When I was a teenager I adored the futuristic horror stories of John Wyndham. Yet, his short story, ‘Consider her ways’ freaked me out far more than ‘Day of the Triffids’ and ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’. It told the story of a woman who, after taking an experimental drug, woke up trapped in a monstrous bloated body clothed in pink satin. Addressed as ‘Mother’ she learns she’s awoken in a future where all the men have been killed by a virus and she is a designated breeder of baby girls.
John Wyndham’s vision of some women as baby factories appalled me even more than Aldous Huxley’s dystopia where children were made in test tubes and machines. Yet we now have the ability to begin the process of life outside a woman’s body. We also have the ability to allow a woman carry a foetus that’s not biologically related to her. Yet in this brave new world we need to ask whether we can create babies in a manner that’s not exploitative and respects a woman’s reproductive right.
It’s a feminist quandary I find difficult to get a grip on.
In Australia surrogacy is only legal for altruistic reasons. At a baby sleep camp I met a woman who was deeply humbled that a stranger offered her the chance to become a mother and it made me consider if I could do the same. I like to think I could, for my sister, or good friend but feel I’d always feel a connection to that child and want to be in his/her life.
It’s clear I’m in the majority as it’s incredibly hard to find a surrogate in Australia. Hence many travel overseas to achieve their wish to become parents. In doing so they take part in a transaction with a woman – a “rent a womb” as it’s so bluntly called in the Indian media.
I don’t believe you need to be a biological parent to be the best parent in he world. But I do worry about the rights and health of the surrogates who help it happen. The Indian Marathi-language film “Mala Aai Vhhaychy” (“I Want to Be a Mother”) tells the story of Yashoda, a woman turning to surrogate motherhood as an escape from poverty. She decides she wants to claim the child she is under contract to bear for Mary, an American fertility tourist. Of course, all ends well, but in reality she would have a snowballs chance in Mumbai.
A study by an Indian women’s health advocacy group Sama – found that in the booming, largely unregulated industry the rights are stacked against the surrogate mothers. While Indians will pay high caste, educated or fairer surrogate a higher fee, most surrogates have low levels of income and education (many are illiterate). Many clinics implant more than 4 embryos, allow parents to order selective terminations and enforce caesareans to suit the timing of the clients. The surrogates are usually not asked to consent to any of these procedures. While India is changing the rules concerning the age of surrogates and the number of births they can have, the new legislation still won’t address the number of Assisted Reproductive Cycles a woman can undergo, an important issue for women’s health.
I understand it may sound paternalistic to question the right of a woman to use their body as they desire. It could be argued that a woman using her reproductive capacity is a powerful act. Many Indian women take on the job to escape exploitation in unskilled dangerous manual industries. What’s more, the fee of $AUS 6000 to $8000 could buy her a house; two babies could set her up for life. Perhaps surrogacy is a form of economic empowerment, even if the transaction will continue to be weighed in the favour of the parents who take custody of the baby.
In Australia, what’s got more attention than the change in law regarding rights of the surrogates, is the loss of rights for would-be parents. India is changing the visa rules – now only couples married for two years and those whose countries recognize surrogacy, will be able to apply for a medical visa. This will disqualify gay couples, single individuals and all Australians who don't live in the Northern Territory. Desperate parents will now forced to go to Thailand and to the far more expensive USA.
I feel for the parents excluded. I understand that inexplicable, burning, all consuming need and passion for a child. I don’t think we should criminalise men and women’s fundamental desire to have a child, but believe we have to protect women who help them.
Hence I understand why advocates of surrogacy are now calling for the adoption of closely regulated commercial surrogacy laws here in Australia. Yet it’s a touchy subject. Many shrink at thoughts of a ‘baby trade’, of women ‘renting their wombs’. It could be argued Australian women will be coerced and exploited economically. But surely it’s better to set up a system where we can minimise exploitation and police it accordingly.
There are also the rights of children to consider. Those born to overseas surrogates have an uncertain status in terms of parentage and nationality. I would argue they also have a right to know their biological background if egg or sperm donors are involved.
Clearly the current situation, with all the complications of different countries and state laws is a mess. Could or should we come up with a middle way between altruism and commercial surrogacy? Do we need to get more comfortable about a woman’s right to choose how to use her reproductive power? It’s a difficult issue for feminists, bioethicists and society. Perhaps our thinking is stuck in the past while the technology is now in the realms of science fiction.