't "ruin" their bodies with pregnancy and childbirth. If they are so focused on image that they don't want to carry their own child, I question their ability to shift focus to their child once he or she is born.

KRB said...

I completely agree with CET. I also question the ability of a mother to make other, more important sacrifices in raising her child if she is not willing to sacrifice her figure.

This morning I heard on the radio that Kim Kardashian has recently changed her mind regarding carrying her own children. Previously, she said that she would like to hire a surrogate in order to keep her figure in tact, but now she has said that she is so in love with Kanye West that she would be willing to sacrifice her body to carry his child. This made me think- why is she willing to sacrifice her body for a man, but not her child?

Sarah said...

I think we are all somewhat conflicted on this issue, particularly because of the desperate housewife v. impoverished Indian surrogate dynamic brewing. Think of the amount of control this mother will want to exert on the surrogate – is it right to contract away your body and what you do with it for nine months? What if you want to back out? What if the surrogate surreptitiously takes drugs or drinks during the pregnancy and the child is born disabled? What if the surrogate attempts to exert parental rights over the baby? What if the surrogate has severe complications? Death?

On another note, I don’t have children, but I imagine pregnancy to be an intensely intimate and personal experience, and I am just not sure how this process may impact the parental bonding, or the surrogate’s psychological health after the birth. My own reservations don’t necessarily militate against the legality of the arrangement, but as much as I don’t want to endure pregnancy myself, I can’t imagine outsourcing the job to avoid finding myself less attractive.

Sam said...

“Come on Camille, we all know you didn’t want to ruin your hot bod! Not that I blame her; she looks great. Plus, I think a lot of women would do the same thing if they could afford it.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Why are women ashamed of post-pregnancy bodies? I can’t help but wonder that if men could get pregnant, we would be having contests about whose body got the most trashed, whose belly got the biggest, or who had the most bitchin’ C-section scar. I think post-pregnancy “flaws” should be badges of honor. You grew a freakin’ person in your body. That is awesome. I wish I could do that.

Mo said...

CET, it’s actually possible for the intended mother (the non-carrying woman) to breastfeed the baby even though she was never actually pregnant. Hormones are helpful but aren’t required, and the mom has a much better shot at producing milk if she’s been pregnant before. Amazing, right? I first heard about it through this New York Times photojournalism feature about one surrogate’s journey: You can read more about the story of the mother from that article and everything she went through to breastfeed her baby here: