Katharine Dow: Can surrogacy ever escape the taint of global exploitation?

making the good life jacket dowSurrogate motherhood has a bad rep, as a murky business far removed from everyday experience – especially when it comes to prospective parents from the West procuring the gestational services of less privileged women in the global South. So while middle-class 30- and 40-somethings swap IVF anecdotes over the dinner table, and their younger female colleagues are encouraged by ‘hip’ employers to freeze their eggs as an insurance policy against both time and nature, surrogacy continues to induce a great deal of moral handwringing.

The Kim Cotton case in 1985 was the first attempt to arrange a commercial surrogacy agreement in the United Kingdom. It set the tone for what was to come. Cotton was paid £6,500 to have a baby for an anonymous Swedish couple, and her story provoked sensational press-fuelled panic. British legislators, too, saw surrogacy as likely to lead to exploitation, with poorer women coerced into acting as surrogates out of financial need, and with intended parents taken advantage of by unscrupulous surrogacy brokers. Their action was swift: within just months of the Cotton story breaking, a law was passed banning for-profit surrogacy in the UK.

With the growth of an international surrogacy industry over the past two decades, worries over surrogacy’s fundamentally exploitative character have only intensified. Worst-case scenarios such as the Baby Gammy case in 2014, involving an Australian couple and a Thai surrogate, suggest that surrogacy frequently is exploitative. But that’s less because paying someone to carry and bear a child on your behalf is inherently usurious than because the transaction takes place in a deeply unequal world. The Baby Gammy case was complicated by other unsavoury factors, since the child, born with Down’s Syndrome, seemed to be rejected by his intended parents because of his condition. Then it turned out that the intended father had a previous conviction for child sex offences, which rather overshadowed the potential exploitation experienced by Gammy’s surrogate – and now de facto – mother.

I am not arguing for a laissez-faire approach to regulating surrogacy, but for thinking more deeply about how surrogacy reflects the context in which it takes place.

We need to step back and think critically about what makes people so driven to have a biogenetically related child that they are prepared to procure the intimate bodily capacity of another, typically less privileged, person to achieve that. We should also listen to surrogates, and try to understand why they might judge surrogacy as their best option. Intended parents are not always uncaring nabobs, and surrogate mothers are not just naïve victims; but while the power dynamic between them is decidedly skewed, each is subject to particular cultural expectations, moral obligations and familial pressures.

As for the larger context, we increasingly outsource even the most intimate tasks to those whose labour is cheap, readily available and less regulated. If we think of surrogacy as a form of work, it doesn’t look that different from many other jobs in our increasingly casualised and precarious global economic context, like selling bodily substances and services for clinical trials, biomedical research or product testing, or working as domestic staff and carers.

And surrogacy is on the rise. Both in the UK and in the United States, where some states allow commercial surrogacy and command the highest fees in the world, increasing numbers of would-be parents are turning to the international surrogacy industry: 95 per cent of the 2,000 surrogate births to UK intended parents each year occur overseas. With the age at which women have their first child increasing, more women are finding it difficult to conceive; and there’s now greater access to fertility treatments for single-sex couples and single people. In addition, surrogacy has become the option of choice for gay couples, transgender people, and single men wanting a biogenetically related child.

For me, as someone who has studied surrogacy, the practice is problematic because it reveals some of our most taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of family. It also tells us much about work, gender, and how the two are connected. This is why it is so challenging.

At a time when parent-child relationships often appear to be one of the few remaining havens in an increasingly heartless world, surrogacy suggests that there might not be a straightforward relationship between women’s reproductive biology, their capacity to produce children, and their desire to nurture. The usual debates that focus simply on whether or not surrogacy is exploitative sidestep some of these uncomfortable truths, and make it difficult to ask more complicated questions about the practice.

There is a parallel here with abortion debates. Trying to define and defend the sanctity of life is important, but this also obscures highly problematic issues, such as the gendered expectation that women should look after children; the fact that women typically bear responsibility for contraception (and the disproportionate consequences of not using it); the prevalence of non-consensual sex; and the pressure on women to produce children to meet familial obligations.

Surrogacy is a technology. And like any other technology we should not attribute to it magical properties that conceal its anthropogenic – that is, human-made – character. It’s all too easy to blame surrogacy or the specific individuals who participate in it rather than to ask why surrogacy might make sense as a way of having children at all. We should give credit to intended parents and surrogate mothers for having thought deeply about their decisions, and we should not hold them individually responsible for surrogacy’s ills.Aeon counter – do not remove

Katharine Dow is a research associate in the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Making a Good Life.

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This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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Paula S. Fass: Hillary Clinton and the politics of motherhood

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By Paula S. Fass

It was clear from the beginning of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign that the “woman issue” was going to play a large part, with an emphasis on shattering glass ceilings. What was not clear until the convention was the degree to which this would be centered on mothers and mothering. The Democratic National Convention showcased many things, including American multiculturalism and patriotism, but nothing was as prominent as the emphasis on mothers and motherhood.

In many parts of the convention, the mothers of young people who were either victims or heroes were a featured part of the proceedings. Clinton’s most personal discussion in her acceptance speech was about her mother, Dorothy. Chelsea Clinton’s introduction was all about Clinton’s role as a mother and grandmother. The video introducing Mrs. Clinton showcased her work with the Children’s Defense Fund. Motherhood was everywhere in the convention – a glowing and effusive tribute not to women per se but to women as mothers. Not since the early twentieth century, when women’s public presence and their striving for the vote was geared toward the protection of children and families, has motherhood been so prominently featured in politics. Drawing on this older tradition, through which women influenced public affairs, Clinton spoke to ideals of protection for families and social inclusion. Clinton and her campaign hope to make these ideals just as appealing today.

Donald Trump made this an easy choice for Clinton and the Democratic Party. He has presented himself as someone who is not only self-consciously macho, but who wants to serve as a kind of disciplinarian for the society, a law and order candidate who strives to take command, and an authoritarian father who will fix what ails us as a nation. In a contrary symbolic move, Hillary Clinton presentation of herself in the guise of motherhood and her emphasis on the softer, more inclusive aspects of national culture became an almost predictable response.

But more than symbolism is at stake. As Donald Trump was increasingly portrayed during the Democratic National Convention as not in tune with American values, as ignorant of American history and untutored in constitutional principles, Democrats emphasized the degree to which our family values are also our national values. And here they had a substantial base to work from. Since the beginning of the American republic, American child rearing has encouraged a much more democratic ethos between the generations, one that saw children as having not only a role to play, but the right to a voice in family deliberations. In the family as well as in the society, Americans de-emphasized hierarchy and saw children as resourceful and independent. In a democracy, children would learn early to guide their own futures.

Since the early nineteenth century, mothers have played a much more conspicuous part in family affairs. Americans rejected patriarchy in their family relationships since almost the start of national identity and, ever since, have inscribed these views of family life as a basic resource of national life. This does not mean that there were not families where fathers emphatically ruled and were authoritarian and dictatorial, but these traits were rejected as norms of the culture. In the nineteenth century, mothers, not father were believed to guide their children toward morality and social conscience in an individualistic society; in the twentieth, child rearing advisors believed that mothers could be enlisted to make sure that children were healthy and psychologically well adjusted. In an individualistic society, with an emphasis on competition and winning, the family provided necessary ballast.

Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Convention have used this history to great effect, showcasing an American tradition of family democracy and making the strong connection between American family life and American political life. The resonance was clear in the enthusiastic reception at the convention. It will also provide the late summer and fall campaign with a substantial basis for appealing to Americans across the country. It is revealing that the first woman seriously to be considered for the American presidency (and the likely first female President) will have chosen to appeal to the public on the basis of this fundamental national experience rather than the overt feminism that she embraced as a First Lady with an office in the West Wing. Donald Trump made Hillary Clinton’s choice easy, but American history made it obvious.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.