Cuando yo crezca, voy a tener bebes por dinero. Igual que mi mama.
When I grow up, I want to have babies for money. Just like my mom.
The women most at risk of hearing these words are women of color, immigrant women, and women in developing countries: in other words, the most marginalized and vulnerable. These are sisters, mothers, and daughters who are the supply-side target consumers in the multi-billion dollar “wombs for rent” industry of commercial surrogacy.
Earlier this summer, the District of Columbia’s City Council held hearings on the Collaborative Reproduction Act that will be reintroduced in 2014. Supporters presented the bill as a “solution” for couples struggling with infertility. In effect, this bill would legalize commercial surrogacy—women renting out their wombs to incubate the in vitro fertilized fetuses of other couples—in our nation’s capital.
This is not the American dream, at least not for the women I know.
Fertility treatments have a long and lucrative history in the global marketplace. In 2009, the IVF industry was worth nearly $4 billion in the U.S. alone. In comparison, surrogacy is a relatively new and burgeoning industry. The first paid surrogacy agreement on record wasn’t drafted until 1980.
Men and women struggling with infertility know real heartache and hope. However, as citizens of a country founded on the struggle for rights and freedom, Americans have a civic and moral duty to confront laws that marginalize the already marginalized and threaten to create a second-class citizenry.
The “Collaborative Reproduction Act” is riddled with vague provisions and loopholes that make practices like commercial surrogacy a near-certainty. It allows for “intangible expenses” such as “forbearance” and “inconvenience.” The law will consider all ancillary expenses “reasonable” if negotiated by independent attorneys. Furthermore, it will leave a door open for complications for surrogate children by allowing “any party to a gestational carrier agreement” to file a petition for parentage. The provision sets the stage for disputes between two sets of parents who want the child. Moral and legal chaos awaits us in the new reign of commercialized reproduction.
Unseen evils of the surrogacy regimen already abound in areas where the practice is regulated and legalized. Looking to the East, women in India are typically paid an estimated $6,000 - $8,000 per pregnancy. “Unsuccessful” pregnancy results in a dock in pay. Meanwhile, the reported charge to couples seeking a child from a surrogate can range from $25,000 - $45,000. This leaves a pretty hefty profit margin for those who facilitate the arrangements. Women who fall victim to this predatory market are, in effect, selling their body parts and subjecting themselves to the inherent risks of pregnancy to provide for their children and families.
This particular assault on the dignity of women takes a twisted turn as the reproductive industry incentivizes profitable pregnancy and short-term “motherhood.” Legalizing commercial surrogacy will result in the widespread suppression and erosion of norms surrounding women’s rights, with particular consequence for vulnerable female populations. The trade-off for a woman choosing to place a price tag on her womb is her right to dignified and safe employment, education, and sustainable economic mobility for her family—markers of true progress for women, and consequently, for children as well.
It is reported that the current cost to rent a womb in the United States ranges from $80,000 - $165,000. Commercial surrogacy laws differ from state to state, with the involvement of state courts ranging widely, but as the market for commercialized motherhood in our backyard grows, cities and states are weighing in. A thorough listing of state positions can be found on the website for the Center for Bioethics and Culture. In 2014, at least two major U.S. cities will consider laws on surrogacy: New York City and the District of Columbia.
The Supply Side of Surrogacy
According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2012 statistics, 15.4 percent of women ages 18 and older (15.5 million) lived in poverty, compared to 11.9 percent of men.
While non-Hispanic White women were least likely to experience poverty (13.4 percent), non-Hispanic Black women (25.7 percent) were most vulnerable, followed very closely by Hispanic women (25.1 percent). Similarly, the U.S. Metro Economies Report, released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, confirmed that female-headed households were more likely to experience homelessness than male households. According to a report released by the National Center on Family Homelessness, 84 percent of families experiencing homelessness are headed by females.
The profile of females targeted by the commercial surrogacy market in developing countries does not differ. The U.N. estimates that only 27 percent of women in India had attained secondary education in 2010, and the World Bank records that only 29 percent participate in the labor force.
In Gujarat, the Akanksha Clinic has drawn attention for its highly successful rates of child production. Ten to fifteen surrogate mothers eat and sleep in one room for the bulk of their pregnancies. A mother is separated from her own family and home for the last seven months of her pregnancy. During this period, she is required to bring one of her own children to live with her at the clinic. That child’s job is to serve as an emotional distraction from the baby growing in her womb.
Akanksha’s claim to fame is an endorsement by television personality Oprah Winfrey, who hailed the clinic for “making mothers’ dreams come true.” This same clinic has drawn severe criticism for ignoring medical regulations around embryo implantation. The clinic’s operating practices endanger the health of vulnerable women, while its proprietors, and the commercial surrogacy market as a whole, profit from the demand for babies. The “health clinic” is essentially a breeding farm.
The collateral damage
Jab main badi ho jaoongee, main paison Ke liye bachhey nikaloongee. Apni maa ki tarah.
When I grow up, I want to have babies for money. Just like my mom.
The family plays the most important role in a child's formation and development. The family is the first place in which a child encounters and understands love, acceptance and the knowledge of truth—from mother and father—that is, of his or her deep value and worth. Sons and daughters are not blind. It is impossible to overestimate the psychological damage to the child who accompanies her mother’s pregnancy, only to see that sibling sold away. One wonders how much time Oprah Winfrey has spent getting to know the dreams of mothers in India.
Commercial surrogacy falls somewhere between indentured servitude and slavery. Attempts to paint mutually beneficial altruism as part of this disturbing picture are wantonly misleading. Some argue that a woman’s choice to act as a surrogate is her “right.” This is unconscionable, given that the supply side of surrogacy is women in severe financial need. Such warped logic would also condone contractual slavery as moral and therefore legally permissible.
As in the insupportable case for legalized prostitution, hidden behind this application of rights-based language is the exploitation of a marginalized woman’s very necessity to make a choice. Women of privilege rarely offer themselves as prostitutes or surrogates who incubate the children of strangers.
In further attempts to present commercial surrogacy as a win-win for women, advocates assert that short-term economic benefits translate to a better state of life for the surrogate mother and her family. This flawed reasoning ignores the fact that dignity cannot be monetized. The first twenty minutes of the documentary Google Baby humanize the vision of motherhood that advocates of commercial surrogacy are attempting to normalize.
“Collaborative reproduction” is an Orwellian euphemism for commoditized wombs. It must be recognized for what it is: the legalized, profit-based exploitation of the weakest among us—women in need.
As people of conscience, we must ask ourselves, “Does surrogacy help women and families to flourish?” The truth is—it does not. The DC City Council should vote no on the Collaborative Reproduction Act. New York City should take note.
Marion D. Boteju is Executive Director of the American Principles Project.