I wanted to carry on a bit with the conversation I started in my last post. What got me going was the media attention to the Sherpas who climb Mt. Everest. It’s obviously a dangerous occupation, one that is engaged in purely for the gratification for far wealthier tourists. There’s a general concern about whether the Sherpas (who are, as far as I can tell, all men) are paid too little for the risks they take.
By contrast, the concern with women who may be surrogates or provide eggs for ART is that they are paid too much. You can read the last post and the accompanying comments to see more about this. The gendered nature of the too little/too much discussion bothers me. But there’s something else going on, too.
I know my thinking is a bit muddled here (I’m not clear in my own mind(yet?)) so let me begin by setting out another example. Can a person donate a kidney? I think it is widely agreed that this is okay. But can that person be paid for a kidney? Again, I think it is generally clear that the answer is “no.” This is so even though paying for kidneys would clearly make more kidney’s available, which arguably is a good thing. So there are indeed things which can be given away but not bought/sold.
A Sherpa’s labor is clearly not in this category. It’s just labor–albeit difficult and dangerous labor. And so we are confident it can be bought/sold and are relatively comfortable talking about prices. The conversation readily becomes one of “are they being paid enough” and that seems pretty natural.
But, as a number of people observed in the comments (to various degrees of explicitness), with surrogates we’re on contested terrain. For some this is not something that should be provided–except for purely altruistic reasons. It’s like providing a kidney. Thus NO compensation should be offered. Any compensation is too much. (Washington state law reflects this view.)
Now that’s an important position that we’ve discussed on this blog in the past–though not, I think, for some time. (It is not a position I share, but that is probably obvious.) I don’t think it is anywhere near a majority view, but it’s not hard to find folks who take this perspective. And as I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve been wondering if this view figures into the “are surrogates paid enough” conversation in ways that tend to skew the discussion to highlight the concern about overpayment. After all, one starts with a significant number of people who are thinking that any money is too much money. Practically no one starts the Sherpa conversation from that stance.
The thing that makes this tricky (and leaves me feeling a bit muddled) is that you cannot separate out the issues. As I just said, if you think payment is wrong than you are going to think that more payment is just as wrong if not worse. (This is why I think the presence of this view skews the conversation.) But also the “no compensation for surrogacy” view is certainly subject to a gender critique. Here’s a thing (being pregnant) that only women can do. It is a unique and valuable ability. And some people want to say “oh, but you cannot sell that.” It’s part of a larger “mystique of pregnancy” view (which in my mind harkens back to why some find social surrogacy unacceptable.) Certainly many would argue that, at least at times, the “specialness” of pregnancy has historically been used to prevent women from claiming an active role in society.
I fear I’ve done little to advance things here. Maybe I should just offer the very short version: There are lots of people who think any compensation for surrogacy is inappropriate/immoral. Virtually no one think this about the Sherpa’s work. That’s part of the picture to.