To this extent the stymied liberatory potential of reproductive technology is no different to the stymied liberatory potential of any other form of technology. Products and processes are made by the rich, for the rich, liberating those who are, in relative terms, already free. It’s not just that poorer women and women of colour have reduced access to abortion and contraception, or that some members of these groups have endured forced sterilisation, that is, reproductive technology actively used as a means of oppression. Egg donation, IVF, womb transplants and global surrogacy all now mean that wealthy white women can, should they so wish, outsource the very roots of sex-based oppression to their less privileged sisters.
Of course even this only works to a certain degree. Patriarchy remains invested in maintaining a stranglehold on the means of reproduction.
Consider this – if you accept that being biologically female is compatible with having an inner life, you have to apply this universally. Under such conditions no reproductive injustice – denial of abortion or contraception, forced sterilisation, economic coercion regarding having/not having children, disregard of maternal mortality – is justifiable. Forced pregnancy or sterilisation is always barbaric. Therefore, if you are to justify such barbarism where convenient, you must also promote the relative dehumanisation of everyone born with a womb (or a vagina, with the associated assumption that one might just have a womb).
Even if womb transplants and artificial wombs become everyday possibilities, the bodies of those already born with wombs will remain cheaper (providing we continue to place a low value on such people’s lives). It’s entirely plausible to see a world in which reproductive technologies increase the options of the privileged – gestate if you want, rent a surrogate or an artificial womb if you want – while doing nothing to raise the status of the most marginalised.
IVF, the pill, sterilisation, womb transplants and artificial wombs are not inherently anti-female; the problem is that economic and political power lies mostly with men, and with only a small proportion of highly privileged women. Of course the privileged will ask “what’s in it for me?” Of course their priority will be to use these things to their advantage. The priority for feminists needs to be to hang on to these possibilities while continuing to challenge the idea that those who (potentially) gestate are in all other ways inferior beings.
It’s easy to present feminists who want to talk about reproduction as luddites. They “reduce women to their biology, just like men’s rights activists”. Quite obviously we are more than our wombs. There’s a whole thinking, feeling, acting, unique person who just so happens to have been born with a uterus. But we still need to talk about the relationship between our social status and our potential reproductive role, not least because it’s of fundamental importance to a truly intersectional feminism. The regulation of female reproductive bodies has been used to maintain not just gender, but class and racial hierarchies. It needs to end.
Edna Adan Ismail is a midwife and campaigner. As a 12 year old growing up in British Somaliland, her dream was to build her own hospital. It took her some 50 years and all her savings to realise her ambition, and the state of the art hospital she built is a testament to her passion and dogged determination.
Nursing and midwifery have been her life since she won a scholarship to study in the UK in the mid-1950s, when she cycled to appointments in her black raincoat to deliver babies all around London. Married at one time to the prime minister of Somalia, she juggled the high profile role of First Lady with shifts at her local hospital. “I was born with this desire to fix things,” she says.
As her country’s first female foreign minister, she broke deep-rooted taboos by publicly condemning the widespread practice of female genital mutilation – FGM. Her opposition stems from personal experience – she was only eight years old when she endured the invasive procedure herself.
Now 80, she lives on site at her beloved hospital, where more than 22,000 babies have been born since it opened in 2002.
Woman on the Edge of Time was first published 40 years ago and begun three-and-a-half years before that.The early 1970s were a time of great political ferment and optimism among those of us who longed for change, for a more just and egalitarian society with more opportunities for all the people, not just some of them. Since then, inequality has greatly increased.
At the time I wrote this novel, women were making huge gains in control of their bodies and their lives. Not only has that momentum been lost, but many of the rights we worked so hard to secure are being taken from us by Congress and state legislatures every year.
But we must also understand that the attempt to take away a woman’s control over her body is part of a larger attempt to take away any real control from most of the population. Now, corporations and the very wealthy 1% control elections. Now, the media are propaganda machines and the only investigative reporting is on Comedy Central, HBO, or the web.
The powers that be have allowed for certain social rather than economic gains. We’ll soon finally have legalised marijuana and gay marriage in every state – but unions are being crushed and the safety net of the New Deal and the Johnson era is being abolished one law at a time, while women are forced into the back-alley abortions that once killed so many. We have made some social gains and many economic losses. The real earning power of working people diminishes every year.
During the heyday of the second wave of the women’s movement, a number of utopias were created (Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, James Tiptree’s Houston, Houston Do You Read?, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Elisabeth Mann Borgese’s My Own Utopia from The Ascent of Woman, and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground among them) and now they aren’t. Why? Feminist utopias were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable. Utopias came from the desire to imagine a better society when we dared to do so. When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in.
Writing about a strong community that socialises children and integrates old people is a response to women living in a society where a mother is often alone with her children and old women are treated just a step better than the excess pets executed daily in pounds and shelters.
We are ever more isolated from truly intimate contact with one another. Many men prefer pornography to actual sex, where they have to please a woman or must at least pretend to try.
I also wanted Woman on the Edge of Time to show an ecologically sound society. The lives and institutions and rituals of Mattapoisett all stress being a part of nature and responsible for the natural world. In imagining the good society, I borrowed from all the progressive movements of that time. Like most women’s utopias, the novel is profoundly anarchist and aimed at integrating people back into the natural world and eliminating power relationships. The nuclear family is rare in feminist utopias and banished from this novel.
I projected a society in which sex was available, accepted and non-hierarchical – and totally divorced from income, social status, power. No trophy wives, no closeting, no punishment or ostracism for preferring one kind of lover to another. No need to sell sex or buy it. No being stuck like my own mother in a loveless marriage to support yourself. In the dystopia in Woman on the Edge of Time, women are commodified, genetically modified and powerless.
I am also very interested in the socialising and interpersonal mechanisms of a society. How is conflict dealt with? Again, who gets to decide, and upon whose head and back are those decisions visited? How does that society deal with loneliness and alienation? How does it deal with getting born, growing up and learning, having sex, making babies, becoming sick and healing, dying and being disposed of? How do we deal with collective memories – our history – that we are constantly reshaping?
Utopia is born of the hunger for something better, but it relies on hope as the engine for imagining such a future. I wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete – that was the real genesis of Woman on the Edge of Time.
Marge Piercy, from her introduction to the new edition of Women on the Edge of Time (longer version here)
QotD: “The World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them – own their bodies”
[All] feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.
According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:
“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”
It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.
I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.
I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.
There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.
In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.
This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.
Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.
“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?
Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.
The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.
QotD: “For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free?”
For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.
QotD: “Paid surrogacy makes disadvantaged women into walking wombs – an unacceptable solution to infertility”
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?
Since the disgraceful Baby Gammy case last year, in which an Australian couple left a twin boy with his birth mother when it was discovered he had Down’s syndrome, Thailand has banned foreigners and same-sex couples from accessing surrogacy services. Now only married heterosexuals are allowed to use surrogates, with at least one of the couple required to be Thai. No one is allowed to gain financially from the transaction.
But will this shift in legislation put an end to the inherent abuse in what can be described as womb trafficking? I doubt it. In order to put a stop to this increasingly normalised practice, we need to understand the reality of what surrogacy entails.
Commercial surrogacy breeds exploitation, abuse and misery. Although the poster girl of surrogates is typically a white, blonde, smiling women who is carrying a baby in order to make a childless couple happy, the truth is far less palatable.
Women in the global south are often pimped by husbands and criminal gangs into renting their wombs to rich western couples. For women in India for example, this is a particular problem. I have interviewed rich, white British gay couples who told me they chose India for surrogacy services because it was considerably cheaper than the US (where the surrogacy business is booming), with one couple admitting it was reassuring that the women are required to live in a clinic for the duration of the pregnancy so they can be monitored by the “brokers” throughout.
Gestational surrogates are required to take Lupron, oestrogen and progesterone medication to help achieve the pregnancy, all of which treatments can have serious side effects.
Class and racial divisions between surrogates, egg donors and the intended parents are often stark. Surrogates tend to be working class and to have already had their own children, whereas the egg donor will likely be a college graduate from an upper-class background who is considered bright and attractive. They generally earn significantly more than the surrogates.
While the gestational surrogates tend to be poor women disadvantaged in many ways, egg donors are often chosen (from catalogues) for their “strong genes” and lack of mental and physical ill health in their lineage. The process is not that far removed from eugenics.
Many agree that it is unethical to buy and sell pregnancy but support what is known as altruistic surrogacy. This is where a friend, relative or kind stranger bears a child for an infertile woman or couple simply out of the goodness of her heart.
The argument goes that if we do not accept altruistic surrogacy and put measures in place to regulate it, we will drive commercial surrogacy underground. But the opposite is true. The legal sanctioning and social acceptance of this practice, even where no money changes hands, will further perpetuate the notion that the wombs of poor women can be used as a service.
As in Thailand, the law has been changed in India, another popular spot for British couples seeking commercial surrogacy. Now it is required that prospective parents looking to engage a surrogate must be a “man and woman [who] are duly married and the marriage should be sustained at least two years”.
Alongside many feminist and human rights campaigners, I wish to see an end to commercial surrogacy and a serious, honest discussion about the ethics of all forms of outsourcing pregnancy, particularly in a world awash with unwanted and neglected babies and children.
We also need to pose a challenge to the increasing numbers of gay men who think it perfectly acceptable to use the womb of a desperate woman in order to reproduce. Indeed, this method of making babies is fast becoming the number-one option for gay men, which means the practice will become more normalised, and be seen even as a “right” for those who cannot conceive in the traditional manner.
However, the Thai and Indian ban on same-sex couples from accessing surrogacy is nothing short of discrimination and anti-gay bigotry. An end to this harmful practice in all but private, one-to-one circumstances would be what true equality looks like.
hat something is not quite right about surrogacy has been evident for some time. Ever since the commercial surrogacy industry kicked off in the late 1970s, it has been awash with scandals, exploitation and abuse. From the infamous “Baby M” case – in which the mother changed her mind and was forced, in tears, to hand over her baby – to the Japanese billionaire who ordered 16 children from different Thai clinics. There has been a total commodification of human life: click; choose race and eye colour; pay, then have your child delivered.
Then there’s the recent case of the American surrogate mother who died; or the intended parents who refused to accept a disabled child and tried to get their surrogate to abort; not to mention the baby factories in Asia.
This week, Sweden took a firm stand against surrogacy. The governmental inquiry on surrogacy published its conclusions, which the parliament is expected to approve later this year. These include banning all surrogacy, commercial as well as altruistic, and taking steps to prevent citizens from going to clinics abroad.
This is a ground-breaking decision, a true step forward for the women’s movement. Initially divided on the issue women came together and placed the issue higher up on the agenda. Earlier in February, feminist and human-rights activists from all over the world met in Paris to sign the charter against surrogacy, and the European Parliament has also called on states to ban it.
The major objections to the Swedish report have come from intended fathers, saying that if a woman wants to be a surrogate, surely it is wrong to prevent her from doing so. It is telling that few women cry over this missed opportunity. It is, after all, demand that fuels this industry.
Surrogacy may have been surrounded by an aura of Elton John-ish happiness, cute newborns and notions of the modern family, but behind that is an industry that buys and sells human life. Where babies are tailor-made to fit the desires of the world’s rich. Where a mother is nothing, deprived even of the right to be called “mum”, and the customer is everything. The west has started outsourcing reproduction to poorer nations, just as we outsourced industrial production previously. It is shocking to see how quickly the UN convention on the rights of the child can be completely ignored. No country allows the sale of human beings – yet, who cares, so long as we are served cute images of famous people and their newborns?
To save surrogacy from accusations like this, some resort to talking of so-called “altruistic” surrogacy. If the mother is not being paid, there is no exploitation going on. Maybe she is doing it out of generosity, for a friend, a daughter or a sister.
The Swedish inquiry refutes this argument. There is no proof, says the inquiry, that legalising “altruistic” surrogacy would do away with the commercial industry. International experience shows the opposite – citizens of countries such as the US or Britain, where the practice of surrogacy is widespread, tend to dominate among foreign buyers in India and Nepal. The inquiry also says that there is evidence that surrogates still get paid under the table, which is the case in Britain. One cannot, says the inquiry, expect a woman to sign away her rights to a baby she has not even seen nor got to know yet – this in itself denotes undue pressure.
In any case, the notion of “altruistic” surrogacy – apart from being a red herring, since it barely happens in reality – has a very strange ideological underpinning. As if exploitation only consisted in giving the woman money. In that case, the less she is paid, the less she is exploited.
In reality, “altruistic” surrogacy means that a woman goes through exactly the same thing as in commercial surrogacy, but gets nothing in return. It demands of the woman to carry a child for nine months and then give it away. She has to change her behaviour and risk infertility, a number of pregnancy-related problems, and even death. She is still used as a vessel, even if told she is an angel. The only thing she gets is the halo of altruism, which is a very low price for the effort and can only be attractive in a society where women are valued for how much they sacrifice, not what they achieve.
India and Thailand do not want their female citizens to become the baby factories of the world. Now it is time for Europe to take responsibility. We are the buyers, we need to show solidarity and stop this industry while we can.
TRIGGER WARNING for child sex abuse
Collin Grant wishes he had never told anyone that his stepfather raped him.
Jimmy Don Mackey would hold Collin down, punch him in the back if he tried to move, and cover his mouth if he tried to scream. On one occasion, Jimmy Don duct-taped Collin’s mouth shut. He told Collin that if he ever disclosed the abuse to anyone, he would kill him.
Yet Collin eventually did tell the authorities in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, about Jimmy Don’s abuse. Collin testified about it in court, where it also emerged that Jimmy Don had repeatedly beaten his mother, Alishia Mackey. Jimmy Don pled guilty to rape, forcible sodomy, and other sex crimes, and was sent to prison.
Yet Collin’s mother was also sent to prison for failing to protect her son.
Jimmy Don got 15 years for raping Collin. For permitting the rape to happen, Collin’s mother got an even harsher sentence: 20 years.
As a 12-year-old recovering from repeated sexual abuse, Collin was cut off from his mother.
Today, Collin is 22. He said he misses his mom and believes she does not deserve to be in prison. She should be pardoned, he said.
He also wishes he had never come forward about what his stepfather was doing to him. “Honestly,” Collin told BuzzFeed News, “I would rather have gone through the abuse for the rest of my life.”
A recent BuzzFeed News investigation exposed cases in which mothers have been given sentences of up to life in prison for failing to protect their children from their violent partners — even when, as in Alishia’s case, there is evidence that the mother herself was battered.
In Texas, for example, Arlena Lindley was sentenced to 45 years, despite the fact that she tried to grab her 3-year-old son from her partner the day he beat the boy to death, and despite the fact that she herself had been beaten viciously for months. The prosecution said she should have called 911.
Collin Grant’s case illuminates what domestic violence advocates say is a different problem: the collateral damage to the children of mothers sent away to prison for years.
“What are we really doing on behalf of that child who is the victim of the crime?” said Deborah D. Tucker, executive director of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. “How is that” — imprisoning the mother — “helpful to them?”
At least 29 states have laws that explicitly criminalize parents’ failure to protect their children from abuse. In addition, prosecutors in at least 19 states can use other, more general laws against criminal negligence in the care of a child or placing a child in a dangerous situation.
Only a handful of state laws provide specific defenses for parents who reasonably feared they would be harmed if they stepped in to stop child abuse.
Many prosecutors defend the laws and the harsh sentences as sending a message that mothers must defend their children, even if their own safety is at risk. Domestic violence advocates counter that such sentences are unjust — and a sign that the criminal justice system does not understand how battering victimizes women.
Altogether, BuzzFeed News found 28 cases in which mothers were sentenced to at least a decade in prison despite evidence they themselves were victims of their violent partners. Alishia Mackey was one of those mothers. She was tried under Oklahoma’s “enabling child abuse” law, which has the same maximum sentence — life in prison — as actually committing child abuse.
Here is another example of how the idea that family courts favor mothers over fathers is a myth. It’s from a much longer piece on surrogacy, which is an interesting read in its own right, but not what I want to address here.
On 27 January 2014, baby M was born. She was conceived using an insemination kit bought over the internet. Her mother and father had been friends for many years. These are just about the only facts about this little girl on which her parents now agree. The names of the child and her parents cannot be published for legal reasons, but even the baby’s name is the subject of a dispute between her mother, S, and her father, H.
According to H, who is gay, he and his partner entered into a surrogacy arrangement with S. She had agreed to give the baby to them to raise. According to S, there was never any surrogacy agreement. Instead, she says that she and H – a friend for 25 years – had a co-parenting agreement, by which they would raise the child together, “like two heterosexual parents that have a child and are separated”.
Unsurprisingly, given the gulf between the two stories, the case eventually came to court when the child was 15 months old. The father and his partner were represented by a QC; the mother represented herself for most of the proceedings.
The judge, Ms Justice Russell, made it clear that although the issue to be decided was residency and contact arrangements for the child, not legal parentage, the determination of who was telling the truth was fundamental to any decision about the child’s best interests.
From the first day, S says, she felt the judge had already made up her mind: “The way she looked at me, the way she spoke with me… and then the way she looked at [H and his partner], spoke with them.”
After a five-day hearing, the judge sided with the father. Referring to a previous case of “insemination by surrogacy”, the judge said: “On the balance of probabilities… I find that S deliberately misled [H and his partner] in order to conceive a child for herself, rather than changing her mind at a later date.”
Although accepting that “S is able to care for M well physically”, the judge expressed concerns about her “overemotional and highly involved role in this infant’s life”, noting that S still breastfed M, carried her in a sling, and “does not set out any timetable for returning to work”. The judge ruled that the child should be removed from her mother, with full custody given to the father, and full parental rights to the father’s partner.
“I had to hand her over at the high court on the day of the judgment,” S says, crying. “No transition period, nothing. She was at home, so a friend had to bring her over to the high court, and I was absolutely terrified. I was sitting by the entrance, security guards were giving me tissues, and I was waiting for my friend and my baby. I breastfed her there, on a bench in the big hall in the high court. And then I was told I had to hand her over. My baby was asleep, and I was thinking, ‘What is she going to think when she wakes up?’”
Since that day, S has been allowed a short supervised visit with her child in a contact centre once a fortnight. “We play, she calls me Mummy. Then she is taken away, and she looks back at me, and I see she’s puzzled. It’s heartbreaking.”
The long-term impact of the child’s removal from her mother is acknowledged in the court judgment, but not dwelt upon: “M is very young and will settle quickly… Very sadly, this case is another example of how ‘agreements’ between potential parents reached privately to conceive children to build a family go wrong.”
Emphasis in red added by me. It shows that whatever a mother does, it will be wrong, even if in most other circumstances a mother would be condemned for not doing these things.