On May 11, 2015, an unprecedented global campaign was launched: Stop Surrogacy Now!
What sets this campaign apart is that Stop Surrogacy Now (SSN) unites organizations and individuals with opposing positions on many other issues—including the emotionally explosive issue of abortion. In the United States especially, no other issue ignites such passionate responses and produces such vitriolic debate. It has even led to violence, including eight murders and over forty clinic bombings. As time goes on, the contentiousness of the issue only seems to increase rather than dissipate. It is therefore extraordinary that so many people who stand on opposite sides of this issue have come together to stop the surrogacy juggernaut.
This campaign also brings together the fervently religious and the entirely non-religious, those who advocate LGBTQ rights and those who oppose same-sex marriage, feminists and non-feminists, the radical right and the radical left along with those in between, neoliberal capitalists and socialists, death-with-dignity supporters and those who consider it to be a form of euthanasia.
I write as someone who is committed to a woman’s right to choose and who supports extending legal marriage to include same-sex couples—but opposes surrogacy. What is it about surrogacy that joins people together who otherwise might be at each other’s throats?
An Unlikely Alliance
In spite of their differences, the members of this movement all share certain fundamental areas of agreement. We all oppose:
- The commodification of women and their bodies.
- The transformation of children into commodities who can be made to order for purchase by the wealthy, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
- The violations of women’s and children’s human rights.
- The transformation of a normal biological function of a woman’s body into a commercial contract.
- The serious, even life-threatening health risks that face surrogates and egg sellers.
- The severance of the primordial bond between mother and child.
- The eugenic implications of creating “designer” children.
- The ever-increasing growth of global reproductive trafficking.
- The sheer exploitation that surrogacy embodies.
So there’s actually quite a bit that unites us.
The genesis of this unlikely alliance began at Harvard Law School in 2011. It was there, at a screening of the documentary Eggsploitation—a film that exposes the exploitation of young women by the fertility industry for their eggs—that I met the filmmaker, Jennifer Lahl. During the post-film discussion sponsored by Harvard Law Women, plants from the fertility industry began to attack Lahl. They accused her work of being driven by a hidden pro-life agenda and called her anti-women and therefore not credible, discounting her expertise in nursing and bioethics. All of this despite the fact that the mission of Lahl’s organization is to bring diverse groups together on matters of bioethics.
Rising to her defense, I announced that I was a board member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the largest grassroots feminist organization in the US, that I am strongly pro-choice, and that I completely agreed with and supported all of the contentions made in the film. A stunned silence enveloped the room, followed by a productive discussion about the real issues of health endangerment, the perils of a profit-driven, unregulated, exploitative business, the lack of informed consent, the emotional manipulation, and the necessity of exposing the fertility industry’s “dirty little secrets.”
So how did an “abortion on demand and without apology” feminist leader come to oppose surrogacy and egg trafficking—and join forces with an abortion opponent in the process? This personal herstory reflects the larger context that has produced SSN.
Sexual and Reproductive Commodification of Women
As Program Director of the Council for Responsible Genetics, I was immersed in issues of biotechnology. As a feminist, I immediately understood the direct relationship between the sexual commodification of women and the reproductive commodification of women—they are two sides of the same coin. I had worked for years against the sexual commodification of women, creating numerous panels at the UN Commission on the Status of Women and giving the lead presentation at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2010 on the media’s sexual objectification of women and girls and its violation of their human rights. This background was perfect preparation for the advocacy work on third-party reproduction I have been engaged in for the past six years.
Recognizing our shared mission despite our differences on abortion, Jennifer and I formed what the executive director of RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association, has titled the “Dream Team,” uniting pro-choice and pro-life, left and right, religious and non-religious, in opposition to surrogacy and the egg trade. For the next several years, we traveled the country together, speaking, testifying, lobbying, writing, educating, and screening Jennifer’s films. Our collaboration culminated in the production of a documentary on surrogacy—Breeders: A Subclass of Women?—which was released in 2014.
As our work expanded and developed, people generally responded, “I had no idea!” They were surprised by the dehumanizing and harmful realities of surrogacy. Of course they had no idea—the media focus almost exclusively on the beaming smiles and happy families created through this “miraculous gift of life,” while ignoring or de-emphasizing the very real harms and exploitation that are inherent in the business of surrogacy.
Serious Medical Risks—Without Informed Consent
So just what is entailed in this process of techno-chemical child procurement? Both surrogates and egg providers must undergo multiple painful self-injections of carcinogenic synthetic hormones and other drugs, along with surgery for egg retrieval or embryonic implantation that can have devastating short- and long-term health consequences. The short-term risks include ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), ruptured cysts, ovarian torsion, bleeding, pelvic pain, mood swings, infection, premature menopause, kidney failure, stroke, and even death.
Two of the most serious long-term risks are future infertility and cancer, most commonly ovarian, breast, and endometrial. Furthermore, surrogates are pumped with drugs, such as Lupron, which are not FDA-approved for fertility use. Lupron produces the onset of menopause, potentially with incapacitating and long-lasting effects. There have been no prospective or clinical studies on Lupron’s safety for ART (Assisted Reproductive Technologies) patients.
Women contemplating selling their eggs or renting their bodies as surrogates are not provided with the information they need to be able to give truly informed consent. They are not told that no long-term studies have been conducted on the health risks involved. Many, if not most, are not aware that there is no regulation of egg trafficking or surrogacy in the United States; no national registry to provide a centralized repository for records, patient follow-up, and long-term studies; or that the commercial fertility industry has every reason to minimize the health, economic, and emotional risks given the enormous profits generated.
As a feminist, I am compelled to ask the question: would a man undergo all this to selflessly provide a child for unrelated third parties, risking cancer, infertility, and even death? Of course not. Patriarchal culture conditions both women and men to expect, even insist, that women be nurturing, self-sacrificing, and giving. This expectation does not exist for men. In examining surrogacy, it is important to consider the gendered nature of the phenomenon vis-à-vis accepted gender roles and cultural conditioning.
Human Factory Farming
Internationally, deep regulatory divides have fueled a growing global market in which the wealthy, together with third-party intermediaries such as surrogacy brokers, attorneys, and clinics (all of whom benefit economically from the commodification of reproduction) exploit low-income, poor, and otherwise marginalized women for their reproductive capacities. Surrogacy and egg trafficking have become pervasive international phenomena in which women’s poverty and subordinate status increase their exposure to gender-based exploitation and physical harms.
In some countries, such as India, surrogates are separated from their husbands and children for the duration of the pregnancy. They must stay in clinics where they are stationed, assembly-line style, in bed after bed, and must obediently take orders from their clinic overseers while their own children are left without their mothers. In a form of domestic violence, some husbands demand that their wives sell themselves as surrogates to make money, just as pimps demand that the sexual slaves under their control sell themselves to men.
Given the ongoing economic crises in the United States, the continuing erosion of the middle class, a rising form of indentured servitude produced by crushing educational debt, the lack of industry regulation, and ubiquitous human trafficking of women and girls, it is hardly a stretch to acknowledge the possibility of a similar situation developing in this country. It is germane to note that the US is second only to India worldwide in the supply of surrogates.
In this human factory farming, babies are delivered by C-section, which allows doctors to deliver them back-to-back in an industrial operation. As soon as the baby is born, it is whisked away in a van with the paying intended parents. The entire industry is driven by money. As one surrogate interviewed by HBO television’s Vice series said: “Nobody likes doing this.” Another reflected: “It does feel bad, but what can I do? I’m helpless.”
Dr. Ranjana Kumari, with the Centre for Social Research in India, is an expert on surrogacy. She points out that most women who become surrogates are desperately poor. She goes on: “Commercial surrogacy is totally based on an exploitative system. It violates the human rights of poor women.”
As Vice journalist Gianna Toboni learned while reporting from India, “When surrogacy is commercialized, businesses start undercutting one another, so you end up bidding for the cheapest baby.” Clinics and doctors are motivated to pump women with multiple embryos because they guarantee the buyers that a child will be born. When the many embryos implanted result in multiple births, the “extras” are sold on the open market. Toboni went undercover and met a surrogacy agent in a restaurant and was told she could buy a baby if she didn’t want to wait the full nine months. One of the people in the group accompanying the agent actually brought a baby to the restaurant. The reporter was told that if she liked the baby, she could take it with her right then. The agent said: “Let’s just make the deal now.”
An International Response to Exploitation
The dark side of the surrogacy industry is increasingly being recognized around the world. The Swedish Women’s Lobby, for example, strongly opposes surrogacy,
surrogacy is a trade in women’s bodies and children, as well as a threat to women’s basic human rights and bodily integrity …
Having a feminist approach to surrogacy means rejecting the idea that women can be used as containers and their reproductive capabilities can be bought. The right to bodily integrity is a right which should not be able to be negotiated by any form of contract. No matter the regulation or the nature of the contract, it still remains a trade in women’s bodies and children. The rights of women and children, not the interests of the buyer, must be the focus of the debate surrounding surrogacy.
The path to justice is long and arduous. Those of us across the political and ideological spectrum who have learned the poisonous truth about surrogacy have decided to put our differences aside. We must unite to stop surrogacy now.
None of us can stop surrogacy on our own. If we are to succeed, we must work with others with whom we may have vehement disagreements. So Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals, atheists, agnostics, Americans, Australians, Swedes, French, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Turks, socialists, capitalists, black, white, brown, yellow, and red, men and women, we have freely chosen to come together and create a campaign to bring an end to the commodification, health endangerment, trafficking, and exploitation that is surrogacy.
What do we want? We want to stop surrogacy in every state, province, and country around the world. We want the peoples of the world to respect the human rights of all women and children, especially those made most vulnerable by poverty, ignorance, and oppression. We want the governments of the world through the United Nations to declare that surrogacy is a violation of the human rights of women and children and therefore impermissible. We will not allow ourselves to be distracted by the differences between us, we will not allow the surrogacy industry to divide and therefore conquer us.
We will keep our eyes on the prize—and we shall overcome.
Kathleen Sloan is a former member of the board of directors of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Executive Director of Connecticut NOW, a consultant on third-party reproduction issues, and co-author of the book Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth and Culture. She has a Master’s Degree in International Relations and has traveled the world advocating women’s rights, including at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York.