A “Poverty Draft” for Women Only?

New York Legalizes Commercial Surrogacy

by Kathy Scarbrough and Carol Hanisch

As Kathy Sloan predicted in an article we published in 2017, NY State just joined most other states in the U.S. by passing provisions enabling the well-off to use women’s bodies as commercial products that can be rented for the duration of a pregnancy.  

Just another job?

Many countries around the world recognize there is something wrong in using women’s bodies in this way. The European Parliament calls surrogacy a human rights violation against women and the ultimate commodification of women’s bodies and women’s health. The procedure is banned in most countries in Europe as well as in China, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Australia, and others. When interviewed by Fran Luck of Joy of Resistance, Taina Bien-Aimé,  the Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women said the class elements of the practice are obvious:

“any person off the street would look at the image of who is doing the buying and who is doing the delivering of the baby and will see the stark economic inequality”

In the 1990s India was known as the surrogacy capitol of the world, now according to Bien-Aimé “Ukraine is known as the baby factory of Europe.”  With mainly well-off people being the buyers, the business of gestating of babies in lower income countries can be viewed as yet another form of imperialism, another way of extracting resources from the poor. And in the U.S. we face a maternal mortality crisis among Black and poor women, exactly the women who might be coerced by circumstance to face the known risks of pregnancy, birth and the possibility of long lasting health effects as a surrogate mother.

Commercial surrogacy reinforces the male supremacist and capitalist notion of women as incubators. As it is practiced today, surrogacy separates gestational labor from the genetic parenthood of the baby because the woman “employed as a surrogate” is not allowed to use her own eggs. With embryos required to be implanted in the womb, these laws are a huge boon to the predatory reproductive services industry.

We assert that this law is not good for the class of women. But not all women see it that way. Some women calling themselves feminists argue for, as the title of the book by Sophie Lewis proclaims, Full Surrogacy Now!  In it, the author advocates “making every pregnancy be for everyone,” in other words, children produced for the common good and with collective responsibility. This is “full surrogacy.”  Lewis also says that the needs and protection of women employed as surrogates should be foremost and the birth mother’s relationship to the babies they produce must be reconsidered. Lewis wants reproduction recognized as productive work in the Marxist sense.

But is it the kind of work you’d recommend to your friend or daughter?  Would we support the idea that social service agencies should recommend becoming a surrogate to destitute women as a possible avenue toward employment?  Nivedita Majumdar writing in Jacobin analyzes the “full surrogacy” argument from a Left perspective:

For Lewis, if patriarchy weaponizes women’s reproductive and caring work in the form of “feminine mystique,” then there is a need to demystify such labor by commercializing it. But this is very odd reasoning, especially for a progressive. Since when is the commodification of labor, or forms of social integration, the necessary precondition to humanizing it? For any Left project, this has to be anathema.

Socialist feminists like Sophie Lewis seem to get along very well with groups promoting the interests of men. They don’t make demands on men, they call on feminists to accommodate male demands. These feminists are also the female transgender activists, female pro-porn activists, female pro-sex work supporters and they get rewarded for it with speaking engagements, book tours, and approval of their male comrades. Some of these women have dabbled in prostitution, taking advantage of their middle class standing to select carefully the men they will service and avoid the worst dangers.

Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Madeline Lane-McKinley observes that,

Contending with these anti-surrogacy and anti-sex work platforms, Lewis argues that these … have been used to … establish a “rescue industry,” seeking to “abolish the commodification without abolishing the work.” 

We say when women are truly free they won’t have to “work” as a sex machine. We argue that you can’t abolish the “work” of surrogacy or prostitution (or porn: filmed prostitution) by any other means beside women’s liberation.

Women working in the interests of male supremacy dismiss as Right wingers the real radicals of feminism who fight against this sort of exploitation of women. We radical feminists consider ourselves part of the Left but we think and act independently. We have overlapping interests as workers and in confronting racism with the male-dominated Left but we also criticize the very domination of the Left by one half of the population, and the presumption of entitlement to women’s bodies.  Kathy Sloan eloquently lays out the reasons many feminists don’t take on the challenge:

Most American feminists are completely uninformed about surrogacy and it is simply not an issue for them. Even when educated about it, many are terrified of opposing surrogacy for three principal reasons. One is that the corporate media has very successfully portrayed opposition to surrogacy as only existing among right wing Christians who also want to ban abortion. Any association with those opponents is considered toxic. Secondly, most mainline so-called feminist organizations in the US have been co-opted by neoliberalism through a combination of funding and cultural conditioning. As with support for the gender identity movement and the prostituting of women and girls as “sex work,” the other side of the coin of surrogacy, objectification of women and the erasure of their rights becomes acceptable in an Orwellian inversion of reality. What these neoliberal phenomena represent are the marriage of capitalist commodification and the cult of the self. Thirdly, many American feminists have internalized patriarchal misogyny and place the desires of gay men over women. Since gay men overwhelmingly support surrogacy for their own selfish interests, it is seen as homophobic by many to oppose it. Such an accusation induces terror in many American feminists.

There’s a crassness in the way those who can afford to do so, whether heterosexual or homosexual, “employ” poor women as breeders. Her humanity doesn’t come into the picture, she’s a surrogate, she will do her “work” and deliver the “goods.” We don’t oppose altruistic surrogacy where a friend or relative might consent to bearing a child for a couple otherwise unable to become parents. However, commercial surrogacy joins the other ignoble capitalistic and male supremacist industries of prostitution and porn in exploiting women on the basis of sex.

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