Womb for rent

Is selling your baby-making ability empowering if it means escaping extreme poverty?

Published January 4, 2008 7:49PM (EST)

If you have the emotional space today for but one bleak glimpse at the state of women's global rights, get your fill at Judith Warner's corner of the New York Times. In her latest column, Warner delicately explores the moral complexity of India's $445 million-a-year surrogacy industry. Instead of making sweeping declarations about the exploitative nature of so-called womb rental, she carefully traffics in the subjective:

"What's going on in India ... feels like a step toward the kind of insane dehumanization that filled the dystopic fantasies of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' and Margaret Atwood's 'Handmaid's Tale,'" she writes. "Images of pregnant women lying in rows, or sitting lined up, belly after belly, for medical exams look like industrial outsourcing pushed to a nightmarish extreme. I say 'feels like' and 'look like' because I can't quite bring myself to the point of saying 'is.'"

Indeed, we revolt at that sort of dystopic imagery of women a world away being rendered into baby-making machines. Yet surrogacy in the United States is often framed as a heartwarming, altruistic pursuit. "One of the ways that surrogacy survives here is under cover of the fiction that the women who bear other women's babies do so not for the money -- which would be degrading -- but because they 'love to be pregnant,'" Warner writes. The implicit question: Is selling your body empowering if it means escaping extreme third-world poverty?

That's exactly why Warner goes only so far as to say the practice "feels" degrading. After all, surrogates make $6,000 to $10,000 per pregnancy -- that's more than a decade's worth of more traditional work. That can translate into homeownership, healthcare, education -- you name it. I'll leave you with her deft conclusion, but do read the refreshingly nuanced piece in its entirety:

"In an awful world, where many women are in awful circumstances, how do you single out for condemnation an awful-seeming transaction that yields so much life betterment? Maybe when greater steps are taken toward improving international adoption procedures, maybe when more substantive steps are taken to improve the health, status and education of women world-wide, it'll be easier to say with a clear conscience that what feels like callous exploitation really is just that."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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