Tuesday, January 13, 2009

This Sunday on the train back from the city I noticed a poster advertisement in the train car. A lot of times these posters are for TV shows, or just some random product. It's the kind of advertising you stare at mindlessly for awhile before it sinks in that you're staring at it and your brain is absorbing it for no reason--other than that you're on NJ Transit bored out of your skull. This time, though, the poster wasn't for some new Fox show or whatever. It was a poster advertising surrogacy. This piqued my interest because the topic of surrogate motherhood is one of those places where all my various interests intersect: biotechnology, birthing and motherhood, feminism, social justice, genetics and ties of kinship, categories of same and other.

The idea of surrogacy doesn't freak me out. Sure, it's "unnatural" but I don't use that word in the "bad way" that reactionary folks seem to. But the more I consider it, the more uneasy I become about it as a potential social reality. See, I can imagine becoming a surrogate mother as a kind of gift to another woman--someone who longs for a child but for whom that isn't biologically possible in the "natural" way. Especially since--unlike some women--pregnancy was a almost completely positive bodily experience for me. But in that imagining, there are some parameters assumed: that it is my decision, that it is a gift, that it is based upon or itself creates a relationship between me and the mother, that there is no question of a beloved and secure future for the child. And that may indeed be beautiful, but it dreams up an isolated gift economy for the context of this imagined surrogacy. And we don't live in a gift economy. We live in the good ol' US of A.

Coming down from my dream high, it strikes me that the first problem with a widespread practice of surrogacy is the way in which our capitalistic economy has always defined bodies. We "own" our bodies as the irreducible unit of economic exchange: our bodies are what enable us to work, to become wage-earning labor. As we gain skills we increase our value as workers and blah blah. Those without skills--unskilled laborers--have just their bodies to market as their basic exchange. Those who have nothing else to offer the job market in exchange for the necessities of life sell their bodies. Physical laborers. Migrant workers. Prostitutes. Biotech advances don't change that--they simply open up new markets. Selling organs on the black market. Surrogacy seems to fit that pattern all too easily; yet another way women's bodies are particularly exploitable.

That's serious enough, but as I sat on the train and thought about the motives someone might have for entering into surrogacy on both sides, I realized that surrogacy also serves to further our cultural preoccupation with genetic identity. Why would you opt for surrogacy rather than adoption, if not to secure the genetic identity of your offspring? Why would this matter so much? I observe that it does, but I have ceased to understand it. It seems to me at this point that genetic identity is just another arena in which we inscribe the "we are the same so I love you" and "we are not the same so I don't have to care" dynamics that poison so much of our society already.

So despite my technophilia and my fascination with pregnancy, I am becoming more doubtful about the beneficence of surrogacy as a widespread social phenomenon. It is, after all, being advertised on train posters as an economic opportunity in a time of worldwide economic crisis. Surrogacy: biotech's newest twist on the world's oldest profession?


Hilary said...


this post was interesting to me because surrogacy is a "new" idea in my world over the past year or two. it started when i saw an opera episode about 18 months ago about surrogacy programs in india. i personally was sort of rocked by the idea of such double blessing: a surrogate giving the gift of life & child to a couple who clearly desperately wants to see this dream come to fruition, & in giving such a gift, is economically compensated to give her own husband & children (all surrogates in the program must already be mothers) a physical home & life of economic stability they'd previously never known. a better life for your family, by helping someone else to build their own family. it sort of seemed cosmically beautiful.

personally it's always been a fear of mine that i won't be able to biologically have children one day. although i have zero maternal desire now, i think the idea of creating someone who is half you & half the person you love most in the world: pretty intense & unmatched by any other experience. so while i very much want to experience pregnancy, if life doesn't allow me that experience, then at least surrogacy allows for that experience of being a part of the creation of life, of the two becoming one.

my other experience this past year has been with one of my best friends, K, who considered seriously becoming a surrogate for a gay couple at our church. they already have biological children on G's side from a previous heterosexual marriage, and -- sort of as i expressed above -- J just wanted to be able to have a child that was part of him biologically; they wanted their complete family to comprise both of them. in this instance there was going to be no exchanging of money, just a covering of medical expenses.

however, your notice of an ad on the subway ... sigh. it definitely sort of pops my idealistic bubble in some ways. it certainly shows that there may be great ethical & socially moral questions as we "sell" bodies in some capacity. on the other hand, men have been donating sperm & women eggs for many many years ... so is being an incubator worse that biologically creating someone that's half of you and having no relationship with them??

again, good food for thought. thanks lady. :)

kel said...

did you happen to catch the storycorp story today? http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99397967

when i read your post the other day, i wanted to respond, but it's so hard to say anything because it's so complicated. so today when i heard the storycorp story, i thought it was a great example of the questions i had wanted to ask. why are people more accepting of people when they're family? why can't people accept and love other people? i think your points about sameness have to be it. i also ask myself what if we did all love each other as family, would that diminish the value of family? would that be good or bad?