I was listening to “Radio Lab” on NPR the other day and they were doing a one-hour special on surrogacy. In a nutshell, a same-sex couple from Israel used the eggs from a donor in the Ukraine with the sperm from each male partner to create two embryos (one of which split into two embryos resulting in a twin pregnancy) which were then implanted into two women from India who were shipped to Nepal, where gestational surrogacy was legal for same-sex couples*, to give birth. The birth mothers would then relinquish their rights to the child and the couples would have to petition that the countries also relinquish rights over the child making the child nationless, thereby allowing the adoptive parents to take them to their home country and petition for citizenship.
Got all of that?
A gestational surrogate in the US can cost upwards of $150,000 while in India you are looking at closer to $12,000. However, the surrogate only received a portion of that, with the rest going to “middle-men,” including the Ukrainian egg donor because eastern Europe is full of “cheap, white eggs.” With the money the surrogate earned (usually around $5300 USD) they could go back to India and:

  • Start a shop
  • Build a house
  • Buy land (in south Asia, land ownership is indicative of being in a better socioeconomic level)
  • To simply better their lives

Many of these women normally work as maids for less than $100 USD per month. They are often already mothers, trying to raise their families along with their husband’s meager incomes. They are doing what they can with what they have to make their lives better. These women chose to be surrogates, not because they wanted to give the gift of a child to a childless couple, but because it is a business that has the chance to take them out of poverty.
As I was listening to this story, I couldn’t help but think that these women are just being used in another form of prostitution. While the sex industry values and profits from women’s sexuality, the surrogacy industry values and profits from women’s reproduction.
Surrogacy can be traced back to the US in the 1970s. After the Roe v Wade decision lead to the legalization of abortion, rates of adoptable newborns decreased, especially among whites. This lead to, in particular, wealthy white couples who wanted a child that “looked like them” to place advertisements seeking fertile young (white) women who were interested in being inseminated and giving up the child after birth. Once lawsuits in the US lead to questioning who had the legal right to the child, many surrogacy companies moved their operations overseas where the labor is cheaper and much in demand (pun intended).
While surrogacy on its face looks nothing like prostitution, it still involves a woman selling a part of her body to benefit another. As Gina Corea argues:

“while prostitutes sell the use of the vagina, rectum or mouth, surrogates sell the use of other body parts such as wombs, ovaries and eggs.”

They both imply that a woman’s body exists solely for the purchase and purpose or pleasure of others. Our society tells us that sex is a human right, therefore it is within another’s right to take it from another by any means necessary. Our society tells us that children are products that can be designed, bought, sold (and destroyed) and, therefore it is within another’s right to take it from another by any means necessary. In both cases, women are looked at as objects: a thing to have sex without love and a thing to create life without love. And what about the products, that is the children? As Jessica Kern, a product of surrogacy in the 1980s, explained 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… You can’t sell your kidney for profit but you can purchase an egg or sell a child… Most of the consideration within surrogacy is toward the adults and what they want. Often, it’s not in the best interests of the children.”

Have we reached a point in our society in which our desires and wants are now being interpreted as needs that we have to fulfill at any cost?
The radio show ended with the comments from one surrogate who lost the baby after the Nepal earthquake. She expressed remorse at losing the child but also at the lost income because the surrogates are paid based on the number of months they carry. If there is no product… there is no pay. In short, these uneducated, impoverished women are of value only for their reproductive capabilities. Many feminists fear that “because of economic coercion, surrogacy will occur for the benefit of the rich at the expense of poorer women.” And is it really an issue of “her body, her choice” if the only choice is selling her womb or living in squalor?
So the question remains: Is there anything that we won’t try to buy and sell? Is there a limit or is this just the new reality of humans?
*Nepal banned surrogacy in Sept. 2015
Image by Volkan Olmez