There’s a wonderful book called What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of markets by Michael J. Sandel that was published earlier this year. He argues that when activities that once existed outside of the marketplace become commercialised, a corruption of the thing being sold takes place.
He discusses two forms of corruption: one is the corruption of fairness, and the other is the corruption of morality. Commercial surrogacy is both a corruption of fairness, and morality.
First, buying and selling is only fair if the buyer and seller freely enter the transaction. Now, there are all sorts of things that can benefit one party over another; one party can have more information about the market, the seller might be making a forced sale etc etc. But in the case of surrogacy, a brutally unfair transaction is taking place – a wealthy person is exploiting a poor person.
The reason it’s exploitation is the surrogate ceases to have any legal rights in the transaction, of any kind, once she’s pregnant. There is no other major purchase where this is true; even cars and houses come with a cooling off period, for both buyer and seller. But in India, the surrogate has no legal rights to exit the contract once she is impregnated. She becomes a non-person.
And is it a freely chosen transaction? I want to try a thought experiment. Let’s say the first surrogates entered into the agreement freely, choosing to bear children for altruistic reasons. They loved every minute of their time in the House of Surrogates and used the money to educate their children.
But now the neighbours see there is a fortune to be made from surrogacy – $8,000.00. Sixteen years’ salary, in nine months. So now a husband has an incentive to coerce his wife to do it. Or his daughter. Or now maybe a family is in debt, and they need money urgently. And now Dr Patel’s shiny new clinic is built and she needs more surrogates, so she’s marketing surrogacy to make it sound pleasant and easy. Maybe she’ll throw in a sweetener, like an education package.
As more people become surrogates, it becomes normalised. It becomes a realistic thing to do for your family and your finances. Now it’s getting harder to say no to it, especially in the face of extreme financial pressure. A market now exists.
But it’s a market where the product (poor women) is in plentiful supply. As more poor women offer themselves up, their price goes down. It’s inevitable. The surrogates are getting $8,000 each now. I predict that in a couple of years, it will be less than half of that.
Still, $4,000 is eight years’ income. It still looks good.
$2,000 is four years’ income. For a mere nine months of lying round!
The price is going down, as the pressure to do it goes up. And as the surrogacy industry in India becomes powerful and influential, employing more people and adding more tax revenue to the country, it gains political clout.
Poor women are going to find it harder to resist the pull of this industry that is, remember, unlike any other – one that turns them into non-persons. And the more women get involved, the less they’re worth and the worse the exploitation becomes.
But hang on, I hear some readers ask. Dr Patel is fulfilling a need that already exists. If she wasn’t doing it – someone on the black market would. So isn’t it better for it to be legal and safe?
I suggest that Dr Patel and the other surrogacy clinics created the market in the first place. Genetic surrogacy was not an option until medical professionals worked out how to do it and market it, a relatively recent development.
It’s because they have led the way, that they have opened the possibility for organised crime to even think about this. Will a day come when women are snatched and impregnated against their will? I’m willing to lay money on it and the more surrogacy becomes established, the likelier it becomes. It’s already happened with organ transplants. The legal market operated first, and then the black market followed.
What about the buyers? Would nice, middle class people contemplate buying the wombs of trafficked women?
Of course they would. Probably unknowingly. But they would – just like kind, middle class Westerners have adopted children who weren’t orphans in the first place – which has led to child trafficking.
What about the second type of corruption that Sandel talks about – the moral corruption. What could possibly be corrupt about parents wanting their own children?
I can think of several ways that surrogacy is morally corrupting. The first is that it corrupts the idea of parenting. A child is now something you can buy, like a pet. And you can pick out exactly what you want. In the film, one woman wanted twins. So that’s what she got. No doubt if she’d wanted a boy or a girl, she could have had that too. Being a parent is now reframed as a consumer choice. What unintended consequences might this have for the relationship between parent and child?
And will a two-tier system arise, where rich people buy surrogate babies and adoption becomes the stigmatised, poor man’s substitute?
Surrogacy also corrupts the relationship between human beings. If you have wealth, you can now compel another human being to eat what you want them to, exercise when you want them to, and lie down when you want them to. You can abort the foetus in their uterus, if it suits you. Even the clients of prostitutes don’t demand anything as intimate as this – and even if they do, their wishes can’t be upheld in law. With surrogates, this dehumanising of women has the weight of law behind it.
And, surely, this transaction corrupts the purchasers as well. They’re now consumers, with consumer rights. And the customer is always right. Consumers get what they want, even down to a child. Where parents used to have to accept whatever popped out, more or less, now they don’t. Their needs now come first, a reversal of the parent/child relationship.
Having seen close friends go through infertility and the misery of IVF, I don’t want to underestimate the pain of not being able to conceive. But that pain does not entitle anybody, no matter how deep their grief, to buy or sell another human being.
And the minute we say that the emotions of the rich are more important than the dignity of the poor, the doors to flesh slavery are open. Will poor people will be compelled to give up kidneys? There are, already, those who argue that a market in kidneys should be established, to ensure more kidneys become available.
Or conversely, maybe people who would have done something altruistically – donate bone marrow or a kidney, or have a baby for a close relative – will now want to do it for money, because you’d be a fool to give something away you could have earned money for.
For all of these reasons – speculative and actual – I believe that commercial surrogacy is morally corrupt, on every level. And I reject the idea that the way to stop Westerns exploiting poor women is to commercialise baby making in first world countries. For a start, poorer countries will always be more attractive. They’re cheaper, and you can leave the surrogate behind. The only way it can work in the West is if financial incentives are offered, which opens up all the same corruption problems as commercial surrogacy in India or Thailand.
Plus, third world clinics will just drop their prices. They have that ready supply of poor women, after all. All that allowing commercial surrogacy in first world countries does is spread the corruption.
If surrogacy is to be allowed, it must be truly altruistic, with no payment to the surrogate – even medical expenses, which are taken care of inside the UK and Australia anyway. If women truly do want to carry children for infertile couples, then let them, under the auspices of a not-for-profit enterprise, just as people freely give blood or bone marrow right now.
(And then see just how ‘altruistic’ surrogates really are: in Australia, where altruistic surrogacy is allowed, there were just 16 recorded surrogate births, versus 394 purchased from India, in 2010-2011. Take away the money and there just aren’t that many women clamouring to bear babies for strangers.)
Can the commercial trade be stopped?
According to a recent Reuters report, wealthy Chinese citizens are now using US surrogates to produce ‘anchor’ babies for them, to give them access to US visas. I would like to think that would compel the Americans to shut this trade down. But it probably won’t.
A market has been created and neoliberal ideology says that if people can pay for something, and a market exists to supply it, then they should have it. They’re simply exercising their consumer choice.
The best outcome would be if international governments worked together to make this trade illegal and shut it down. Or to eradicate poverty so that nobody was ever tempted to sell her uterus for money. That’s a long way off in the future. So until then, I gloomily conclude we’re stuck with this revolting trade.
But just because people can pay for something doesn’t make it right.