In a piece called “Outsourced Wombs,” Judith Warner blogs about the phenomenon of wealthy western women hiring impoverished Indian women to act as surrogate mothers. Warner explores her squeamish response to the exploitation implicit (explicit?) in the factory farming images of poor brown women lined up “belly after belly” for their prenatal exams, and the “awful, imperious tone” of the clients discussing their “hosts.” She stops short of condemning the practice, though, noting that in “an awful world, where many women are in awful circumstances” it’s hard to deprive women of a way to earn a living. She never draws the parallel to prostitution, though, choosing to focus instead on the possible instrumentalization of women as “baby-making machines.” Most of the other commentary I’ve read has also avoided the comparison.
So, how is this different from prostitution? Why does the prospect of legalized sex work trigger such hysteria among radical feminists, while surrogacy seems to only provoke a sort of queasy ambivalence? Is this rooted in anything other than religio-moral attitudes towards sexual pleasure? Or is it less disturbing because women, albeit rich ones, are for once doing some of the exploiting? In both scenarios, women in need of money are renting out their bodies in the performance of a natural function. In the realm of Other Stuff We Don’t Want People Selling, we can distinguish from organs on the grounds that you don’t get your organ back, i guess. And I suppose on the Things That Are Acceptable to Sell side, we can distinguish paid wet-nurses because there’s no violation of bodily integrity (though I’m a little hazy on that one). [Right. Because that’s the awesome thing about making a living by having someone chew on your nipples. The bodily integrity. – Amanda] But is there a principled reason for a legal distinction between surrogacy and prostitution? And if there isn’t, where’s the nascent international campaign to ban surrogacy because it “affects all women, justifies the sale of any woman“? (And while we’re on that subject, is there a reason that forced prostitution of young boys doesn’t affect all men? No?)
Warner notes: “In its perverse way, surrogacy does seem to bring a measure of empowerment to the poor Indian women who take part in it.” Well, duh. Women feel more empowered when they can afford to buy food for their children? Fascinating. I’ve never really understood why, when we talk about the poor transacting business with the rich, our only choices are “mutually beneficial relationship” or “deplorable exploitation.” An ABC news piece explains that international surrogacy faces criticism on the grounds that it is “exploiting poor women in India a country with an alarmingly high maternal death rate by hiring them at a cut-rate cost to undergo the hardship, pain and risks of labor.” Is there any reason not to apply a similar criticism to the practice of coal mining in West Virginia? Yes, women in Anand are bargaining from an economically disadvantaged position when they rent out their wombs to incubate the spawn of wealthy foreigners. And young Burmese girls would surely prefer another option in addition to hard labor in the fields or sex work in Cambodia. I’m just not sure I see how denying any of them the right to profit off of their most valuable assets would help anyone.