by Kashi Syal 

In September 2017, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West announced that their third child would be carried by a $45,000 surrogate. Only, it wasn’t West with whom the news outlets and search engines associated the surrogacy; rather, it was Kardashian who dominated the headlines. Likewise in 2009, Sarah Jessica Parker — not her famous husband Matthew Broderick— was the primary association to her surrogate mother. That the equally famous husbands of these women celebrities take a backseat in the media’s narrative surrounding their commercial surrogacy journey is indicative of the media’s investment in a cisheteronormative family structure. Gendered social and reproductive hierarchies according to which men are associated with being responsible for their family’s income, whilst women are deemed to contribute to reproductive needs within the home remain integral to and inform the surrogacy industry.

In this article, I aim to disseminate the problematic nature of Transnational Commercial Surrogacy (TCS) and explore the tensions between agency and exploitation. TCS conceptualises empowerment (of women) as self-reliance, self-confidence, and the social and economic movement out of poverty. However, this empowerment framework appropriates feminist language to the extent that the ‘Third World’ woman (black and brown women from the Global South are typically the surrogate mothers) has to align herself with Western market systems in order to demonstrate her “agency”. The concept of “choice” is not free from exploitation, and I argue that the systems put in place for TCS do not at all prioritise the women that surrogacy supposedly “empowers”.

However, TCS is only one type of surrogacy and the arguments against its use cannot be directly mapped on to altruistic and independent surrogacy arrangements (although there may be overlaps). It is difficult, also, to ascertain the success rate of surrogacy and the rubric for what makes a surrogacy “successful”. This is, in part, due to the gross lack of qualitative research centring the voice of the surrogates. The discourses that surround surrogacy are firmly rooted in binaries — with radical feminists and liberal feminists arguing about the bodies of women who are not platformed to speak for themselves.

Indeed, subalternity is an important denotation — who are these surrogates? Do they believe that being a surrogate moves them from personhood to commodities? Or do they believe that being a surrogate emphasises their freedom from patriarchy and helps them establish financial independence? Maybe, they just want to help a person or couple who want a baby but cannot have one. The silence surrounding these women’s stories and experiences underpin the critiques explored in this article.

Left-wing, Marxist and feminist discourses criticise TCS as being representative of how ‘regimes of inequality’ (Acker, 2006) structure work through patriarchal and colonial lenses. Whilst surrogate mothers are usually paid, according to this argument, much of the labour involved goes unrecognised and uncompensated. The surrogate mother, and her relationship with the baby that she carries, is ignored in much of the language of surrogacy. Frequently, the noun “mother” is disassociated from the phrase, so she becomes just the “surrogate”. Occasionally, more clinical terminology is used such as “host”, “carrier” or — as Nicole Kidman opted for — “gestational carrier”. When her womb is rented out, the surrogate mother’s reproductive rights are removed and a process of dehumanisation follows from her being seen as only a ‘carrier’. Ultimately, as a result of her body being objectified and commodified, the surrogate mother’s role in the birth of the child is undervalued.

TCS is an elite industry with first-time surrogates being paid US $45,000. Whilst this seems like a large lump sum, a surrogate works 24 hours a day for 9 months, this is approximately 46116 hours (not including delivery). This means that the surrogate mother earnt $8.93 an hour. Further, in some cases, the surrogate mother receives only a fraction of the total cost of the surrogacy and so this approximate hourly wage may be even lower. In her research, Jessica Peet revealed that whilst the total cost to the commissioning individuals averages US$45,000 the surrogate usually receives less than US$8,000. So, whilst TCS moves what has traditionally been considered reproductive activity into the productive economy and has added value to an act that has traditionally been devalued along with other forms of feminised labour, surrogates are not being remunerated enough.

To truly comprehend the exploitative and unethical dimensions of TCS, it is first necessary to situate the industry within the broader context of patriarchal capitalism. According to Iris Young (1980) the idea that the household and reproductive labour can remain outside of the capitalist economy is problematic because it reinforces dual-systems theory: the understanding that social power can be divided into parallel systems of gender oppression and economic exploitation to explain a woman’s position within a capitalist society. Whilst arguments around the agency of surrogates are important, if we allow TCS to be understood outside of the capitalist framework, then we fail to acknowledge how it has expanded to include the bodies of numerous disenfranchised and disadvantaged women.

Image credit: photo by deonblack on Unsplash

Evelyn Nakano Glenn argues that the racial-ethnic hierarchies that arise in domestic service arrangements such as surrogacy, parallel the hierarchies that exist within our institutional frameworks such as capitalism and patriarchy, where paid reproductive labour is also performed. She shows that despite the large-scale historical transformation of paid reproductive labour from a model of “servitude” to one of “service work” (another example of artificial agency!), the relegation of the “dirty work” to racial-ethnic women has remained remarkably consistent (Glenn, 1992: 23). Glenn stipulates that whilst reproductive tasks have been removed from the household and performed within publicly organised institutions, racial-ethnic women have continued to perform roles that are coded as “dirty back-room” work (maids, janitors/cleaners, kitchen workers, nurse’s aides) whereas white women maintain more public and supervisory positions such as waitresses, transportation attendants, cosmetologists, and dental assistants (1992: 20). By illustrating how the shift from “servitude” to “service work” is primarily performed by racial-ethnic women, Glenn challenges the dismissal of the role that gender and race play within the productive- reproductive continuum and labour market inequalities (1992).

These “back room” jobs are representative of how women of colour are simultaneously hypervisible and invisible. The work that is more visible and public tends to be more dominated by white people, whilst racial-ethnic workers are disproportionately represented amongst those workers who remain more invisible. Similarly, the surrogate mother is both hypervisible (by virtue of being pregnant), and invisible — especially if she is surrogate to a celebrity because of imposed confidentiality agreements.

In “A Womb That Is (Not Always) One’s Own”, Peet reveals that commercial surrogacy targets the poorest women to exploit. Financially vulnerable women from the Global South are prime targets for surrogacy recruitment and exploited by their agents and put under extreme surveillance. These women are given contracts in English, subjected to non-consensual medical procedures, forced abortions and restricted to maternity homes with no running water or heatSurrogates from the West also have been trapped in iron-clad contracts and been exploited by wealthy couples.

Peet uses Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ (2010) explanation of the organ trade to create an understanding that the established socio-economic hierarchies result in the trade of organs and bodies following the ‘established routes of capital from South to North, poorer to more affluent bodies, from Black and brown bodies to white ones’ (2010: 93). This argument is discredited by many feminist scholars, such as Pragya Agarwal who suggests that this vision of surrogacy reduces commercial surrogates to “mascots” to campaign against work that is perceived as “unnatural and exploitative.” But even if we adhere to the idea that a rejection of TCS is to reinforce a monolithic version of womanhood and fertility, commercial surrogacy still also reinforces global hierarchies of gender, race, and class. This means that the value that is added to pregnancy is undermined due to the ways in which it exists within exploitative socioeconomic contexts. These socioeconomic barriers are particularly prominent in India, where the combination of domestic factors and transnational attention has made TCS an important part of the Indian economy because reproductive tourists know that Indian women’s reproductive labour is cheaper than that of their American counterparts (Peet, 2016).

The sexual division of labour in patriarchal capitalism and the “feminisation of poverty” means that a TCS contract will appear financially attractive to poor women with the payment being marginal compared to the time invested in the service. The formal language of the contracts in addition to cultural barriers often discourage these women from reporting exploitation or seeking help, which, in turn, restricts the surrogate mother’s understanding of what they have signed and any information on regulations that could have protected them (Peet, 2016).

In her book, Full Surrogacy Now, Sophie Lewis suggests that instead of damning TCS we should treat all motherhood as a consequence of capitalism and worthy of appropriate remuneration. Within prevailing reproductive regimes, neither TCS nor other forms of motherhood are appropriately remunerated. Whilst both are undervalued, however, TCS is a more visible disregard of the work of reproduction due to its existence within exploitative, international commercial demand chains.

TCS is an example of how the devalorisation of feminised labour extends beyond households to all “feminised” work. Gender is not static: it is relational and consists of various power relations that are contextual. Contextually, TCS exists within a hierarchical codification that celebrates work that is associated with masculinity and belittles work that is associated with femininity. Patriarchal capitalism has normalised gender coding, with women’s work being coded as reproductive: natural, unskilled, voluntary, and not worth counting economically. By assigning privilege processes associated with masculinity over processes that are identified as feminine, gender permeates language and ideology — dictating and influencing how we act. This is why the exploitation of surrogate mothers can occur, because motherhood and reproductive labour is devalued by those who can afford to commodify it.

Kashi holds an MSc in Gender, Policy and Inequalities from LSE and a BA in English and Russian Literatures from the University of Toronto. Her main research interests are diasporic poetry, ecoliterature and the gendered nation, queer racialisation, and existing in a liminal state of in-betweenness. Outside of academia, Kashi enjoys early mornings, big cities, and rambling voicenotes. Sometimes she listens to stories, and sometimes she tells them.