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Wombs for rent


Baby wrist with a barcode

There is a celebrity rumour I like to indulge. A woman named Tina Seals filed a lawsuit against Beyoncé and Jay Z for custody of their two year-old baby, Blue Ivy Carter. Seals claims to have been the surrogate mother of Blue Ivy. Surrogacy is illegal in New York, except where it is altruistic, so if the alleged surrogate received payment for her services, whatever contract she signed would be rendered null, or so I am led to believe by the ultra-worthy celebrity gossip sites I frequent.

I used to think the rumours about Beyoncé using a surrogate mother for her baby were interesting because they pointed to a culture where it is utterly taboo to talk about surrogacy, but it is completely acceptable to expect that a celebrity mother will look as unchanged by childbirth as Beyoncé does. She lost 30 kg after the pregnancy! She has successfully reversed the effects of childbirth and breastfeeding!

I am beginning to think that rumour points more to an insidious culture of motherhood that locks women into narratives about their femininity, a condition which is either confirmed or denied based on their ability to conceive and parent children.

The complicated and sensitive issues around surrogacy have arisen in the past weeks, highlighting the states' inconsistent laws surrounding the issue. Baby Gammy, biologically fathered by a registered child sex offender, born with Down Syndrome, was left by his parents in Thailand with his surrogate mother because of his illness. This led to the discovery that the paedophile father used the channel of overseas surrogacy to assume custody of children.

In another case, the father of children born of a Thai surrogate (and using her eggs) has been charged with molesting them, sparking another difficult custody case. Will the children be repatriated to Thailand, despite barely knowing that they are Thai? Under these circumstances, the Thai military are now considering banning surrogacy from its borders.

When Bill Heffernan said that Julia Gillard was unfit for leadership because she was 'deliberately barren', he didn't really err. He just named our preoccupation with motherhood. Mark Latham said it too, in another configuration: 'Anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them,' and David Farley described Gillard as an 'old non-productive cow.' Easy for fathers to say, because it is mothers who bear the primary responsibility for infants' earliest needs. But I heard women around me echo that sentiment, too: 'there's something cold about her.'

The thought crossed my mind that while there is a consensus in favour of women's reproductive rights, we don't entirely mean it; we still don't trust a barren woman. Women may be able to choose when to have a baby, but not really whether to have one. Truly exercising that choice comes at a great social cost. Collectively, we knew that a mother could not become the first female Prime Minister of Australia, because we understand how motherhood interferes with careers like becoming the Prime Minister. And because so many women do make those sacrifices, willingly and unreservedly, resentment is levelled against those who don't.

While many women in Australia have a much greater degree of control over their fertility than their mothers and grandmothers did, their legal and social ability to plan their families still exists in a culture which reveres motherhood and sees childless women as depraved. One remedy available to the privileged childless (legally or illegally, depending on which state they live) is to outsource the womb.

But this form of surrogacy can never be ethical: renting the bodies of poor women to fulfill dreams of a nuclear family can never be an egalitarian transaction. Where there's a cash exchange, it's certain that the surrogate is doing it for the cash. Poor women need money. Rich families don't need their very own babies. There is of course altruistic surrogacy, a practice I'm sure long precedes IVF, which reflects the communal nature of family. Paid surrogacy simply places a market value on the idea of possessing distinct and private nuclear families. And it participates in the cult of motherhood.

You'd think that this valorisation of motherhood would increase the material status of mothers in Australia. Yet there's no wage for domestic labour, an argument which seems to have disappeared altogether in our post-feminist daydream. Mothers still face discrimination in the workplace, and many mothers are dependent on their partners for the economic livelihoods of their families, whether or not those circumstances are ideal.

Yes, the drive to procreate is powerful. But is it so powerful and important that it should override the integrity of women in developing countries? Is it so powerful that it should continue to be the defining quality of women?


Ellena SavageEllena Savage edits arts at The Lifted Brow, politics and culture at Spook Magazine, and is a postgraduate student of creative writing at Monash University. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Image via Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, surrogacy, women, reproductive rights, Julia Gillard, motherhood



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Existing comments

I think that this is an incredibly intelligent article. I am unsure why many of my fellow males are so unsure and afraid of modern feminists like you, Ellena. Perhaps some men of my age got like this because they were once exposed to some of the more virulent material of the "all men are evil" variety. It is good to hear someone like you, a feminist and secular, question surrogacy and the industry it has spawned, particularly the racial-financial exploitative side of it. Kajsa Ekis Ekman, who was here for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, talked about the matter on last Monday's Q & A. She has also written a book on the subject. Regarding fertility (male & female) you have raised an important and touchy modern subject. Many men who cannot sire children, and this can be for a number of reasons, feel incredibly vulnerable psychologically. My heart bleeds for them. Although I wanted to, and did, have children I can understand men not wanting to. Like similar matters, I think outsiders to the situation need to tread very carefully on this one.

Edward Fido | 05 September 2014  

Producing a child, which can only happen from the natural instinct that drives the consummation of irresistible human love to sexual expression of that love, has to be the ultimate eventuality of love for another. Perhaps those, men or women, who "choose" not to have a child have sadly never experienced true love. Perhaps what they experience is the sort of love that plagued the self-indulged Narcissus, to the point of his own demise. All creatures possess the instinct and drive to reproduce themselves - it is the only guarantee of some modicum of immortality through survival of an individual's genetic material, even though progressively diluted, possibly till the end of time. Men and women are equally endowed with this instinct and in the face of true love can only overcome it by deliberate denial of that love in the interests of self, whether that means career, income or any other personal requirement. Crikey! I'm in more trouble than Flash Gordon now, I suspect!

john frawley | 05 September 2014  

Why is the assumption automatically made that any successful woman who is childless has chosen that path. It seems judgmental to me. To have a child is not a right, especially, it seems to me, if immortality is a reason for doing so. Children are God's gift, but sometimes his choice of recipient seems illogical. God works is very strange ways.

Margaret McDonald | 05 September 2014  

Thanks for a great article Ellena about an area of vulnerability, social pressure and natural gifts and lacks. Few seem to be saying anything about accepting the fact of childlessness. Do the needs of an adult outweigh the rights of a planned and paid for offspring? Some of us just have to accept that we do not have a child or children, but this does not prevent us from loving or nurturing. Unless our ego will only let us love our progeny. And seriously John F, Could you be serious, "Producing a child, which can only happen from the natural instinct that drives the consummation of irresistible human love to sexual expression of that love, has to be the ultimate eventuality of love for another." How often do you think that is the case?

Michael D. Breen | 06 September 2014  

Commercial surrogacy is nothing more than modern slavery. The focus is on renting wombs but pregnancy and childbirth still carry risk even in the developed world. Women who are poor are more at risk of anaemia, bleeding & complications. The Mental health of women is also at risk, but who cares, certainly not the consumers of their services.

Pam | 08 September 2014  

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