Back in May, while Congress 2012 was underway at the University of Waterloo, I had the amazing opportunity to attend a lecture by Margaret Atwood. Of course she was brilliant and witty, and made me love her more than ever. After the lecture, I waited in line for Ms. Atwood to sign a copy of one of my all time favourite novels, The Handmaid’s Tale. A short while after attending the lecture, a classmate and I were discussing the outsourcing of surrogacy to developing countries. I was instantly brought back to The Handmaid’s Tale.
For those not familiar with the novel, it presents a futuristic dystopian society, known as the Republic of Gilead, which is ruled by repressive Christian fundamentalism. In light of low birth rates and widespread infertility, women who were still fertile became known as “handmaids” and had the sole purpose of reproducing. In the novel, women were prohibited to read or write, to use birth control or access abortions, to work, travel freely, or own private property.
After reading the novel for the first time four years ago I was honestly frightened by the status of women in Gilead. Only starting to delve into women’s rights at the time, I was naïve to think that society could regress to such a point after making so many strides forward. Fast-forward to the present day United States and the War on Women, where the fictional Republic of Gilead seems to be coming to life under the Christian conservative right led by Rick Santorum. All of a sudden this dystopian future doesn’t seem so far away.
For me it is easy to compare the role of handmaids in the novel to the outsourcing of surrogacy in developing countries. The outsourcing of surrogacy involves primarily Western and European couples travelling to countries such as India, in what has become known as reproductive tourism, to find young women to carry their child. This is because surrogacy is either illegal in their home country or way too costly (compare $4-12 000 in India to $70 000 in the US). Both in Gilead and in developing countries, surrogacy can be seen as dehumanizing and commodifying the surrogate mother, given that her value has been reduced to only her reproductive capabilities.
There is also a clear element of exploitation involved with outsourcing surrogacy, whereby wealthy people benefit from taking advantage of socially and economically marginalized women. The health, reproductive autonomy, and rights of these surrogate mothers also seem to be compromised. With limited avenues for income generation, surrogacy may represent one of the only viable economic opportunities for these women. Then there are always instances of women being forced into surrogacy against their will by relatives to help financially support the family. Many surrogates may also be forced into delivering the baby via C-section, which often comes with increased risk for complications compared to vaginal delivery, so that hiring parents can schedule to be present for the birth of their child. Again, it seems that only the preferences of the elite are being considered. With all this in mind, does the surrogate mother really have reproductive autonomy and choice?
So! Is outsourcing surrogacy ethical? By questioning the woman’s choice and suggesting that outsourcing pregnancy shouldn’t be allowed, are we just advancing another form of paternalism? Is it a mutually beneficial relationship or is it exploitation?
Let me know what you think!