Surrogacy and the rise of the female patriarch

Most modern feminists blithely ignore the exploitation of less-privileged women

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Paris Hilton has a baby. I didn’t think this news would interest me. It’s been two decades since I watched her and fellow heiress, Nicole Ritchie, pretend to do “real jobs” — the kind other people do to survive — on The Simple Life. 

I quite liked the two of them. They seemed to have a sense of their own ridiculousness and of the injustice of their social position. Unlike today’s nepo babies, they were willing to play their privilege for laughs.

Now, at the age of 41, Hilton has become a mother. But not in the way most women do: getting pregnant and giving birth, or adopting. Instead, she has followed in the footsteps of fellow celebrities such as Grimes, Rebel Wilson and Kim Kardashian by hiring another woman to bear a child for her. According to the Daily Mail, Hilton even turned to Kardashian for advice, getting a recommendation for a doctor for the egg extraction process who would ensure the new baby was biologically hers. 

Mainstream feminist opprobrium has been muted

Mainstream feminist opprobrium has been muted. That this story has flown under the radar might seem surprising, given the type of transgression that does get picked up. Today’s feminist is hyper-conscious of privilege, constantly asking, “if your feminism isn’t centring the most marginalised, what is it even for?” 

Employ a cleaner and you’re offloading your dirty work onto poorer women; run a successful business and you’re a Lean-In girlboss exploiting your workers in the name of female empowerment. Use your wealth and status to claim ownership of the contents of another woman’s womb, though  — positioning yourself as the Biblical Sarah in relation to the slave Hagar, or The Handmaid’s Tale’s Serena Joy in relation to Offred — and you’re fine. 

On the face of it, this is bizarre. If a single act could exemplify the one per cent woman treating a less-privileged woman just as badly as men have treated women throughout history, it is this. No other form of exploitation is so sex-specific, so central to the distortion of male-female power relations. If there is such a thing as a female patriarch, it is the rich woman who outsources and appropriates female reproductive labour. 

Globally, surrogacy is on the rise. Even in the UK, where surrogates can only receive expenses and legal parenthood cannot be transferred until after the birth, the number of people acquiring children by this route has quadrupled over the past ten years, with two-thirds of applicants being mixed-sex couples. 

Unlike opposition to abortion restrictions, opposition to surrogacy is extremely niche. Far from being identified as a conservative, exploitative practice with Old Testament roots, surrogacy has acquired the sheen of progressivism. Partly because of its association with LGBTQ+ couples, who nonetheless remain a minority of those using it, it is positioned as a kinder, more inclusive way of creating a family. 

What’s more, neither oppressive social norms nor the inconveniences of pregnancy and birth need stand in the way of acquiring a baby of one’s own. You just need someone on the outside. Someone who is less of a person, more a vessel for hire. If  anyone objects, you can suggest that they simply do not want people like you to reproduce.

It is not difficult to see how this rose-tinted narrative has emerged. Due to what the philosopher Mary O’Brien termed “the alienation of the male seed”, men have traditionally relied on compulsory heterosexuality, the patriarchal nuclear family and restrictions on female sexual activity to acquire children they can be (relatively) sure are biologically their own. In this sense, patriarchy is not about policing sexual mores; it is about the control of resources. 

This understanding ought to be basic feminism

This understanding ought to be basic feminism. However, a combination of new reproductive technologies and calls for gender liberation have turned the analysis on its head. It is as though there was never anything wrong with patriarchy’s objectives, just with its methods. Today we are told we can dispense with the bad stuff (the loveless marriage! The prudery! The vaginal prolapse!) while keeping the good (the continuation of your noble lineage!). Passing on one’s genetic heritage need not come at the expense of being one’s true self. 

An old-style feminist, I am no cheerleader for traditional marriage or placing limits on how many people a woman may sleep with. Even so, I see problems here. 

Biology is not destiny, insofar as a woman’s capacity to give birth should not force her into a life of domestic drudgery. But gestating babies and giving birth remain — how shall I put it? — a thing. Human beings can’t have everything; being your true self cannot come at the expense of other people’s selves and bodies. The trouble is, the commercial surrogacy movement is absolutist. Unlike people like me, it never says “no, you can’t have this.” That makes it very attractive. 

In October last year, the Guardian featured a gay couple who view access to affordable surrogates through the lens of reproductive justice. “We are expected to be OK with not having children,” they complain, as though the whole heteropatriarchal edifice they believe themselves to be dismantling does not have its origins in men seeking a way to circumvent this “not being OK”. The photograph illustrating the piece showed two male hands clasped in solidarity, a naked pregnant belly alone in the background. Poor men. Mean, disembodied uterus-owner.

Then there’s a 2020 New York Times article on “The Fight for Fertility Equality”, which announces that “a movement has formed around the idea that one’s ability to build a family should not be determined by wealth, sexuality, gender or biology”. To me, this sounds completely insane. 

The existence of babies is wholly dependent on boring old biology. Then again, I would say that. I am one of those plebs who gestated her own offspring instead of getting someone else to do it. I am one of the throwbacks who considers the act of gestation socially, politically and emotionally meaningful. This is an embarrassing, unfashionable thing for a 21st century feminist to admit.

While radical feminists have held the line with a critique of surrogacy already present in works such as Gina Correa’s The Mother Machine (1985) and Andrea Dworkin’s Right-Wing Women (1983), today’s liberal feminists have bought the myth that commercial surrogacy is liberatory. The title of Sophie Lewis’s 2019 family abolition manifesto is even Full Surrogacy Now!

I doubt someone like Lewis will ever find herself in the role of walking womb for the rich and famous, her body invaded, her health compromised, her emotional life disregarded. That said, I do not think liberal feminists set out to redefine a subset of women, as opposed to all women, as a brood mare underclass. It is a symptom of modern-day individualism, of the co-opting of “privilege” narratives to favour the already privileged, but also of feminism’s fraught relationship with motherhood and the body. 

Pregnancy and birth are sui generis. Nothing else is remotely like them. I think this is why so many brilliant, creative feminist thinkers have disagreed so strongly about what they mean — and why one cannot say any of them were wholly right or wrong. 

The 1970s saw the publication of Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, in which the author declared pregnancy to be “barbaric”, quoted a friend comparing labour to “shitting a pumpkin”, and dreamed of a time when fetuses could be grown in artificial wombs. It also saw the publication of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, which celebrated female reproductive power and reimagined birth as “one experience of liberating ourselves from fear, passivity, and alienation from our bodies”. 

In her 1983 work, The Politics of Reproduction, O’Brien pointed out that under patriarchy, the abstract concept of male potency is elevated, while the female body is degraded. “Menstruation and pregnancy,” she wrote, “have been at times ‘decorously’ shrouded, at other times bravely waved as the flag of the potent male … All the while, men have fashioned their world with a multiplicity of phallic symbols which even Freud could not catalogue exhaustively.”

I think she is right. The female reproductive role is denigrated because it is envied. We see this in the way men are regarded as the creators of worlds, while women are demoted from life-
givers to potting soil. Female inferiority is socially constructed, rooted in male projection. Yet knowing this does not make those who get pregnant any less vulnerable to violence and exploitation. It does not make giving birth feel any less like “shitting a pumpkin”. These are difficult contradictions to manage.

“The body,” wrote Rich, “has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit.” In Of Woman Born, she wished to offer a narrative of resistance. Alas, part of the nineties backlash against maternal feminism — against writers such as Rich — involved encouraging women to step back from their bodies all over again. 

Supported by the increasing popularity of queer theory, the analyses of those such as Firestone were reduced to a cheap association between pregnancy and that which is base, animalistic and non-intellectual. Meanwhile, conservative efforts to force women back into a subordinate role in the home made many younger feminists wary of asserting that female reproductive experience might be significant to women’s emotional lives. 

As a young woman in the 1990s, I felt a great attraction towards this division between (superior, male) mind and (inferior, female) body. It fuelled my own nonchalance regarding surrogacy. In 1998, Katha Pollitt wrote of the Baby M case, in which a woman changed her mind about relinquishing her child. “When Mary Beth Whitehead signed her contract,” wrote Pollitt, “she was promising something it is not in anyone’s power to promise: not to fall in love with her baby.” 

To my younger self, the ability “not to fall in love” with a baby you could be carrying for a client seemed the measure of true intellectual detachment. You, like a man, need not be governed by your lowly position as a breeder. The distinction between your mind — your true, special self — and whatever might be happening to your reproductive organs could be pristine and perfect.

Naturally, for most women who think this way, the question of signing away maternal love is hypothetical. They will not be commercial surrogates themselves, but the insistence that they could be — and if they were, that their essential selves would remain untouched by reproductive/maternal experience — becomes something upon which their claim to full personhood relies. 

They can persuade themselves that surrogates are not harmed by the process because to see harm would be to deny the surrogate agency (which is very similar to the way in which the abuse of prostituted women is justified). “Women are not just their bodies” becomes “these women’s bodies do not matter at all”.  Having experienced pregnancy and birth, I no longer believe this. These experiences change you. It represents a failure of empathy on my part , a feminist failure, no less, that I couldn’t see it before. 

Recently I read in the student newspaper Varsity about a Cambridge student who described her experience of gender dysphoria. “I wanted to be a physicist,” she wrote, “not a baby-making machine”. I found this incredibly sad. Such a viewpoint represents not just the intractability of female discomfort with our bodies, but the persistence of a sex class hierarchy many have given up trying to dismantle, instead seeking individual flight. We might have agreed that women, or at least, those “assigned female at birth”, are not baby-making machines. What has not been agreed is that “baby-making machines” do not exist. 

The final ascent of the female patriarch has come against a backdrop of women no longer being permitted to have a class politics in relation to the body. Trans activists, with the support of politicians and organisations that nominally represent women, have decreed that having words that describe who gets pregnant is exclusionary. Instead, we must use dehumanising terms such as “uterus-haver”, “breeder” and “gestator”, words for spare part people, on hand to provide services when required. 

To elevate women — to grant them true equality — one must disassociate them from pregnancy and birth, activities for the lower orders. Feminists are no longer compelled to defend women as a group uniquely vulnerable to reproductive exploitation because such a definition of women no longer exists. And yet, the exploitation still happens. The babies are still born, to someone whose name denotes neither personhood (woman) nor a relationship (mother). 

In The Simple Life, the viewer knew Paris Hilton was not really working. She coasted, while those around her did things of value, which made the programme strangely powerful. You saw the injustice, right there. No one sees the woman who provided Hilton with a child. No one can put a price on the risk, the physical and emotional cost, or the lifetime aftermath. The detail has to remain invisible, otherwise what we see would be grotesque. 

Hilton and fellow female patriarchs might have outsourced the role of “baby-making machine”, but that does not make them more human. It makes them more like men. Feminism can do better than that. If all women matter, we must. 

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