May 08, 2015

Surrogacy: An International Birth Market

SrBy Sally Raskoff

News about the terrible earthquake in Nepal drew attention to the practice of Israeli citizens using Indian surrogates who give birth to their babies in Nepal. The newborns have been sent home with their Israeli parents, yet these surrogates, along with other pregnant surrogates, were left behind. Many of the news articles mention that 26 newborn babies just went home, some with their new parents, while the remaining 100 pregnant surrogates – and those 26 women who had recently given birth – are left in Nepal. Israel’s Interior Minister has evidently just approved allowing the other pregnant surrogates come to Israel to avoid the earthquake aftermath and give birth to healthy babies.

How do we interpret what’s going on here to make sense of it? Use your sociological imagination, of course! Think of theories, theorists, research, terms, and concepts that can help us make sense of this practice.

There are so many issues wrapped up in this story, it’s hard to know where to start.

The practice of surrogacy exists because some countries have laws against limiting surrogacy to married other-sex partners (a man and a woman). Some countries do not allow same-sex couples or single people to hire surrogates. (We tend to call a couple consisting of a man and a woman a “heterosexual” couple however, sociologically speaking, we cannot assume their sexual orientation is heterosexual. In point of fact, it is simply about gender: a man and a woman who are married to each other. Thus I will be using the term “other-sex couple” to refer to this type of coupling, because the two people are from sexes ”other” than their own.)

On_the_beach_with_the_Drewitt-Barlows

Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/On_the_beach_with_the_Drewitt-Barlows.jpg

This type of surrogacy (Israelis seeking surrogates abroad when they are barred from doing so in Israel) used to occur in India because that country does not have a law limiting the practice to married other-sex couples. When India changed their laws, these surrogacies had to move. According to the news reports, India was chosen because of their decent health care and low costs. When they passed this law, the surrogacy market continued to use Indian women but they moved to nearby Nepal to carry the fetuses to term.

According to one NPR story discussing one couple and their newborn, the baby was conceived by fertilizing a South African egg with Israeli sperm in Thailand; then implanting this in the Indian woman who lived in Nepal during the pregnancy.

So, what does this describe? What would Marx say about it? What would your favorite social theorist say about it?

From one perspective, it appears that Marx’s theory that capitalism will eventually co-opt more and more of society into the marketplace is, indeed accurate. Thus if we are now at the point of co-opting female bodies for the purposes of reproduction for money – and using impoverished women from developing countries for that labor – then capitalism has made its trek deeply into our personal private lives – and has made women’s bodies into commodities to be rented for the use of others with the resources.

From another perspective, the couples initiating this practice are, for the most part, same-sex couples who are unable to hire surrogates in their own country due to the laws allowing this for married other-sex couples yet not for anyone outside that definition. Thus, when faced with discriminatory barriers, they find a way to do what they want to do in another country. This takes resources, thus there is a large amount of class privilege to this practice. Are working class same-sex couples able to create a family in this way? Nepal may provide surrogacy services in a less expensive manner than other countries but it is still quite expensive. Estimates (from the news articles) tend to run from $30,000 to $70,000.

When I first heard this news, my mind went to Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale, which I had read years ago. The main character is Offred, a “two legged womb” hired out to wealthy and powerful couples for surrogacy purposes. It was published in 1985 and is a science fiction story which won tons of awards, including the first Arthur C. Clarke Award. So much for the “science fiction” aspect of hiring poor and powerless women into surrogacy for wealthy and powerful people – we are there.

The Interior Minister mentioned above was interviewed on a television news program and he asserted that surrogates would not be allowed to stay in Israel after giving birth. The news person interviewing him might have been facetious when commenting that they may end up in a detention center but they all chuckled about that.

It seems a contradiction that the government would use resources, expedite the paperwork, and bring these babies home when their own laws created the situation to begin with. The irony of that and the attention this practice is getting now may be its demise. Whether or not Israel will change their laws or they will try to make this practice illegal remains to be seen.

Oh, privilege, it blinds us to the humanity and distress of others and to the larger social issues of exploitation, not just of individuals but of whole groups of people.

Objectification and making people (who are not you) into less than human creatures opens the door to treating others with disrespect and violence. Whether we’re talking about relationships between police and citizens or people in wealthy developed nations and those in poorer developing nations, the “other” is easily dehumanized and exploited and sometimes killed without a second thought.

Comments

Many countries are yet to embrace surrogacy

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