I have been thinking about this story from yesterday’s NYT. (I think it was yesterday as it marked “Sunday Review” but the date on it is November 3. In any event, I only saw the on-line version.) I found it both sad and disturbing and I assume my reaction was not unlike that of many other people.
The essay, by Susan Straight, portrays the life of C, a neighbor of Straight’s. C is something like a professional surrogate. She’s been pregnant for other couples three times. She has been paid a total of $115,000. While that is doubtless a lot of money, the day to day circumstances of her last pregnancy weren’t pretty and nothing in this story would make you want to rush out and be a surrogate. Indeed, I think it is hard to finish the essay without a feeling that something is wrong with this picture.
And what is it that is wrong? What are we supposed to think? I suspect (probably because of the lead-in to the essay) that we’re supposed to feel a little bit queasy about surrogacy. Perhaps I am mistaken–perhaps this is not the author’s intent, but this is what I’ve been thinking about.
Yet it seems to me the underlying problem isn’t really surrogacy. The problem is that economic circumstances constrain the lives of people like C. It sounds like lots of the people in Straight’s neighborhood don’t have what I’ll call economic security. Jobs aren’t good and every unanticipated expense (like the pregnant dog or the air conditioner) poses a dilemma.
Given these circumstances, many people will take dangerous, dirty and often-low paying jobs. Among the alternatives surrogacy might not look so bad. It is, in the end, all relative. If C didn’t have surrogacy to rely on what would she be doing? What would she be earning? Would her life be better or worse? Is there any other way she could have earned $115,000?
In some ways this harkens back to questions that are raised with globalized surrogacy. Paying an Indian surrogate $6000 seems appalling, but suppose that is three times the money she could earn any other way? Who am I to say that she should not be allowed to earn the money as she chooses?
Of course there are problems with this view. If C is in such economically marginal circumstances, maybe we cannot call this a choice. Maybe it amounts to forced labor? But then still, isn’t the problem is those economically marginal circumstances?
This is not to say that the circumstances of surrogacy cannot or should not be improved. We could regulate surrogacy and impose minimum conditions and requirements, and perhaps we should do that. We could even mandates minimum payments to prevent a race to the bottom in terms of pricing.
I find myself thinking of coal mining. Coal mining is dirty, dangerous and difficult work. We do not prohibit people from doing it, however. We do not say that it is too dangerous to be tolerable. Instead, we (at least in theory) regulate it. We require safety standards be met. And (thanks primarily to the efforts of unions) coal mining pays a decent wage in this country.
I strongly suspect that there are countless people–mostly men–who are coal miners because it is the best paying job they can find where they are. They may not really want to be coal miners, but it is the best option for them.
Now I suppose we can say that coal mining is different because coal mining has to be done whereas we could live without surrogacy. That’s not argument I’ve seen and I’m willing to think about how it would play out.
You can, of course, conclude that paid surrogacy is always wrong. You can say that some things should not be commodified–should not be bought and sold. You can say that some forms of labor should be beyond the realm of commerce and the market. (We do this with sex when we make prostitution illegal and there’s a long and interesting conversation.) I’m just not sure that C’s story makes this case. Rather, it seems to me to make the case that we need to take better care of surrogates and perhaps, that a little more economic security all around would not be a bad thing.