Thoughts on Her Body, My Baby – the Racial Implications of Surrogacy

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Khiara Bridges is the Center for Reproductive Rights/Columbia Law School fellow at Columbia Law School who has just completed her PhD in Columbia’s Anthropology Department studying the intersection of race, poverty, and gender through the experience of women in an obstetrics clinic in a New York City public hospital.   She offers the following reflections on the New York Times Magazine’s cover story on surrogacy:

Her Body, My Baby, a story published in the New York Times Magazine on November 30, 2008 concerning the author’s experience with infertility and her decision to hire a gestational surrogate to give birth to her and her husband’s son, raises several fascinating issues. Noa Ben-Asher’s post on this blog tackles an important and exciting set of questions regarding the ability of gestational surrogacy to expand traditional notions of family. Here, I’d like to offer a couple of thoughts on the complicated race issues that gestational surrogacy produces.

Gestational surrogacy involves the implantation of an embryo:usually the result of the n vitro fertilization of the intended mother’s egg with her husband’s or male partner’s sperm:into the surrogate’s uterus. The surrogate:usually motivated by some mixture of altruism and financial need, and who is generously compensated by the intended parents for carrying the pregnancy to term:is genetically unrelated to the embryo and the child that is eventually born. Gestational surrogacy differs from traditional surrogacy arrangements, which involves the artificial insemination of the surrogate, who ultimately gives birth to a child that is genetically related to her.

As dramatized in Her Body, My Baby, infertile couples seeking surrogates tend to be wealthy:with the ability to pay for several rounds of expensive IVF treatments and to recompense the surrogate for her”services.” Indeed, the photo accompanying the story shows the author holding her son while the”baby nurse,”dressed in white uniform, stands stoically in the background. Moreover, because class and race closely follow one another in the U.S., these couples also tend to be White.

It would be incorrect to state that race is not implicated with traditional surrogacy, yet implicated with gestational surrogacy. However, race is implicated differently with these two surrogacy arrangements. Because the traditional surrogate is biologically-related to the child she carries, the infertile couple seeking a child that is”like”them in some respects will probably select a surrogate that shares their racial ascription. Accordingly, one would find White couples hiring White women to give birth to their children. However, because the gestational surrogate has no biological tie to the child she carries, the infertile couple need not seek a surrogate who is racially”like”them. One could envision a dystopian future in which financially-needy Black women, who disproportionately comprise the ranks of this country’s poor, are hired to give birth to the babies of rich White couples. Those of us interested in questions of social and racial justice might find such a future disturbing. It would reiterate the Black woman’s body as a laboring one (on multiple levels) while doing nothing to eradicate discourses in which the poor Black woman figures as an incompetent mother. That is, the Black woman would be empowered to produce children, yet remain disempowered to raise them.

Although the universe of gestational surrogates was open to the author of Her Body, My Baby, she nevertheless hired a woman who was”like”her:racially and socially. Indeed, what initially attracted the author to her surrogate’s application was that the latter had used a word processor to type thoughtful responses into the questionnaire. The author remarks that, although the woman was not as economically privileged as she, she excelled in other status-acquisitive areas: she played college tennis as well as the piano. She writes,”She played our Steinway while I got lunch. I stood outside the living room, holding a tray of tuna sandwiches and listening. I was numb. I can hardly play the piano. I never played on my college tennis team. Back in those days, I was smoking and dyeing my hair black.”

If the personal preferences of infertile couples help to determine the racial composition of those who will be hired as gestational surrogates, the dystopian future described above may never be realized. Although there may be a class of poor Black women willing to carry pregnancies for wealthy White couples, the latter may nevertheless choose to rely on those who are”like”them:socially, culturally, racially. However, the alternative cultural landscape produced may remain problematic, as it may be one in which poor Black women are not even empowered to be the birth”mothers.”

Cross Posted from Columbia Law School’s Gender & Sexuality Law blog

–Katherine Franke

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0 Responses to Thoughts on Her Body, My Baby – the Racial Implications of Surrogacy

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  2. YF says:

    Surrogates are essentially prenatal nannies, so I would imagine you will see selection criteria that is similar to that used when hiring nannies. I’m relying on pop culture and stereotype, but I suspect that many couples pay a premium to hire a nanny that is more “like them.”