Photo by Sandy Aknine

The womb industry

Women’s bodies should not be for rent

Artillery Row

On 9 September, GBNews presenter Alex Phillips introduced a segment on the ethics of surrogacy by asking, “Is having a child a human right?” The piece also highlighted the complexity of surrogacy laws in the UK; indeed, terms such as “birth mother”, “legal parent” and “intended parent” do little to clarify this murky topic.

As Phillips pointed out, a number of organisations and couples are advocating for an overhaul to surrogacy laws in order to “loosen up the regulations”, with a view to making the surrogacy process more streamlined. Should we be concerned about this, and if so, why?

First thing’s first: surrogacy is big bucks

Some people may consider surrogacy solely to be a relationship between consenting parties, born of a desire to create a family. If all parties agree, then who are we to criticise? But the issue runs deeper: much like libertarian-on-steroids approach to the commercial sex trade, where individual success stories are platformed as a smokescreen to distract from the otherwise crushing global exploitation that occurs, approaching the issue by platforming the desires of the individual over the impact on (surrogate) women as a class is a recipe for disaster.

Before diving into the legal ramifications of regulating and commercialising the child-bearing capabilities of women as a sex class, it is of paramount importance to understand exactly what is being criticised when we talk about “the surrogacy trade” and why. First thing’s first: surrogacy is big bucks. By 2025, estimates place the value of the global surrogacy trade at upwards of $27 billion. This should already set alarm bells ringing.

Just as the commercial global sex trade — valued in excess of $185 billion — functions by dehumanising women across the world as sexual objects to be purchased, the surrogacy trade as a global phenomenon (as distinct from individuals who may wish to willingly engage in a surrogacy arrangement for little-to-no fee for a family member, for example) commodifies a — usually impoverished — woman’s child-bearing capabilities into a product that can be bought and sold. The political ramifications of this cannot be understated, particularly for those of us on the Left who wish to see an end to male supremacy over women and girls.

With much Leftist discourse focusing on superficial notions of individual “empowerment”, this positionality is mind-bendingly antithetical to other Leftist critiques of the impact of capitalism and patriarchy on women and girls. Unsurprisingly, this also extends to surrogacy.

Leftist proponents of the surrogacy trade — which to be clear, is the renting of a woman’s womb for nine months — have once again opened their minds so much that their collective brains have fallen out. Now surrogacy is viewed as a series of singular interactions between individuals, as opposed to viewing it within its wider context as a form of industry.

The poorest women are exploited by rich couples who wish to rent their wombs

But an industry it is. And how does industry function under capitalism? By exploiting the most impoverished, the least empowered and the most vulnerable. For example, in India the surrogacy trade is worth in excess of $2 billion, and the nightmarish phrase “baby factory” is common parlance. In one case (of tens of thousands), one clinic received $22,000 in exchange for “providing” a woman, and the same woman received just one-fifth of that fee. In a horrifying conclusion, she then “disappeared”, never to be found.

It is an industry where women are forced to undergo caesareans to fit the birth around the schedule of the intended parents; where the surrogate women often have to agree to being sustained by life-support machinery in the event that they are seriously hurt or injured, in an effort to protect the foetus (with the surrogate’s health being secondary); where it is only the poorest women who are exploited by rich couples who wish to rent their wombs; where men speak of “their surrogate”, as if she is owned by virtue of her monetary relationship with them.

This is to say nothing of the myriad health complications — and even death — that can arise from surrogacy arrangements. Jennifer Lahl, Founder and President of the Center for Bioethics and Culture stated: “These are high-risk pregnancies. A woman’s body is not designed to carry another woman’s baby, even just one…”

This is where the current debate raging in the UK comes into play. Any law reform, as argued for by pro-surrogacy groups and individuals, must be viewed within the context of the impact it will have on the global surrogacy trade.

The law in the UK is complicated, with commercial surrogacy being outlawed, but “reasonable expenses” being permitted. However, this often leaves intended parents unsure of their legal rights when it comes to enforcing the “contract” for the womb they have rented. Consequently, this often drives couples abroad to seek alternative arrangements.

Typically, these intended parents are faced with two options: travelling to somewhere such as the US, where surrogacy is wholly commercialised in a number of states, meaning “contracts” can be enforced if and when things don’t go to plan. The issue with this is that with greater commercialisation and regulation comes increased costs. As a result, many intended parents are “priced out” of the marketplace of human bodies.

When this happens, the invisible hand of the free market surreptitiously guides these “customers” into pursuing more affordable arrangements, such as in Ukraine, but with this comes less regulation. Less regulation means a higher risk of exploitation, specifically for the woman paid to carry the child, as well as children who risk being “marooned Stateless and parentless” due to a conflict with the UK’s surrogacy laws.

It’s time we abolish the surrogacy trade entirely

This is the Gordian Knot of surrogacy: a move towards outright commercialisation effectively cements into law the acceptability of children for sale, and wombs to rent, enforceable under contractual agreements; a move towards deregulation brings with it the likelihood of further predatory economic exploitation; and staying as we currently are in the UK does nothing to deal with the issue.

Instead of trying to untangle this knot, why not consider cutting it? It’s time we follow the lead of other countries around the world and abolish the surrogacy trade entirely.

Undoubtedly there will be parallels drawn (or perhaps more cynically, accusations levelled) between arguing for the abolition of surrogacy and the discussions surrounding legal restrictions placed on women’s access to abortion services. After all, they both concern (in theory) the right of women to exercise their reproductive freedom — but this is a false analogy.

Just because the two issues concern women’s reproductive rights, it does not mean that they are the same. Providing access to safe and legal abortion services has shown time and time again that it works to protect women’s health and, in many cases, their lives.

Commercialising surrogacy does not enhance that same freedom. By restricting surrogacy, those same women are not put in danger because the associated risks would never be realised. The “freedom” that is being restricted is the same freedom discussed when talking about prostitution. It is the apocryphal “freedom to choose to sell your body”, when we know that, on a structural and class level, that freedom is a myth. The only freedom that is being “restricted” is that of intended parents to purchase the reproductive capabilities of a (usually) impoverished woman and rent her womb for nine months to start a family.

It would undoubtedly leave many intended parents upset, but the moral considerations in this scenario ultimately boil down to a balancing act. Do the feelings of intended parents outweigh the importance of abolishing an industry where women and children are routinely globally trafficked, exploited and in danger of death? It only further entrenches the idea that women are objects for male consumption and use.

These very real issues — legal, medical and ethical — should not be ignored simply for fear of asking challenging questions. No longer should we allow wombs to be rented and children to be sold. Having a child is not a human right.

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