Commercial surrogacy has been getting a bad rap lately. Thailand, in particular, has been hogging the headlines with a slew of cases that can provoke a visceral response in anyone. Like the assholery of the Australian couple that reportedly abandoned a baby with Down Syndrome with their Thai surrogate mother (but took the healthier of the twins with them)—sad story of baby Gammy. Or the Japanese man who took “spreading your seed” to another level by scouting for and impregnating 16 surrogates. And, last but not least: the Australian man who has been charged for sexually abusing the very twins that he fathered through, guess again, a surrogate— turns out that baby Gammy’s biological father is a convicted pedophile too.
If the practice—or even idea— of “wombs for rent” does not make you lose sleep at night, then the actions or character of these people might. For sure, these incidents have revived the debate over the legalization of compensated or commercial surrogacy in Australia.
On one side of the aisle, writers and thinkers are making the case that allowing for paid/commercial surrogacy would leave us with fewer baby Gammy stories. The argument goes that illegality of commercial surrogacy—as with many criminalized exchanges or practices—pushes it into an underworld that lacks transparency, recourse, and accountability
On the other side of the aisle, you have commentators, like Dr. Renate Keith, who have taken to condemning the practice as a heartless, profit-seeking, and exploitative enterprise. The critics are not entirely wrong; well-off couples from developed countries typically outsource to cash-strapped or economically destitute women in Third World countries. It is naïve to think that the exchange is always symmetrical and fair.
The debate has been quite lively in Australia, where paid surrogacy is illegal. But it has not hit US soil in the same way. And here, the status of commercial surrogacy is very patchy. Not only is the discussion of the status of commercial surrogacy in the US lackluster it is effectively illegal throughout the U.S., and that is a violation of basic reproductive and economic freedoms.
The desire of gay or infertile couples to start families of their own resonates with many of us, so it is easier to see how their reproductive freedom is being restrained—moreso for gay couples. Additionally, the myriad reproductive technologies that are available make paid surrogacy seem like just one less option with many other options waiting in the wings.
But it is not just one less option; bans on commercial surrogacy are another way in which states effectively dictate how people choose to form their families and how women exercise their reproductive freedom. The latter particularly affects would-be surrogates.
Deciding whether or not to have children, when to have them, with whom, and how are the gamut of choices that women (and men) make under the banner of reproductive freedom. Why you make those choices should not be the state’s businesses either. A woman deciding to carry a child for someone else and for monetary gain is exercising her reproductive autonomy and freedom. At the same time, she is exercising her economic freedom by agreeing to receive compensation for a costly and intensive undertaking that is fraught with health risks.
Acts of altruistic (non-compensatory) surrogacy may make for heart-warming stories and moral accolades, but it is entirely reasonable for a would-be surrogate to want to or receive compensation since pregnancy is no picnic. And it is reasonable for aspiring parents to want to remunerate because, again, pregnancy is no picnic.
“Renting out” your womb may seem like a morally repugnant, dehumanizing practice—money thrown into the mix somehow makes it seem even more dehumanizing. A woman may decide to be a surrogate because she desperately needs the money or because she genuinely likes helping gay couples build their own families—and the money is just a plus. But she ought to be free in deciding whether or not to get pregnant, when, how, and why.