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End womb trafficking

The feminist fix: Normalising surrogacy means dehumanising women

“End womb trafficking” is the fifteenth article in Julie Bindel’s online column for The Critic, “The feminist fix”, which explores feminism’s answer to today’s challenges. The fourteenth article, on holding police accountable for misogyny and misconduct, can be read here.

Where there is money to be made from women’s bodies, the sharks will circle. Whether it’s the sale of breastmilk, prostitution or the rent-a-womb trade, impoverished women’s bodies are regularly mined for the benefit of the privileged.

Advocates of commercial surrogacy insist the practice is a win-win: the “parents” get a longed for baby, and the surrogates are making an informed choice, even earning enough money to feed their own children in the process. These well-meaning liberals can often be heard to say how nice it is that a woman is able to help a childless couple, while simultaneously supporting her own family.

The wombs of poor, brown women are trafficked to rich westerners

In this narrative, reproductive tourism is viewed as an act of kindness to the surrogate and her family after all, the women who carry the babies have no other way to earn such a good living. And so, across the global south, the wombs of poor, brown women are trafficked to rich westerners.

There is a raft of terrible tales about the exploitative side of the business, such as the scandal in Thailand in 2011 when 15 Vietnamese women were discovered in an apartment in Bangkok, seven of them pregnant. It was a baby making farm. The company, Babe 101, was found to have coerced women with the promise of well-paid jobs. Two of the women disclosed they had been raped; the others were hanging around waiting to be impregnated.

In the 2013 Baby Gammy case in Thailand, it transpired that the “commissioning father”, David Farnell, was in fact a convicted child molester. He had spent three years in prison in the 1990s for sexually assaulting two girls aged seven and ten. He hired a woman, who gave birth to twins, one of whom had Downs Syndrome. Farnell requested that she have a selective abortion, saying that he and his wife Wendy only wanted the healthy child. The surrogate mother refused and chose to raise the boy as her own.

In response to this case, Thailand made it impossible for foreigners to access surrogacy services, and criminalised commercial surrogacy. However, as I discovered when interviewing clinicians whilst undercover, there are ways around this. In addition, Thailand is revising its surrogacy laws again to allow the market to expand and lift restrictions.

Like the “happy hooker”, the altruistic surrogate is rare

I have researched the horrors of the global sex trade for decades, I have interviewed both prostitutes and victims of the womb trafficking trade, and I cannot help but see the parallels between the way prostitution and surrogacy operate. Both prostituted women and victims of womb trafficking are coerced by abusive husbands and pimps. Both groups of women are enmeshed in systems of class and race, which ultimately result in their exploitation.

What about so-called altruistic surrogacy? Who could be against such a “not for profit” arrangement, based on the generosity of a woman, bearing a child for someone who can’t carry her own? There will, of course, be the odd example of a woman who truly did go through pregnancy and birth for no reason other than her desire to help. But like the “happy hooker”, this woman is a rare exception rather than the norm.

Many of the altruistic surrogates I interviewed have told me that the process has had a terrible effect on them. Even the women that did it as “a favour” for a friend or relative found it incredibly painful to hand the baby over, and every single one I spoke to told me that it either fractured or destroyed the relationship with the recipient. None of them found it possible to maintain a positive and ongoing relationship with the growing child either, no matter what claims pro surrogacy campaigners might make about what is possible.

In the UK, the law allows for “reasonable” expenses to be paid to the surrogates, of which there is no limit (the figure of £14,000 is suggested as a ballpark). For a woman on a low income, this amounts to a salary.

The birth mother is called the “carrier”, as if she were a plastic bag

In the state of California, on the other hand, commercial surrogacy has been legal for some years. I have interviewed a number of women there, and some of the surrogates showed me their contracts. One contract, between a surrogate mother in the US and a Spanish couple, referred to the surrogate as the “gestational carrier”, and the intended recipients of the child as “commissioning parents”. It stated: “the child to be conceived is being done for the sole purpose of giving such child to the Intended Father and the Intended Mother.”

In the contract, the “Gestational Carrier” agrees that she will not abort the child unless it’s necessary for her own physical health, or “the child has been determined to be physiologically abnormal”. Women voluntarily agreeing to restrictions on our reproductive freedoms, and being legally mandated to carry pregnancies to term no matter what, is explicitly anti-feminist. Yet here it is in law.

In fact, the law governing and outlawing commercial surrogacy, both in the UK and elsewhere, is easy to circumvent. The more surrogacy is seen and practised, the more normalised the dehumanisation of women, and control over our bodies, becomes. One gay man told me that he insisted on “his” children being born by C Section because “I don’t want any child of mine coming out of a vagina”. In the US, the birth mother is called the “carrier”, as if she were a plastic bag.

The UK is looking to change the law on surrogacy, but they face a wall of opposition from many, mainly feminists, against wombs for profit. Pregnancy and babies should not be commercialised, wombs should not be for rent, and women should not be reduced to brood mares. The feminist fix for infertility is not to exploit another woman. No one has the “right” to have their own biological child, and certainly no one has the right to use a woman’s body for their own benefit. If you really want to raise a child, there are countless babies and children in the world, desperate for a home. Now that is true altruism.

Julie Bindel’s latest book, Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation (Constable, Robinson), was published on 2 September 2021.

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