Labouring in Labour? Feminists should move beyond condemning rich celebrities in their critical engagement with the surrogate industry.
This blog was written by undergraduate student Maria Felicia Fahlin as an assessed piece of work for the module ‘Issues in global commodity chains, production networks and informal work’, and selected for the blog by Dr Alessandra Mezzadri.
Reality TV star Kim Kardashian and super-star rapper Kanye West had their second child by surrogacy in May – a valuable testimonial for an industry that has come under increasing pressure in recent years. Kardashian’s enthusiastic recommendation of surrogacy is problematic. However, so is the frame through which many feminists have chosen to voice their disapproval of the practice. For critics of surrogacy, Kardashian, who has already carried two children to term previously before health complications led her to pursue this alternative, has provided an excellent example of the inherent immorality of commercial surrogacy. Commercial surrogacy is centred around rich women like Kardashian paying poorer women to bear their children, and the star’s lifestyle only adds fuel to the fire.
While Kardashian could afford an American surrogate, who tend to be relatively financially stable, many average Americans can’t. Instead couples find a surrogate abroad that will accept lower compensation for their gestational labour.[i] In Europe, where surrogacy (especially the commercial type) is banned in many countries, legal considerations play a role in addition to financial ones when couples choose to “off-shore” surrogacy. The overarching structure of the global surrogacy market has thus become one where Westerners and local elites pay poor women in the “peripheral” zones of the global economy to carry and birth their children. This includes many places in the Global South as well as Eastern Europe.i Even though, over the last five years, a number of countries in Asia that were previously hubs of the surrogacy industry have banned commercial surrogacy either completely (Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia) or for international customers (India), this general structure remains. i
Besides being congruent with contemporary neoliberal restructuring in the global economy, the “outsourcing” and “offshoring” of gestational labour clearly follows colonial and racial lines.i Responses from Western feminists as well as local governments have often been to call for completely banning the practice.[ii] As Swedish feminist Kajsa Ekis Ekman put it, Thailand and India do not want their women to become the “baby factories” of the world. However, people that want to engage critically with surrogacy should steer clear of simplified and moralistic condemnations of the practice. Working on surrogacy in India, Pande has argued that paternalistic (and Eurocentric) portrayals of surrogacy are not able to recognise how surrogacy functions as a survival strategy for poor women.[iii] Lewis further notes that the problem with western critiques of surrogacy is that they tend to reject commodification rather than capitalism.ii Debates veer towards universalist and abstract moral claims and anti-surrogacy positions remain “removed from contract gestators’ ideas and desires” (Lewis, 2018, p. 115).[iv] While harsh and unfair conditions that surrogates often find themselves in are used to illustrate a point, ultimately what is found objectionable is that women’s bodies are commodified through surrogacy. iiEkman’s metaphors, echoed by her journalist colleagues Catherine Bennet and Julie Bendel, that women are not factories and wombs not for rent are emblematic of this underlying reasoning. Interestingly, many Christian organizations use a logic when condemning surrogacy, visible for example, in the unlikely alliance between radical left-wing feminists and Catholic (often trans- and homophobic) activists . ii This unsavoury alliance should alert us to the fact that there is something left wanting by universal condemnations of surrogacy.
Contrary to Ekman and her fellows who argue that surrogacy is more than a job, Pande and Lewis have argued that surrogacy must be understood as labour, more precisely as labour belonging to the historical group of reproductive/care workers (including for example nannies and nurses). iii, iv. Such an approach enables us to see how surrogacy, as any form of work, is susceptible to exploitation as well as organised and collective resistance.
Pregnancy is far from risk free and economic desperation is often key in driving women into surrogacy. i, iii As surrogates, women are often subject to oppressive labour regimes and exploitation. These conditions are not unique to surrogacy, but common to many forms of waged work that poor people engage in to survive. While surrogates face unique forms of exploitation, they are not uniquely vulnerable in the worker-hostile regime foundational to neoliberal globalisation. Objecting to surrogacy on the basis that commodification of the female body constitutes a special evil reduces our ability to understand how surrogacy plays out on the ground. Considering that the compensation surrogates in India receive represents five years of the total family income, to claim, as some feminists do,ii that women that engage in surrogacy and express some kind of satisfaction with their situation are simply brainwashed is insensitive to say the least.
While surrogacy in places like India and Mexico is often framed as representing the frontier of human trafficking and modern slavery, realities on the ground are more complex. Calling for a ban enables governments to ignore the structural factors that make surrogacy an attractive choice for many women. Pointing this out should not be taken as another abstract argument about a woman’s right to decide what to do with her body. The point is rather that actions taken concerning surrogacy must be placed within their specific context, which includes taking into account the (uneven) structures of the global economy as well as local specificities. As Lewis argues “rather than abhorring the possibility of the sale of life-giving labour power which requires a system-overhaul, [a focus on commodification] only rejects it in the surrogacy industry” (Lewis (2017), p. 116). ii
Watching Keeping up with the Kardashians, it is tempting to reject surrogacy as universally morally corrupt. But the attention directed to surrogacy because of the show should be utilised to break up dichotomies rather than cement them. The many and diverse women who work as surrogates deserve as much.
[i] Schurr, C., 2018. The baby business booms: Economic geographies of assisted reproduction. Geography Compass, Volume 12e12395.
[ii] Lewis, S., 2017. Defending Intimacy against What? LImits of Antisurrogacy Feminism. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 43(1), pp. 97-123.
[iii] Pande, A., 2010. Commercial Surrogacy in India: Manufacturing a Perfect Mother- Worker. Signs, 35(4), pp. 969-992.
[iv] Lewis, S., 2018. International Solidarity in reproductive justice: surrogacy and gender-inclusive polymaternalism. Gender, Place and Culture, 25(2), pp. 207-227.