On Body Politics, Agency, & Outsourcing Surrogacy

Bodies are often a source of uncertainty and anxiety, ranging from the daily/mundane (exercise/training, indigestion) to middlingly worrisome (medical worries) to imminent danger (near-death experiences, pregnancy scares).  The most interesting (and often overpowering) source of bodily anxiety relates to morality, particularly one group imposing a particular morality upon another group.  You can probably guess where this is going:

Women’s bodies have historically been a huge source of anxiety.  A great deal of that likely comes from protecting family lines vis-à-vis virginity/virtue, as well as keeping groups separate, and ideas of (im)purity and liminality that surround menstruation and pregnancy.  Women have largely been denied agency over their own bodies–and I’m not just talking about reproductive rights, but treatment of women as property to be traded.  I know, I know, you’re probably thinking,  “that’s from ages ago, it’s a part of history that is mostly eradicated.”  And you’d be mostly right.  But you’d also be very wrong.

It wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape was criminalized in all 50 states.  In 1962 the Model Penal Code included this gem:  “A male who has sexual intercourse with a female not his wife is guilty of rape if: (…)

That’s right.  You had to have non-consensual intercourse with a woman you were not married to for it to be legally considered rape.

But what does this have to do with morality?

One of the ways women’s bodies have been controlled has been by tying together ideas of morality, honor, purity, and virtue.  We hear this argument all the time, about the double standard between sexually promiscuous men seen as “studs” and equally promiscuous women, “sluts.”  But these notions run much deeper than we’d likely think, were we to think of them at all.  Something that doesn’t get talked about when discussing patriarchal systems and historical methods of oppressing women is the fact that much of the world’s ideas of morality are steeped in Judeo-Christian roots.  As an American, I am inherently culturally learned in these religious ideals of morality–despite the fact that I am not religious myself.  But at the same time that people readily agree that these religions have historically been patriarchal, we don’t talk about our morality as also being inherently patriarchal.  Our ideas of morality are so intertwined with these religious roots (and attitudes of colonialism), but we don’t think of morality as being another thing that we learn and act out.  And we don’t think of it as a tool we use to control others.

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Lucretia commits suicide after her rape. She would later (and for centuries) be hailed as a paradigm of womanly virtue and chastity, who would kill herself rather than live sullied. “Death of Lucretia.” By Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591 – 1666) (Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Zakiya Luna and Kristin Luker address the differing ways white women and women of color’s bodies are policed, in their article, “Reproductive Justice” (2013).

“An RJ analysis takes into consideration that the right to have a child and the right to parent are as important as the right to not have children.”

Much in the same way that feminism historically catered to middle-class white women, the reproductive justice movement has unfortunately let the needs of other women fall by the wayside.  It’s the usual tale of the voices heard the loudest, and those are usually white.  That’s not to say that the RJ or feminist movements are intentionally exclusionary, but likely unaware.

“As affluent White activists pressed the cause for increased access to both birth control and abortion—that is, for reproductive rights that would enable women to not have children— many poor women, women with disabilities, and women of color struggled for the rights to have children and to parent the children they had, a concern little noticed by the mainstream reproductive rights advocates.”

Luna and Luker also discuss access to assisted reproductive technology (ART), such as in-vitro fertilization or surrogacy.  Here is where I absolutely differ from their argument, I have what I would surmise is a fairly common opinion in the general public, and a racially-charged, class-biased opinion in many other groups.  I sympathize with the idea of restricting ART from poorer families.  Firstly, I think Luna and Luker’s argument is similar to the “add women and stir” ideas of combating sexism; it’s not getting to the root of the problem.  The problem isn’t that poor people don’t have access to reproductive technology, it’s the racial and gender (et. al.) divides that keep middle-class white people and the affluent in power.  It’s that women of color are more likely to live in poverty.  It’s that immigrants are more likely to live in poverty.  I don’t think that these people should be denied having children and parenting the children they have, but I also don’t think that people who cannot afford children should be given access to technology that makes it more likely for them to have multiple births.  Of course I question whether my attitudes are classist and racist, but I also wonder if there’s some truth to this.

The thing is, I firmly believe that there isn’t a Universal Right to Have Offspring; I don’t think that by virtue of being born, we are all entitled to procreate.  This is NOT to say that I believe in policing or restricting people’s reproductive choices, I am absolutely not informed enough to make any sort of claim that I know what others should do.  But this (sort of) brings me to my next question:


A scene from the Ramdayana: Sīta undergoing the ordeal by fire to prove her chastity after she was abducted and held for a year by Ravana. Though she is proven virtuous, her husband later banishes her to avoid the shadow of doubt from his subjects questioning her chastity.

Is it ethically responsible to outsource surrogacy to India (in its current state, with no universal campaigns and wildly varied oversight)?  Read Outsourcing A Life by Stephanie M. Lee for an idea of what surrogacy in India looks like.  This is where the question of agency comes in.  I am all for listening to what people are actually saying, such as when the Vietnamese sex workers Kimberly Hoang studies ask her to go back to America and tell people to stop trying to save them.  So if these Indian women have decided that the labor they do is worth the money they are paid, who am I to question them?  On the other hand, I question if they are informed enough, paid enough, treated well, know what they’re getting into.  Is my attitude colonial/salvific, am I denying women agency over their own bodies and lives, or am I making good points?  After all, I argue against many feminists who conflate sex work with human trafficking, and I certainly get frustrated with questioning whether sex workers simply reify a sexist paradigm of women as objects.  I am very much a sex-positive feminist, but that doesn’t mean I am unconcerned with the ramifications and unintended consequences from actions.

So, what do you think?  Is outsourcing surrogacy to India ethically/morally problematic?  Is it another instance of exploitation, or is it no different than other bodily labor?  Does everyone have a right to have children, even to the extent of having to use ART?

Two notes:  I’m not talking about ‘body politics’ in terms of nations, but in the ways bodies are governed/regulated/controlled—see here.)  You may have noticed that I’m skipping over most of these issues as they related to slavery and current treatment of black men (and women) as I don’t think I have enough knowledge to delve into these topics appropriately.

Zakiya Luna and Kristin Luker “Reproductive Justice” (2013).  Annu. Rev. Law. Soc. Sci. 2013.9:327-352. Downloaded from http://www.annualreviews.org Access provided by University of California – Berkeley on 04/13/15. For personal use only.

Amrita Pande.  “Commercial Surrogacy in India: Manufacturing a Perfect Mother-Worker.”  Signs:  Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2010, vol. 35, no. 4.


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