Surrogacy Is to Prostitution … by Grazyna Zajdow

Last year, US sociologist Arlie Hochschild visited Australia for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. In Melbourne she presented a talk about the continuing trend in the United States and Australia for families to outsource so much of life. Housework and homemaking as such have only been the exclusive realm of the middle-class and stay-at-home woman for a short while really. For most of history, those who could afford it had servants. The modern form of servitude is called outsourcing; it is such a managerial term for it. It may not look like the upstairs/downstairs life of Downton Abbey, and the social relationships seem to be very different, but nonetheless we now have a class of people whose only way of making a living is to sell their housework and other familial skills to those who do not have the time, or the will, to use or develop their own but who have the money to buy them.

For the most part, Hochschild’s public lecture was amusing and light-hearted. In the United States almost all personal services can be contracted out, from the cleaning to the gardening, from the caring for the baby to the caring for the parent—literally, it seems, from the cradle to the grave. Things took a more serious turn when Hochschild started to describe the conditions she found when she began looking for that newest of the outsourcing businesses, commercial surrogacy. Here she found a very postmodern form of servitude. In the past, the wealthy woman who gave birth was not expected to breastfeed her baby and could find a wet-nurse who may have lost her own baby at birth and thus could provide sustenance to the newborn. In the present, the Western woman who cannot, or does not wish to, carry her baby to birth can contract another woman to do it for her. In the world of equal marriage, gay men can contract out the production of their offspring in a similar way.

Forms of surrogacy are now big business and, like almost all our other manufacturing industries, the manufacturing of babies has gone offshore. Hochschild was clearly disturbed by the physical and social conditions in India of those women who provided this form of manufacturing. In her book The Outsourced Self, Hochschild describes poor Indian women living in dormitories, cut off from their families, awaiting the birth of babies they may have carried but which they can never call their own. Their lives are regimented from the moment they are found to be pregnant. They are told what to eat, where to sleep and who they can see. The clinics must satisfy their clients that the women have not done anything to risk the health of the baby. The women are paid relatively well for their services but are effectively treated as carriers of a ‘blessed’ cargo—they are important for the period in which the cargo is enclosed in their womb but are discarded when the cargo is delivered. This is also a new form of racialism because the genetic material is sourced from the same racial group as the procuring parents.

In the question-and-answer period of Hochschild’s talk, one woman asked her if, considering the very grave problems Hochschild had with this factory production of babies and what it means for the exploitation of poor women, she believed there was a ‘right to have a child’. It was clearly a question that she had hoped not to have to answer. She wriggled around the issue of equal marriage and the reality of diverse family forms in our world. But she did eventually accede to the contradictions inherent in this world. With current technology allowed to develop without any consideration of the social consequences, coupled with the push from those wealthy enough to take advantage of ‘equal marriage’, the market in babies and the use of women’s bodies to satisfy the ‘right to have a child’ is a sad inevitability. What Hochschild describes in The Outsourced Self is not a richer and more diverse social and familial life. Instead we have a marketisation of life that is emptying itself of meaning and compassion. We demand to have what we desire and if it means using women’s bodies to get it, then so be it. And it has been ever so, unfortunately.

The impetus for my ruminations on this topic was the book by Swedish feminist Kajsa Ekis Ekman Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self. In it she argues that prostitution and surrogacy are related, not just because they are activities in which the bodies of women are used for commercial purposes but also in terms of the arguments and justifications that surround both industries. These are arguments about the mastery of the market above all other considerations. The reification of the family and the ability to use technology to produce it are also at the heart of these justifications. It may seem outrageous to many of the proponents of commercial surrogacy that we might compare the position of the prostitute to that of the surrogate, but Ekman does an effective job of explaining the very real parallels.

Ekman works her way through most of the arguments that proponents of the sex industry use to justify the exploitation of the players involved. The ones that most rile me rely on trotting out some very tired stories about individual agency. These arguments use justifications for market forces, and the rights that each of us has to engage in that market with our bodies in any way we choose. Often these are coupled with pseudo-feminist arguments about a woman’s right to do with her body as she wishes. As Ekman points out, individual rights and autonomy cannot be divorced from the real, concrete situations that many women live in. The slave is still a slave, regardless of the warm relationship the owner believes they have with him.

Choice is an interesting concept. When given a real choice, most women do not choose to make a living from selling their bodies. If the market is allowed to flourish, then other women are brought in to fill the void. As I have noted in a previous issue of Arena Magazine, the criminalisation of the male customer in Sweden has produced a much smaller market, and with that diminution of the market has come a much smaller sex-trafficking industry from Eastern Europe and Africa into Sweden. Sex trafficking has concentrated in surrounding countries to such an extent that the bulk of women working in the industry in Denmark and Holland are not local women.

Ekman points out that in the nineteenth century the general justification for the exploitation of women in the sex industry was to maintain the sanctity of the nuclear family. Some women had to suffer so that the nuclear family could continue to be buttressed by the knowledge that male sexual privilege would be satisfied. The arguments around commercial surrogacy sound distressingly similar, even if they are presented in somewhat different language. Present-day arguments for surrogacy are couched in terms of the ‘rights’ of all people to have a family, regardless of how that family is produced. After fifty years of feminism, the nuclear family is still entrenched as the structure most desired and most fought for. As in prostitution, some women need to be exploited for the greater good.

Central to Ekman’s arguments equating prostitution and surrogacy is the psychological impact that both have on the women involved. Both experiences force the women involved to divorce their minds from the reality of what is happening to their bodies. The body-mind split is a concrete, lived experience here, but not in a positive way. Many working in prostitution point out that what they are selling is not themselves, not their essential beings, but a service—‘my body is not myself’. They must practise a form of dissociation. While many people point to this disjunction between the body and the self in each encounter as an indication that the business does not negatively affect them, this sounds surprisingly similar to stories that victims of sexual abuse tell when describing the way that they got themselves through each meeting with their abuser. Indeed such dissociation is considered a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ekman and Hochschild both present stories of surrogates in very similar terms. The surrogates (or their handlers) spoke about how they had to divorce themselves from the baby they were carrying. Even though the baby is an integral part of the woman’s body for nine months, the surrogate must never see it as part of her—certainly not part of her essential being.

The stories of the customers of prostitutes and commercial surrogates also have many parallels. Ekman notes that many male customers believe that prostitutes have positive feelings and emotions about them—indeed many demand that they do. Hochshild and Ekman also write about the beliefs that people buying babies have about their surrogates. In situations where they meet them (and often they don’t) they desperately want them to be good, caring and loving. The reality is that they never really know because in most cases the women do not even share a language with their customers. Journalists also find it very hard to speak to the women independently of their handlers and when they do the women rarely speak positively about their experience.

The Market in Babies is the title of a history of adoption in Australia by three academics, Marian Quartly, Shurlee Swain and Denise Cuthbert. While the market has waxed and waned in Australia since early colonisation, the common threads have been the demand for babies and the pain that the adoption process has caused the women who lost their children and the adults who grew from those children. In the late twentieth century, when the local market dried up because birthing mothers were able to keep their children instead of being forced to give them up, the market turned its attention to the third world. When overseas adoption became difficult because regulations to protect the rights of mothers and babies were imposed, the market again transformed, via technology, and turned to surrogacy. Quartly, Swain and Cuthbert show how the institutions of the nineteenth and twentieth century that existed ostensibly to help young unmarried women were actually responding to the needs of the market. As they say:

if the demand for adoption was to be met through approved channels, then those channels had to increase the available supply. Services for pregnant single women were transformed (into) … institutions which promised to help the single mother, but the price of that help was relinquishment.

They show how the young women were always considered brood mares for the production of good-looking children who could be passed off as belonging to the adoptive parents. Not surprisingly, older, disabled or ugly children rarely found homes.

A recent ABC Foreign Correspondent dedicated a program to the ‘odyssey’ of two Australian couples in their attempts to produce a family through commercial surrogacy in India. No doubt these were four good people with no ill intentions towards the women they contracted. But just because they consider their desire ethical does not mean that pain will not be caused by carrying out that desire. The Indian women who were involved were little more than cyphers (literally) carrying the babies. The Australian couples were presented as generous, paying these women more money than they would see in a lifetime. This somehow justified the transaction, and maybe even kept the guilt of the exploitation at bay. Interestingly, or distressingly, when India regulated the market to keep out gay and unmarried heterosexual couples, the middlemen and -women turned to Thailand. The less regulation the better, it seems. Interestingly, Thailand is also a country with a thriving market in children for sexual purposes.

In recent years, the federal and Victorian governments have made apologies to thousands of women whose children were forcibly (or fraudulently) taken from them prior to the 1980s. But there seems to be no acknowledgement that it was the desire for children that produced the markets and the terrible pain they caused. There also seems to be no recognition that the pain is being repeated in a different arena. It has been exported to countries that are poorer than ours. New generations of children are being produced who will ask questions about their births, and who their mothers are.

These issues are not abstract to me. For various reasons, including iatrogenic ones, I am infertile. In my late twenties I really wanted to have a child. With my mother’s death, I realised that I wanted to have the kind of relationship with my own daughter that my mother and I had shared. I wanted to know what it was like to love so concretely and so completely. But it was not to be. I remember the agony of the monthly period, knowing that its presence meant failure. I also remember the days of hope when my period was late, and the blackness that came when the blood did. These were the early days of IVF and a specialist I saw at the time was aghast when I quoted the statistics for IVF failures and complications, but he could not rebut them. I also remember someone saying that I obviously did not want children enough if I gave up so easily, as if the desire alone was reason enough for any manner of activity to procure a child.

We should not fool ourselves that the business of surrogacy is suffused with some ethical imperative; it is about the nature of markets and the power relations inherent in them, so often played out by powerful agents upon the bodies of the powerless. As Ekman writes:

This issue … is about power and how it manifests itself in relation to class, ethnicity, age, social standing, etc. Both industries (sex and surrogacy) are based on the concept that the body of a poor person (in prostitution it is not only women) is to be used for the benefit of the rich—without limitation … The powerful people say: ‘We want children, newborn babies, we want them to look like us,’ and pay someone to bear the child, and give it up, never to see it again. The powerful even go so far as to call their wishes ‘human rights’.

About the author

Grazyna Zajdow

Grazyna Zajdow is a retired Associate Professor of Sociology at Deakin University where she taught for many years. Her research interests have been the experience and social effects of drugs and alcohol and feminist sociology. She was a co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series).

More articles by Grazyna Zajdow

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