Is Surrogacy Anti-Feminist?

This morning I read an article about the regulation of and growing demand for surrogacy. For gay or infertile couples, surrogacy is the best way for parents to have biologically related children. But surrogacy contracts have the potential to be legal minefields—coercion, conflicts of interest, or either party withdrawing from the contract is nuanced and tricky territory. Restrictions in the US, UK, and Australia have driven prospective families to look for surrogates in India, Nepal, and Thailand, where there are fewer regulations. 

Oddly, the religious right and left-wing feminists are in consensus on this issue—or, at least in their opposition to it. The Catholic Church sees surrogacy as a failure of responsible motherhood and conjugal procreation, while many feminists believe that the act of surrogacy positions women as baby-making machines. Both sides essentially view surrogacy as unnatural and unethical.

From my perspective, the left-wing view that surrogacy equates women with their reproductive value is ironically paternalistic. Limiting an individuals choices for their own body based on a narrow definition of what is “in their best interest” is just another arm of the patriarchy. It is the cultural equivalent of a father policing what his teenage daughter wears because he doesn’t want her to be objectified. 

Bodily autonomy is at the core of my feminist values. As long as someone isn’t causing harm to themselves or others, they should have jurisdiction over their own body. 

With surrogacy, there is justified concern about coercion and exploitation, but I think this is a problem of human trafficking and not of surrogacy itself. (I want to acknowledge that human trafficking is a serious problem and I am in no way minimizing it, but is another topic for a later post.)

A history of exploitation, classism, and racism informs the current landscape of surrogacy. This looks different in the US than it does abroad. It is far easier to exploit poor women in less-developed nations. But if I argue that American women should be able to be surrogates and that foreign women shouldn’t (because I’m trying to “protect” them), then I am approaching surrogacy in the same paternalistic way that frustrates me. 

I like to think that better regulation in the US could address this problem. Laws that highlight informed consent or independent evaluation of surrogacy candidates to ensure a full understanding of the process and the risks involved are steps to combat coercion. But the fact remains that hiring a surrogate in the US is twice as expensive as hiring a surrogate abroad, so there is still incentive to seek out surrogates from countries where there is less regulation. This is starting to change, though, as other countries are beginning to adopt more stringent regulatory practices. 

I wonder, though, if a woman in the US who had financial security would pursue surrogacy? Frankly, barring altruistic surrogacy for family members, I have a hard time imagining that people choose surrogacy for non-financial reasons. In this context, then, the rich are essentially renting the bodies of the poor. This is a significant structural problem, but is it a problem of surrogacy or of capitalism? Is there a difference?

From a practical perspective, banning things only drives them underground. Essentially, the purpose of law is to maintain a safe and peaceful society, not to enforce a moral position. There are structural problems with surrogacy, but banning it only serves to amplify them. If surrogacy is banned, the risk of exploitation is higher because surrogates have no legal recourse if they are not compensated or if the hiring party changes the terms of the informal contract. Alternately, the surrogate might change their mind, in which case the hiring party would have no legal right to their child or would have to fight for joint-custody—a difficult situation to explain when you have hired an illegal surrogate. Having regulations in place establishes a legal framework that aims to protect all parties.

The question of whether surrogacy is anti-feminist reminds me of a woman I know who claimed that deciding to take her husband’s last name was a feminist act. I don’t think taking her husband’s name is inherently feminist, or what you can maybe think of as “capital-F” Feminist. But! Her willing and independent choice to take her husband’s last name is a “lowercase-f” feminist act because she is exercising her own choice and autonomy. 

I willingly and independently shave my legs, but I’m aware of the patriarchal conditioning that has shaped that preference—it is my choice but it is not “capital-F” Feminist. I feel similarly about plastic surgery. I think someone who decides to get a nose job or breast implants or vaginal rejuvenation is influenced by patriarchal standards of beauty, but I also think it is an empowering choice to do something that makes you feel more confidant. It’s not Feminist but it’s feminist. Ya know?

Obviously, there isn’t actually a “capital-F” Feminist. There’s no universal doctrine or prescribed way to practice feminism and it means different things to different people. My point is that, yes, surrogacy has the potential to be problematic. For some people, it might reinforce patriarchal ideas of gender roles and, in some cases, it might exploit marginalized groups. But it can also be seen as a subversion of capitalism by allowing individuals to profit in unconventional ways. Or as a way to encourage divergent family structures that break away from heteronormative molds. 

Ultimately, I think whether something is feminist is often less about what it is and more about how you do it. 


What do you think? What does “anti-feminist” mean to you?