Gender and Surrogacy, 1

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[I cross post from my blog, Related Topics, from time to time.   I haven’t done that in a while, but I’m working my way round to a topic that might be of interest.   Here’s the latest post.]

I’ve been skirting this topic for a time, in part because there is so much to say it is hard to know how to begin. Plus, so much excellent analysis is already out there. Nevertheless, here goes. This takes me back to my recent thread on surrogacy. (I know there have been a lot of “current events” type items recently–it’s just the way the world is.)

Some time ago I wrote about an obvious asymmetry. Women and men are differentially situated with regard to the process by which babies are born. Pregnancy, as a uniquely female experience (though not a universal one), must be accounted for even though it should not be over-emphasized. (Pregnancy does not make women uniquely qualified to be parents. Women are not better parents because (most) women can become pregnant.) So how does this matter in surrogacy? Several ways.

The seller (or vendor?) in surrogacy is always female. Obvious, right? And, as I’ve noted before, for commercial surrogacy to be viable, the woman who gives birth cannot be considered a parent. Thus, commercial surrogacy requires pregnancy (that uniquely female experience) to be disconnected from parenthood. I’ve made much the same point before, but it’s helpful sometimes to say the same thing in different ways and in different contexts. Commercial surrogacy ought to be of particular concern to women/feminists because it requires devaluing something that only women can do.

There’s a flip side to this, of course. Once you disconnect pregnancy from parenthood it becomes a service that can be bought and sold. Thus, women now are able to receive payment for this uniquely female ability. In other words, you could view commercial surrogacy as freeing women to make the most of their unique capabilities. Otherwise you leave women in a position where they can give their services away (as in altruistic or compassionate surrogacy) but cannot sell them.

This isn’t a new debate. It’s part of a larger debate over commodification–what can be bought and sold. Perhaps everything should be up for purchase. But it is hard to read the recent stories on outsourced surrogacy and not conclude that there is a dark side to the pro-commodification argument. There’s an inevitability to the race to the bottom–women who will bear your child for less, because they live in impoverished circumstances or in cultures where women’s employment options are restricted. While I might well understand the individual choices particular women in particular circumstances are making, it’s harder and harder to condone a system that creates those circumstances.

But my purpose here is not to resolve the broad debate about commodification. I just want to raise and frame the ways in which sex difference plays itself out in surrogacy.

You’ll notice I included “1” in the title of this post. That’s because it is clear there is much more to say. Point 1 is that the seller/vendor is always female and she is always selling something that only women can offer.

–Julie Shapiro (cross posted to Related Topics)

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