The Handmaid Reality

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.

my signed copy of The Handmaid’s Tale!

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!

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8 thoughts on “The Handmaid Reality

  1. I have not read this novel however I find it fascinating how books that deal with seemingly unrealistic concepts actually shed light on reality. I wonder how many couples who partake in surrogacy outsourcing think of the effects it will have on the women who carry their children and their societies as a whole. I do believe that this does not empower these women, however, I am not sure whether it is unethical as some women do it by choice. That being said, it doesn’t seem like it is a choice they are making because it is what they want. It’s more so a choice to better their financial situation. It seems to me that on the surface this is mutually beneficial to both parties but when you look more closely at the situation it is exploitation as many women are forced. It’s amazing how authors’ futuristic societies have seemed to become a reality.

    • thanks! I too find it interesting how authors have been able to recognize things our present day society, and envision where it could lead. It’s scary when circumstances such as those described in the Handmaid’s Tale start to manifest in our reality. I share similar sentiments to you, not knowing whether it is ethical or not. Or if I am even in a position to judge the ethics surrounding this practice. I suppose the best we can do is always keep in mind the rights of women in developing countries and let them speak to their own experiences and shed light on their own reality. Of course of women we all have different experiences given different intersections of race, class, etc., however, we stand united to secure equal rights for all women.

  2. The outsourcing of surrogacy puts women in developing countries at risk. Are there any policies in place to monitor this process? Are there limits to how many times one woman can be a surrogate? Is any consideration given to the woman’s health prior to, during, and following pregnancy and childbirth? Whenever money enters the equation a surrogate’s choice and well being always comes into question. Also, why go to developing countries? There must be reasons other than the fact that surrogacy is cheaper. Are there fewer rules, ‘red tape’, little if any policies monitoring surrogacy? Who is protecting these women? Surrogacy can be ethical when a woman truly chooses to help a couple bring a life into this world just because she wants to. How often do you think that happens?

    • Sigh, as with so many of these issues it feels like the answer is not clear. Everyone has a choice, no matter how rich or poor. And yet parents forcing daughters to become surrogates to help the family and couples going overseas to save $60K on surrogacy knowing that this may be the case and even forcing a C-section just so they can be present for the baby’s birth clearly screams exploitation. Children are a blessing. Surrogates can be a blessing too, but not like this. I wonder how often in developing countries women become surrogates under these terrible circumstances . . . probably more often than we’d like to think.

    • Thank you for both for your insights! You raise a lot of interesting concerns in your questions. Part of the appeal of outsourcing surrogacy to developing nations is, as you mentions, a lack of “red tape” and policies. In India, this type of surrogacy represents an estimated $445 million a year industry. With revenue like this, who will speak up against this practice? Apparently, if the potential surrogate mother has had previous complications during pregnancy she isn’t eligible to become a surrogate mother, however, this is not properly monitored leaving both the woman and future child at risk. You also raised concern over who protects these women. The simple answer seems to be no one. There are no government policies in place that protect surrogate mothers from forced abortions, if clients change their mind, etc.

  3. The War on Women in the US also scares me Heather – and it is only a small jump to Canada, where politicians (ahem Peter Braid) want to “re-open the abortion debate”. I think that outsourcing surrogacy is often exploitation. This is because of all of the reasons you listed, as well as the stigma that may be associated with being pregnant in their own cultures. In cultures where women may already have a reduced social status, being pregnant out of marriage (regardless it is her child) could reduce her status even further. But, we get into a sticky situation if we try to regulate/ban this practice – because who are we to say what a woman can or can’t do with her body?

    • Thanks Kyla. While looking into this issue I did find instances where women in developing countries who did decide to become surrogates were shunned by their family and community, for some of the same reasons you mentioned. This whole situation is puzzling. I would obviously never want to tell a woman what was okay to do with her body or try to legislate it. But then there comes the exploitation factor, and it hurts me to see disadvantaged women taken advantage of. Perhaps introducing better regulation is the answer to make sure it truly is the woman’s choice and that she is safe and legally protected. (similarly to what should be done with prostitution). Definitely no easy answer here but thinking critically about it like you have done is the first step.

  4. I would argue that it is not ethical to outsource surrogacy to women in developing countries. At the same time, not allowing these women to be surrogate mothers takes away their choice and is most definitely paternalism. It’s kind of a gray area that straddles the line between a symbiotic relationship and exploitation. It really is too bad that people go all around the world just to have a surrogate child (why not just adopt?) just because it’s so much cheaper and easier to use women in the developing world. Personally, I don’t think anyone has the right to take away these womens’ choice to become surrogate mothers, but they should be compensated fairly and their health needs to be a top priority (doing C-Sections so that the parents can work the birth into their schedule is just ridiculous).

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