Womb rental akin to prostitution, campaigners say; women, babies exploited in surrogacy

Photo: Unsplash/Michalina | Photo: Unsplash/Michalina

WASHINGTON — The renting of wombs, known as surrogacy, is akin to prostitution and the exploitation done to women often go unrecognized by the public, campaigners opposed to the practice say.

"A surrogate pregnancy is, naturally, a high-risk pregnancy," as a result of all of the medical technologies and drugs needed to make one happen, said Jennifer Lahl in her remarks at the Heritage Foundation Monday during a panel on the casualties of surrogacy.

"A woman's body is not designed to carry another woman's baby," Lahl said.

Yet surrogacy is almost always heralded as a beautiful, wonderful thing, she said, glamorized in the media by Hollywood celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Kim Kardashian. The reality of surrogacy, however, is a multitude of health risks and psychological and medical harms.

Lahl is the founder of the California-based Center for Bioethics and Culture and an advocate for women who have been exploited in commercially contracted pregnancies, which are often transnational. 

"If you want to get a new puppy or a new cat, a baby kitten, it is required — it is actually seen as cruelty to animals and inhumane to remove that newborn animal from its mother. You have to wait six to eight weeks by law in the state of California to adopt a puppy or a little baby kitten."

"As a pediatric nurse, I know that maternal-child bonding is good, normal, and natural, and encouraged — except where surrogacy ignores and waves all those important bonds away with the narrative being 'the kids are all right.'"

Exploitation and abuse of women who agree to be surrogates receive no critical attention in media outlets or by government bodies, she said, even when horrors such as death happen.

When Brook Brown, a surrogate mother, died along with the twins she was carrying as a result of a pregnancy complication called placental abruption, Lahl wrote the Idaho attorney general's office and the media but received no response.

"Brook's body, which had carried her own three children to term and then five surrogate babies, was put at high risk, something her doctors and the fertility industry surely knew," Lahl said.

"We have no business ethically, morally, or as a matter of principle building a multi-billion dollar industry on the backs of the health and well-being of women and children."

Surrogacy is also increasingly seen as an LGBT rights issue because the practice allows homosexual couples to obtain children. Pushes to legalize the practice in various U.S. states are strongly backed by LGBT rights groups.

Critics of the practice from within LGBT ranks are bullied, noted Gary Powell, a British gay rights activist who spoke on the panel Monday. Powell is a member of the Tories, the conservative political party in England and is currently serving as the district councilor in Aylesbury, England.

"I don't want my community to be supporting something as harmful and exploitative as surrogacy," Powell remarked, noting that he opposes every form of it.

"I also fear that the LGBT community is being used by the surrogacy industry to legitimize its activities in general. Over time, I've become increasingly alienated by the developments in the LBGT rights movement and it now has some campaign objectives such as championing surrogacy and I simply can't support."

The contemporary LBGT movement has become authoritarian and its media outlets maintain a hardliner approach, telling gays and lesbians what they have to support, believe and call themselves. Dissenting from the narrative enforced by the LGBT subculture carries steep consequences, even "mobbing," Powell said.

"The LGBT media almost always presents surrogacy as a beautiful, harmless and an irreproachable vehicle for gay men to have children," he said, adding that the harms are never considered.

"It feels like there's an LGBT Ministry of Truth somewhere that monitors, punishes and eliminates thought crime."

When Powell speaks out against the practice he is often called a bigot, homophobe and "Uncle Tom." While not opposed to same-sex parenting per se, he maintained that surrogacy cannot be a "right" for LGBT persons because there is no universal right to be parents and because women are children are commodified and instrumentalized in these arrangements.

Praising the Trump administration's call for the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide, the English activist stressed that the gay rights movement was too important to be tarnished with an association with the campaign to legalize and legitimize surrogacy. The surrogacy agencies stand to benefit significantly from the legalization of the practice, their attorneys and physicians.

"There's a ton of money to be made," he added, and it is the LGBT rights movement that is doing the heavy lifting to normalize the practice.

Thus, once it is established as a legal right anyone who opposes it is homophobic, he explained.

"Like the sale of human organs, it is a practice that should be banned worldwide in all its forms."

Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and the founder of the San Francisco-based Prostitution Research & Education, noted that several parallels exist between prostitution and surrogacy, particularly how these issues are framed with deceptive language.

"Words matter," Farley stressed. "Let's not turn her into the harm that is done to her."

"We call her a battered woman, not a batteree. We call her a woman in prostitution, not a prostitute. And she's a birth mother, not a surrogate."

Euphemisms, like "sex work" or "compensated dating" when referring to prostitution and "reproductive work" or a "labor of love" in reference to surrogacy, camouflage what are actually human rights violations, she explained. In both contexts, women are described as what is being bought.

Among the terms women who participate in surrogacy arrangements are routinely called are: "an incubator," "a suitcase," "a bearer," "an oven" and "a surrogate."

"This denies her humanity by commodifying her and ignoring the fact that she is a medical patient with a high-risk pregnancy," Farley asserted.

"It's not buying a baby," she said, quoting a surrogacy lawyer. "It's buying a receptacle."

A medical article she referenced described a surrogate mother as the "woman attached to the rented womb" and the procured child as "the tenant."

"In surrogacy, a woman's self-definition as altruistic and nurturing is exploited for the benefit of others. This is codified in the notion of the contented breeder."

Likewise, in prostitution, she continued, a woman's self-definition is similarly exploited and is codified in the idea of a "happy hooker."

But both prostitution and surrogacy are sexist institutions where women are bought for either sexual pleasure or reproduction, she stressed.

"Women are seen as objects in the marketplace while at the same time that reality is denied and she is said to have made 'a choice' to sell her 'services,' not her body."

"The argument goes like this: She's been compensated for her choice to make money by using her body in a way that benefits the womb renters or sex buyers. What is ignored is the context that limits women's options. Women make the choices that are available to them as women in a male-dominated social and economic system," she said, noting that the desires of the sex buyers and purchasing parent are prioritized.

She cited the comment of a surrogacy apologist who justifies the practice, saying, "Exploitation should be allowed because the exploitees are better with it than without it."

Farley went on to highlight how fertility agencies manipulate public perceptions of the practice to avoid being challenged by feminists who oppose them. The surrogacy operators screen out candidates and require those signing up to become a surrogate to state that they enjoy being pregnant and feel an impulse to help others have a child so as to make it seem like this is an empowering choice for women.

But that masks what the agencies are truly all about, she said: making money.

"Physicians in surrogacy agencies often do not follow accepted medical guidelines," Farley said, pointing to a 2017 report found that the total number of embryos transferred into wombs of surrogate mothers exceeded those guidelines in the majority of cases.

What is also normalized in prostitution and surrogacy is dissociation and disconnection from the body, Farley pointed out, drawing upon her background in psychology.

"A split between mind and body is really a necessary part of survival in both situations. An intimate part of a woman's self, her autonomous sexuality, or her intimate connection with a child in a womb are separated from the rest of her being."

Such is the message women who are paid to rent out their uteruses internalize, and the grief symptoms the birth mothers experience when they give up the child to the intended parents are immense, she noted.

"If you've ever heard cows or sheep after their calves and lambs have been sent to market, then you might have an idea what this grief feels like," Farley said.

"Exploiters and predators thrive in the face of indifference and ignorance. The less people know about surrogacy and prostitution, the more that void can be filled with lies."

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