ast week, a national newspaper ran a piece on the shortage of people in the UK willing or able to sell a kidney.
“It’s terrible,” said one interviewee, a stockbroker forced to buy his kidney from an organ farm in Mumbai. “UK regulations need to change so we can have this service closer to home.”
Another customer agreed.
“It’s very distressing to know that if someone over here sells you their kidney, they can change their mind. The ownership documents aren’t worth the paper they’re written on as long as your kidney’s still busy filtering waste products in the body that grew it.”
A lawyer specialising in cases such as these confirmed that this was a problem:
“The UK has a long way to go in catching up with other nations, some of which have even built dedicated hostels to prevent donors – or living incubators, as we call them – from departing in possession of body parts which are reserved for those with more money.”
Of course, no such piece was actually written.
Wealthy people in this country are not permitted to harvest the bodies of poor people elsewhere. While a shortage of organ donors is a recognised problem, it is widely understood that the exploitation of extreme wealth inequalities is not the solution.
We cannot allow ourselves to reach a point where certain people, born at the wrong time, in the wrong place, have the same status as the clones in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
Unless we are talking about international surrogacy. While no one may be publicly complaining of the difficulties of purchasing organs from abroad, the Guardian recently published a highly sympathetic piece on “childless UK couples forced abroad to find surrogates”.
The piece focused on two barriers to finding surrogates: the cost (“attempts to keep costs down have seen the creation of ‘hybrids’, where an egg is fertilised in one country, often where the commissioning parents reside, and then implanted in a woman in a developing country”) and the risk of a surrogate changing her mind (celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi, whose own child was born to a surrogate in the US, claims it is “definitely time the laws were adjusted to allow people to sign legally binding contracts here”).
Throughout the piece, the difficulties are portrayed almost entirely from the perspective of those wanting easier access to rentable wombs. That surrogates are people too, not property on an unstable market, would be an easy thing to miss.
We shouldn’t miss it, though. There is something horrendously dystopian about the growing acceptability of trans-national surrogacy, involving an industry which places poor women of colour in closely monitored residences and treats them as potting soil for the planting and growing of children for wealthier, usually white clients.
While radical feminists have long been critical of the practice, mainstream liberal feminism, which claims to be more aware of intersections of race, class and gender, has remained surprisingly silent on the topic. This is the most literal example we have of women being treated as walking wombs, yet it appears that it would be bad manners to point it out.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we are dealing with competing social justice narratives. While one can feel sympathy for someone needing an organ transplant, there is nothing politically sexy about being restored to health in this way.
Finding alternative ways of understanding and creating family units is, on the other hand, exciting. It feels – and often is – a way of challenging traditional, repressive beliefs about how people should be allowed to live, love and raise their children. Feminism should support such objectives.
For too long, the idea that families are created when women submit to their husbands and give them children has been used to dehumanise anyone who is not a fertile heterosexual adult male.
However, discomforting though it is to see a different side to this story, we need to ask whether all alternatives are better alternatives. In particular, we need to examine the cost of maintaining a belief in continuing one’s genetic line, even as all other beliefs in what makes a family are dismissed as outdated and harmful to others.
If you want a baby to be genetically “yours”, the alternative to being a person who bears it yourself is not going to be finding it under a gooseberry bush. Someone has to gestate that baby. In ways that we may neither wish nor be able to define, that baby is theirs, too.
The status of the surrogate as an actual human being rather spoils the neat, non-patriarchal narrative we may be trying to construct. You may not live with her. She may not have promised to honour and obey you. She may support you in railing against the petty squeamishness that leads people to oppose IVF and other positive developments in reproductive technology.
Still, she will be going through a pregnancy that places her autonomy on the line, compromises her health and changes her mind and body forever. Still, you will be attempting to assume ownership of something that cannot really be sold: her relationship with, and feelings for, the baby she is going to bear.
Liberal feminism has painted itself into a corner from which it is very hard to launch a coherent critique of surrogacy. Two effective but dangerously simplistic slogans, “work is work” and “my body, my choice”, make it almost impossible to claim that what is happening is wrong.
A woman can, it is suggested, rent out any part of herself. To question this would be a denial of her agency. The logical conclusion of such a line of thought is that nothing that is mutually agreed and paid for can be deemed abusive or exploitative, regardless of the gendered, class-based and/or racial conditions under which the agreement is made (which seems to me the antithesis of an intersectional approach).
Even worse, we seem to have reached a situation whereby the more physically or sexually intrusive gendered work is, the more it is seen as anti-establishment and therefore beyond criticism. Thus one woman employing another to clean her house is seen as more abusive than a man employing a woman to gestate, bear and relinquish a child. I can see how we got here but it does not look much like feminism to me.
There is nothing wrong with wanting a family of one’s own. Those who mutter about selfishness and over-population should, but rarely do, have as much censure for people like me, for whom reproduction was straightforward, as they do for those for whom the route is more difficult. But paid surrogacy, involving the exploitation of those disadvantaged by sex, race, class and global inequalities, is not an acceptable solution to infertility, regardless of whether the cause can be connected to other forms of structural oppression.
I’d like to think the problem is not that our restructuring of the family is too radical, but not yet radical enough. If you can convince yourself that a woman’s ties to the baby she bears can be contractually relinquished, why is it so hard to convince yourself that the child you raise need not have any of your genetic matter? Why is the body so important as an idea, but not when it involves actual flesh, blood and pain?
What it comes down to is always the same thing: some people are seen to count more than others. And fine, we can outsource the not-counting to other people, other bodies, other countries. But is this really as far as we want to go?