I’m sure many of you have read about the tragic deaths of 16 Sherpas on Mt Everest. This story, about the local response here in the Pacific Northwest, caught my attention this AM. And oddly (or perhaps not so oddly, given my general interests in all things ART) it made me think about surrogacy and surrogates.
I actually think surrogates and Sherpas have more in common than you might think even though there are obvious differences. Both undertake difficult and dangerous jobs. Most surrogates do so for money and Sherpas are paid, too. And both Sherpas and surrogates are doing work which really, when you get right down to it, doesn’t have to be done. No one has to climb Mt. Everest. No one has to use a surrogate to have a child or even has to have a child, come to that. (This last point is the subject of some of the discussion of my most recent post about social surrogacy.)
A least part of the point of the story from the Seattle Times (the one about Sherpas that I linked to) is that the amount paid is too low. And it’s pretty hard for me to argue this point. Here are some key quotes from the article:
Compensation is a sensitive subject in an industry where mandatory life-insurance payouts for high-altitude porters is a mere $11,000 (though the Nepalese government has said this week that it will increase that amount).
The pay — which averages about $5,000 per season and is significantly higher than the country’s per capita household income — is good, but the compensation is not enough, says Morton, who believes that mandatory life-insurance payout for Sherpas should be raised to $22,000.
Now as you think about whether the Sherpas are paid enough maybe it is also important to consider how much the climbers are actually paying for these expeditions. My understanding is that it is typically somewhere around $75,000 per person. As I look at it, all this means there’s a lot of money changing hands but a relatively small amount of it is going to the Sherpas–again, an argument that they aren’t paid nearly enough.
Now one could also think this about surrogates–and perhaps the most obvious parallel would be think about surrogates in India, say, or Thailand. Here too the women are paid a modest amount but way over the per capita income. And here too lots of money is changing hands but only a small amount going to the person taking the risks.
What really striking to me, though, is where the conversation about surrogacy goes. What you sometimes see is an argument like this:
Also, women may be offering their own bodies willingly to surrogacy, yet still the money that offers these women many benefits in the future, could be seen as a type of coercion. There may be no actual frank coercion, but what the large amounts of money offered may be so valuable to these women that they may not have a choice but to take it.
(That’s from this website.) Indeed, in general you see this concern about compensation being coercive where women are paid to participate in ART. I’ve written about this in the past with regard to compensation for providing eggs. Thus to the extent there is a conversation about the amount of conversation, it focusses on the idea that women are being paid too much.
So here we are. Surrogates and Sherpas have a lot in common. But for some reason we all seem to agree that the question with regard to the Sherpas is “are they paid enough, given the dangerous work they do?” At the same time, the question for the surrogates would seem to be “are they paid too much, given the dangerous work they do?”
What explains this? Here’s one thing that comes to mind, though I am sure there are other possible explanations: We generally think that men will be taking risks and so generally accept that we need to compensate them properly for those risks. This is what working men do. But women? Women ought not to be taking risks and all so we protect them by not tempting them to take risks. (Of course, what this ends up meaning is that the poor women are underpaid to take risks.)
(Keep in mind I’m looking at a system that allows compensation but seems to focus concern on inverse questions–is the compensation too low/is the compensation too high. You could also take the position that NO compensation should be allowed for surrogates–and that would raise different questions.)