Sorry Circumstances and Surrogacy

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.


31 responses to “Sorry Circumstances and Surrogacy

  1. Various points:
    – we should differentiate between a person’s labor and their own person; ie their body. the body is whole new level of exploitation than labor.
    – 115k is less than 40k per surrogacy which is approximately a one year period (including the recovery period). With all those kids to support that amounts to bare survival; not a lot of money at all. I’d like to ask those commissioning parents how much money it would take for THEM to agree to carry someone else’s child and where they possibly get off paying such pittance.
    -This is the second story I’ve read recently of surrogates who probably won’t be able to have their own child with their own partner because their physical resources have been spent on carrying wealthier people’s children. (See the link I posted of the woman who developed a chronic heart condition due to complications of her surrogacy pregnancy). While individual women may decide it is a good deal for them, if this becomes commonplace we end up seeing lower class women unable to reproduce themselves because they are too busy doing the dirty work for the upper classes.

    • Different good points here.

      Should we differentiate? I think that’s a huge question that is really at the core of this. Of course, one way to answer it is to say that each person is free to differentiate for themselves–no one has to be a surrogate, no one has to be a coal-miner. But I think you mean to raise a slightly different question–should we as a society differentiate–and if so, in what way and on what ground.

      The second point about the amount of money raises somewhat different issues. Are surrogates paid enough? For those who are fans of the free market the answer is probably “yes”–because these are market rates. But perhaps not. I don’t think it is a road to riches and did not mean to suggest that. But it might be better paying than other available options–and one can get paid as a surrogate and also work while one is pregnant, in some cases (at least much of the time). But still–we could think about whether it is enough money.

      C–the woman featured here–does have a number of children already, but this doesn’t defeat your point, really. I’d say this is an added cost of surrogacy–a cost to the surrogate I mean–the foregone oppotunity to have children. But I am less worried about the larger issue you raise–partly because I think surrogacy will likely remain exceptional–most women who can become pregnant with and give birth for themselves will choose to do so. But that’s just what I’m assuming.

      • I disagree with your assumption Julie. Medical reasons aside, many healthy and fertile Americans would in fact love to have more children but feel they can not afford to do so. This is one of the primary reasons people give for limiting their families. There is something very wrong with a setup in which people who can not afford to have their own children whom they would love, are busy having 1, 2, 3, children for some rich folk. And as for medical complications There is something very wrong with a setup in which any woman ends up losing some or all of her reproductive capacity, for the sake of an infertile women. Is one’s blood redder than the other? Is one’s fertility more important than the other?

        • I’m sorry–I didn’t mean to make that assumption. You are, I think, quite right. Many people do not have kids because they cannot afford to. I suppose what I should have said is that for those people who will have children, relatively few who do not have to use surrogacy will choose surrogacy.

          This doesn’t invalidate the point you raise here–that there is something wrong with the set-up. It goes back to the third point you raised above. I think surrogacy will remain unusual enough that it won’t skew large demographics of society. But again, this doesn’t address the issue you’ve raised in this comment about the rich taking advantage of the poor.

          As to that, I’d say it is indeed something disturbing and a part of a much broader issue for me. The rich can off-load many things they’d rather not do on the poor. The poor (or poorer) find their freedom far more constrained. Many poorer women (from around the world) are raising other (richer) people’s children in order to have enough money to feed their own children–but they have little time to spend with their own children. This is a far more common problem than surrogacy and it seems to me serious in the same way.

      • For you who believes the starting point in the chain of command is the pregnant female, how do then feel about her giving the child up for adoption to anyone else? Even though the process of adoption or legal guardianship are the most ethical methods we have for transferring custody of a child from a parent to someone else who will perform the parent’s duties, there is still room for corruption to occur. It can and does occur in traditional surrogacy because the parent by your standards and one of the parent’s by mine is behaving as if her offspring is her property. Adoptions should not be allowed by the courts if the child appears to be the object of some sort of trade agreement. Certainly parents must have the option of finding someone to help raise her offspring they can’t, but the adopting party should not have any pre-existing arrangements that objectify the parents child like being created for someone else’s benefit or use. So if I had my druthers the traditional surro who wanted no responsibility for her offspring could not give her child up for adoption to anyone who had such an agreement with her, even a step parent adoption, the step mom could just stay a damn step mother. We should not reinforce the idea that people are manufactured by some for use by others. They’d have to be newly entering her life as adopters, their bank accounts should be tracked back for a year and into the future 5 years for evidence of pay off or suspicious activity. Their friends should be interviewed. Too much is at stake. Anonymity in adoption had oversight by the court, one thing about it that was good is that we could be fairly sure there was no direct financial exchange between the adopter and the parent. We are not being careful enough about middle men. We are not being careful enough about surrogacy. Let her give up the kid for adoption but not to whomever she’s chosen if it appears the child was created for them. Then she can just pick a fresh new adopter. Still free choice but vet the exploitation of her roll as pregnant lady or bio mom

      • You raise some good points with the coal mining thing and money and all. I think in all the discussion of bodily autonomy and free will we forget that while, yes we are free to do with our bodies what we will, what we do should not interfere with other people and whatever they are trying to do. Freedom sort of balances on the head of a pin; we can do whatever we want if we are not in close proximity to one another because it won’t effect anyone but us. As soon as the population gets denser what we do might negatively impact someone else and that is why we have laws. So if we are asking what is wrong with a woman gestating and delivering babies for other people to raise we should not be looking at whether she’s paid or whether its good for her, but rather, is she placing anyone else in a compromised position because of her behavior?

        We have to look in unexpected places too. Lots of people were angry they no longer had the right to ride motorcycles without helmets because it’s their body and they should have the right to choose not to protect themselves from head trauma if they wanted to. Problem is that most motorcycle accidents involve other vehicles – when a person hits a motorcycle that helmet can mean the difference between life and death and them being guilty of vehicular manslaughter. Wearing the helmet can allow someone else to get through their life without having been responsible for someone else’s death.

        Let’s think critically about the content of a surrogacy agreement and look at exactly what she is agreeing to do, and determine if anyone besides her is placed in a compromised position because of it. Then let’s look at who is benefiting and whether or not those people are putting anyone in a compromised position by their actions. Then you can look at whether or not she herself benefits or breaks even or gets something she wants out of the deal. That last part, the money part is almost inconsequential because if she’s doing something wrong, it will be wrong whether she does it for free or does it for payment.

  2. Using the same logic, we could also say that some poor people might decide that their best option is to donate a kidney. Yet we consider this illegal. Are you reconsidering this as well?

  3. excuse me; i meant sell a kidney. donating a kidney is legal….

    • Right–and I’ll tie this back to your first comment above. We can (and perhaps we must) draw lines. Let’s assume that I think selling kidneys is beyond the pale and should be banned. Is surrogacy like selling a kidney–or is it enough like selling a kidney that we need to treat them the same? Or is surrogacy more like selling blood? Or being a coal miner?

      It sounds to me like you are comfortable drawing a line between coal mining and surrogacy, but not between surrogacy and organ selling. But more broadly there is a whole spectrum of activities–selling organs, selling blood, being a test subject, being a surrogate, being a gamete provider, selling sex, selling companionship and then all the profoundly dangerous professions–who cleans the nuclear storage tanks, deals with the pesticide, etc. Perhaps we need to /want to draw some lines–say some are not okay to do for money at all while others are. That’s fine as long as we can articulate some principles for where the line is drawn.

      One side note I tend to keep in mind: when we say something can not be bought/sold what does that say about its value? I worry here as a feminist because there is a long history of refusing to value the things that women do (say housework) and I’m wary of that.

      • I think when something can not be bought/ sold that is an expression of very high value. Human beings and most of their body parts, can not be bought or sold.
        Housework and child care on the other hand, has a fixed price and the price is not very high, and is indeed devalued work.

  4. The debate to me seems to be what is the amount of compensation someone is allowed to receive based on the value they place on their own time. Wouldn’t every person come up with a different number?

    A lawyer might value their time at $500 per hour while a teenager would think $10 per hour is fair.

    I believe that most people throughout the world believe that altruistic Surrogacy is good. And some people believe that compensated Surrogacy is bad.

    In the UK, an altruistic Surrogate often receives 15,000 pounds for her expenses which is around $24,000 USD. While a first time compensated Surrogate in the USA might receive $22,000 – $24,000 in compensation.

    The wording is different, but the amount is around the same. How is one considered good, while the other is bad when the amount is the same?

    • Tell me math man, how much more money does a traditional surrogate get than a gestational one?

    • Expenses baha. I would like her to have to turn in recipts for lost wages from her employer. Prove there were no paid sick days. Turn in all her receipts like I have to when I spend money on business trips. Or are we talking perdiam?

    • BODY, surrogacy. not time.
      How much commission do you get for each woman you pimp?

    • Clearly you didn’t read what I wrote at all. I wrote that IPs should be slithering with shame at the pittance they allow themselves to pay surrogates, as long as paid surrogacy is legal.
      If a surrogate in the UK gets paid ANYTHING beyond compensation for actual documented expenses ie travel, or lost wages from work that result directly from the pregnancy, It makes no difference whether it is a thousand dollars or a million It is paid surrogacy. I don’t care how they choose to euphemize it.
      Once you accept paid surrogacy, the less you pay, the more exploitive you are being.
      Paid surrogacy and altruistic surrogacy aren’t a matter of degree, it’s either-or. Either you pay or you don’t.
      (Naturally I am referring only to surrogacy here and not child trafficking, known to some as “traditional surrogacy”).

  5. I support regulations to assure that surrogates are treated fairly. I frown upon foreign surrogates since we can’t regulate those relationships.

    However, I also support allowing grown women to have control of their body, including their uterus. If I have the right to say that she can’t use her uterus to be a gestational surrogate then why can’t I stop her from obtaining birth control or an abortion? She’s not selling a baby and I view her body as hers, not mine. It’s up to her to make an informed decision. If she can’t make an informed decision then I question why she should have custody of 5 kids and have a 6th of her own as she says she might do.

    • Tyson, should citizens concern themselves with how people obtain custody and legal recognition as parents of children that are not their own offspring. That is to say are there ways for people to be granted parentage that you’d find unethical where you would find the child was objectified by the genetic parents, or the woman who gave birth or the people claiming to be parents on an original birth record?

      • that is really not the subject of this post marilyn

        • Ki I am trying to establish if there are any circumstances that Tyson would think unethical for obtaining legal parentage over another person’s offspring.- bear with me.

      • A surrogacy arrangement doesn’t objectify a child. So I find your comment confusing.

        Truthfully, I’m more concerned about the woman’s biological children than I am the children she delivered via surrogacy.

        I support establishing guidelines for surrogacy and this woman wouldn’t meet my criteria for being a surrogate.

        • How does surrogacy not objectify children? The object of the agreement is the child

          • I’m having revelations about this surrogacy thing. I think that people should NEVER be the object of agreements because people are suppose to be born free and remain free. So whether the topic is gestational or traditional surrogacy, the object of the agreement is the child the surrogate will deliver. However if the law were different and all people were equally obligated to their own offspring it would not matter who delivered a child, the parents would always be the people who reproduced to create the hild and then the object of the agreement would not be the child but rather gestation and delivery.

            When we start paying people to “give me a son”, what are we really talking about? “give me a son and then you abandon him”?

            Also adoption is a solution for a person separated from their family who needs to be cared for. Many adopted people are also donor conceived and many of those were also carried by surrogates. Adoption is not doing its job to vet instances where people are paid to give up children. Adoption is SLACKING OFF. I think we get wound up in the idea that the commissioning parents are the ones who wanted to be parents so we let the payment issue slide. If the bio parents don’t want the child and the commissioning parents do then what’s the harm really? Wrong! Big harm. Child is not born free and child is treated like property and looses massive rights. Solution is to allow the biological parents to relinquish in an open adoption to people they have no prior dealings with. Nobody should benefit from their failure to meet their obligations of raising their offspring. They should not be compensated or reimbursed expenses or aided in their pregnancy nothing not a damn diam if the goal is for her to ultimately relinquish the child to them.

    • tyson, whats your opinion about kidney selling?

      • Kidney selling and being a surrogate are not the same thing. People need a kidney because they’re dying. People don’t hire surrogates because they’re dying. A surrogate, particularly a gestational one, is not giving up a part of her body. A kidney donor gives up a part of their body. The two things are not analogous so my opinion on kidney selling is irrelevant.

        • “People need a kidney because they’re dying, people don’t hire surrogates because they’re dying” to my mind that would be an argument to treat kidney selling much more leniently than surrogacy. As heartbreaking as infertility may be it is not life threatening and does not require one to be attached to dialysis everyday.
          Regarding surrogacy, a surrogate gives over the use of her uterus, a fetus which actually IS part of her body during the time she gestates it, and faces comparable health risks.

        • How do you justify the government interfering with what people can and can not do with their kidneys?
          (wasn’t bodily autonomy your reason for defending legal surrogacy?)

  6. OK I think it breaks down to two issues our laws should never enforce a contract that binds someone to specific service, there must always be an exit clause out of respect for people’s freedom.

    Our laws should never enforce a contract that gives a person ownership of another person’s body, in whole or in part. Each person is responsible for his or her own body and bodily actions; our laws should not enforce contracts where our body or bodily actions become someone else’s charge or someone else’s responsibility.

    Our laws should never enforce contracts where people agree to create their offspring specifically for others to take responsibility for; our offspring are not ours to own and do with as we please either gift or sell or produce specifically to be born in service to others to act as their child. This compromises our offsprin’s essential freedom and sacrifices their true identity.

    So to the extent that a woman is in control of her own body she should be allowed to offer as a service, gestational services, but she should not be allowed to do that if she knows the people who hired her are not the real expectant parents because she’ll be aiding in helping a mother abandon her child and she’ll be helping someone buy the title of mother or father, buy custody of another person’s offspring. It makes no difference how wonderful they’d be as parents they should not be allowed to commission the creation of other people’s offspring and get them to go away so they can play the roll of that estranged parent.
    True enough the woman who is the mother does not want the child then the court should step in and facilitate an adoption with someone who had no prior dealings with the mother to ensure she received no compensation or reimbursement for her time in producing a child she had no intention of raising. She should be able to select the people who will be raising her offspring, but should not be able to give the child up to anyone who had an agreement with her where obtaining a child from her was the goal. She then retains bodily autonomy over her own body but not that of the child she delivers.

    That is fair and that is respectful to the child. It also allows people to adopt other people’s offspring but not if it was a plan beause the plan objectifies the child.

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