[This is cross-posted from my own blog, Related Topics. You don't need to know about the thread I have been following, but you are of course welcome to go and look.]
I am interrupting my own thread because there is this ill-formed idea that has been bothering me I want to try to write about. You will recall that NYT magazine piece on surrogacy? I wrote about it a bit earlier and there has been discussion of it all over the web. (I’ve actually written quite a lot about surrogacy over the last year, which you can find under the various tags.)
Really the catalyst for this post is one of the pictures in the article. (There was an interesting sort of follow-up about it in the public editor’s column section this past Sunday, which in part discusses the selection of pictures.) This picture. One could write quite a bit about it, I’m sure, and much has been written. For the moment, let’s just say it is fine depiction of master (mistress?) and servant. No question really about which is which.
Once you see master and servant you see a whole set of power and class relationships, too. The master controls, the servant is controlled. The master is strong (at least with regard to the relationship), the servant is weak. The master is unique, the servant fungible. The master has more, the servant has less. I’m not saying that all of these things are necessarily true in every master/servant relationship, but they are generally part of the assumed picture.
I’m afraid that commercial gestational surrogacy follows this model–indeed, I think it is probably meant to follow this model. The parties enter into a contract by which the surrogate provides services to the intending parent or parents. There’s often a good deal of attention to the ways in which the intending parents can control the surrogate. (She won’t smoke, she will get exercise, she will go to the doctor.) The master intended parent and the servant surrogate.
I find the power dynamic of commercial surrogacy as it is currently practiced deeply disturbing. The contract model that is generally used affirms and reinforces the imbalance. This, too, I’ve written about. It isn’t actually the exchange of money that troubles me. It is the vesting of power in the intending parent(s) at the expense of the surrogate, it is the master/servant dynamic.
This leads me to think about the bargaining that creates the master/servant relationship between intended parent and surrogate. What does each bring to the table? The intended parents bring money, of course, and a deep need for someone to perform an extraordinary act (I won’t call it a service) for them. The surrogate bring her capacity to be pregnant and bear a child, and some combination of a desire to help and a need for money. (I assume that the willingness to be a surrogate for strangers must be grounded in both some degree of altruism and a need for money.)
It’s a sobering commentary that these bargaining positions lead to agreements that so clearly vest power in the intended parents, and it troubles me. The question is how to effectively empower the surrogate so that she does not become the servant or the handmaid of the intended parents. One obvious way is to vest in her the legal right to parentage. That has the effect of making surrogacy far less appealing to many prospective intended parents, but it would make the surrogate a full partner in the enterprise, rather than a simple servant.
–Julie Shapiro (cross-posted from Related Topics)