There is a tendency in contemporary politics towards knee-jerk reactions. When we don’t like something, we call for it to be banned or removed. Few people stop to consider what precedent such bans will set, or what long-term implications for freedom a gut reaction to unpleasant ideas or decisions will have.
A good example of this inability to think ahead is the desire to limit commercial surrogacy. Despite it being romanticised on Friends in 1998 with triplets and a happy ending, most women who think about surrogacy wince. In many ways, pregnancy is being recharacterized as a clinical process, with pressures on women to act like machines — don’t feed yourself any coffee, do play classical music to your bump, don’t stand within a mile of cigarette smoke. The language we use about pregnancy is increasingly distanced — pregnant “people” or birthing “partners”. For most women, there could be nothing more personal and life-changing than a wanted pregnancy. Sure, some of us might spend it over a toilet bowl waiting for it to be over, but the process of growing and giving birth to a baby, even without all the hormones and biological levers pulling at your heartstrings, is undeniably an emotional and even magical experience.
Restrictions on women’s free choice is anathema to freedom and liberty
To imagine that someone could go through nine months of that rollercoaster and then hand over their bouncing baby at the end of that process is unthinkable to most of us. But some women do, willingly. Just as Terence wrote that homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto, so too should we accept in the modern age that human beings have all kinds of strange and different desires and values. That some women want to spend their lives draped in black cloth as a religious observance will never seem normal to me. Neither does the lifestyle of the papier-mâchéd bourgeoisie currently occupying sections of the M25. The wonder of humanity is that it is full of surprises.
The issue of women’s autonomy, however, and whether we should be allowed to do certain things with our body, is not the same as having an opinion on marmite. Neither is the opposition to surrogacy a flippant one — feminists like Julie Bindel have revealed the appalling ways in which women around the world are used and abused as incubators for wealthier and often uncaring couples who can pay for the privilege. When Bindel asked doctors at clinics in Gujarat about women being coerced into surrogacy, she was assured that they sought the “consent” of the “husband”. Women in desperate financial situations even sell their breastmilk, are forced to live under careful watch of the clinics and are generally treated like animals. It’s a dire picture and one which most people interested in women’s liberation would balk at.
But, like the urge to ban when a racist or bigot takes to the stage, limiting women’s ability to make free decisions about their body based on a moral objection to those decisions in certain circumstances (or the abuse of that decision by coercion) has ramifications for our bodily autonomy more broadly. You don’t have to think flashing your boobs in the newspapers is a brilliant pastime to understand that women should be free to choose to glamour model if they’re comfortable with being ogled at over cornflakes. You don’t have to celebrate prostitution, or even accept the dressing-up of it as “sex work”, to accept that a woman’s right to have sex with who she wants under whatever conditions should be her choice. Attempting to right the wrongs of a sexist society, or to answer the question of why women feel obliged or even okay with selling their bodies for sex or pregnancy, by restricting women’s free choice is anathema to freedom and liberty.
Sexism suggests we need a helping hand to make moral decisions
One of the greatest battles for women in the 21st century is the fight for our freedom to make decisions about our bodies when it comes to pregnancy and abortion. By criminalising or limiting women’s decisions around how they use their bodies when it comes to prostitution or surrogacy, we set a precedent that says other people have a right to be involved in what decisions are made about our bodies. Many religious believers would feel moral indignation at my decision to abort a pregnancy. Many might call into question my reasoning — a classic line used by anti-choice activists is that women who have abortions do so because they are desperate or have no other option. By trying to leap inside the heads of women and police their decisions, we suggest that they are incapable of being trusted to determine their own destinies.
There are some people who choose to become surrogates and say they love it. I can’t imagine a greater sacrifice than giving up a baby, but after years of failed fertility treatment I do know what it feels like to want one desperately. More importantly, those of us who are invested in the fight for women’s liberation should remind those who want to ban surrogacy, prostitution or abortion, that sexism has always suggested that we need a helping hand to make moral and ethical decisions. For centuries we’ve been told that either our parents, our husbands or the state should make decisions about our personal lives, and how they play out. If women are to be as free as men, we should be free to make our own decisions — even bad ones. If it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of knee-jerk critics, that’s a price I’m more than willing to pay.
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