When Western women rent other women’s wombs to carry their children, it undermines the unifying potential of the reproductive commons
There were once two New Jersey doctors named Stern, one of whom—a biochemist—lost his family to the Holocaust and desperately wished to procreate. But the other, his pediatrician wife, could not safely conceive. This, at least, is the scenario laid out in the 1989 ABC TV true-life docudrama, Baby M, a sensationalized recounting of the Sterns’ employment of high school dropout Mary Beth Whitehead. In what is now called a traditional surrogacy agreement, Whitehead, a working-class woman from Brick Township, New Jersey, signed up to be the genetic mother of the Sterns’ child.
Whitehead agreed to have her womb implanted with Dr. Bill Stern’s sperm in 1986 to “give the gift of life” in exchange for $10,000 ($21,000 today, adjusted for inflation). She needed the money to keep her two pubescent children clothed and fed, as her husband’s work as a garbage collector hardly constituted a “family wage.”
The M in Baby M, the first surrogacy court case to thrill the nation, stood for Melissa, the name the Sterns gave to the baby. Whitehead, for her part, “kidnapped” the baby back shortly after birth and had the child baptized with a different name, Sara Whitehead.
The surrogate had absconded, had changed her mind about relinquishing Baby M, or S, to its IPs—“intended parents” in surrogacy-industry lingo. Whitehead had resorted to cold-calling the Sterns with suicidal and infanticidal threats. Soon, there was a warrant out for her arrest, heralding a full-blown woman hunt. Whitehead and her husband’s assets were frozen. The baby was counter-kidnapped—reappropriated—by the FBI, and after a years-long court battle, Whitehead got only very limited visitation rights.
These state interventions earned Whitehead considerable, albeit two-faced, support from the media. The French translation for the TV movie was L’Instinct d’une mère (“A Mother’s Instinct”), a phrase that must have been particularly galling for the real-life Betsy Stern, whom the film depicts moping over a fully kitted-out bourgeois baby bedroom. Headlines included: housewife rejects $10,000, wants daughter instead (Washington Post); baby m tests fight between love and law (Sunday Times); plea by baby m’s mother is recalled (New York Times); just wanted my child, surrogate mother says (Washington Post); birth changed my mind, says surrogate mother (Courier-Mail); and giving up baby like losing arm (Sydney Morning Herald).
In Baby M, Mary Beth is shown learning about the idea of surrogacy from her TV screen. She hears a woman in an advertisement gushing: “There are people who walk on the moon or discover a cure for some disease or get elected to Congress. I can’t do any of those things. But I am a woman. And I’m healthy. And I can carry a baby. That, right now, is more important than an IQ of 180.”
By the time Mary Beth asks herself for whom she is working, it’s too late: A job she cannot halt, nor sabotage without hurting herself, has been initiated.
For Mary Beth Whitehead in 1986, surrogacy had proved self-annihilating; the worker’s relation to the fetus intensified through workplace rebellion. On screen, history’s first notable commercial surrogate exceeded the gynophobic discipline of the witch hunt. Whitehead cannily deployed maternity’s mystique of being more than a contract against the liberal patriarchy’s judicial righteousness and invoked a necro-political kind of counterpower. At the melodramatic apex of Baby M, a shadowy Mary Beth whispers down the phone: “I gave her life. I can take her life away. That’s what I’m going to do, Bill … Why do you keep saying ‘my’, ‘my’, ‘my’, ‘my’? She’s our baby. Say it. Our baby!”
Whatever one may think of Whitehead as hammily fictionalized terrorist, her assertion of control over her living product deftly exposes the stakes of reproductive laborers’ oppression. It is a grim political field in which babies are bargained or blackmailed with seeming inevitability. After all, for surrogates to withdraw labor, to suspend production is to kill. The life-or-death entanglements of conception, birth, and kinship are thus a partially unenclosed commons, a source of joy yet to be penetrated fully by the market, and the very building blocks of private property and the work ethic.
But that commons is under assault. Today, surrogacies in the U.S. are managed by profitable “voluntary” clinic-agencies speaking the language of the “gift.” The labor (no pun intended) that commercial surrogates perform in the U.S. is not legally recognized as work but as volunteerism, though surrogacies cost at least four times the 1986 sum—whether they be traditional, in which the surrogate is impregnated with a client’s sperm, or, as is increasingly the case, gestational, in which an in-vitro-fertilized embryo is transferred to the surrogate’s womb. Strict means-testing is used to assess a surrogate’s independent wealth, purporting to check for authentic “voluntariness.” This effectively bars working-class American women from entering surrogacy agreements. The U.S. surrogacy industry prefers to cast surrogacy as akin to basket-weaving or amateur pottery, not assembly-line factory work.
In India, the reverse is true. There are upwards of 3,500 so-called womb farms in the country, in which conscripted women offer the vital force of black flesh considered untouchable at home to incubate white children destined to be shipped back to Denmark, Israel, or the U.S. It’s a “purely economic arrangement” with a “mere vessel,” explains Dominic and Octavia Orchard of Oxfordshire, UK, a commissioning couple featured in the Daily Mail in 2012. To couples like these, surrogates are presented as transnational reproductive-service workers, their job description posted online and accompanied by detailed terms of service.
So forget the hysteric Mary Beth Whitehead! $10,000 to $50,000 now “buys” someone who is pretty, professionally inert, grateful for economic opportunity, stringently surveilled, and contractually guaranteed not to smoke, drink, or have sex with her (mandatory) husband—nor run around after her (mandatory) pre-existing kids—throughout the nine-month job. Unlike the traditional surrogate of yore who “gave up” the baby, the commercial gestational surrogate biologically abdicates claims to the child.
Blogs proliferate with personal surrogacy accounts, mostly couples, plus a few single fathers: Chai Baby, Baby Masala, She Wasn’t the Mother, She was Just the Stork, Our Journey to India, and so on. A gay couple in Seattle tweeted a montaged video of their journey to Delhi to meet their newborn twins, in which the birth mother was neither figured nor alluded to. The Switzers, a middle-class Texas couple in the documentary Made in India (Haimowitz and Sinha, 2010), receive a sonogram by email and erupt in tearful jubilation.
Made in India makes much of the charmingly ingenuous, veiled, illiterate Aasia, a prospective slum surrogate, who initially laughs at the Switzers’ proxy proposition, perhaps because, as in most Indian surrogacy contracts, the money her body’s fertility would earn her ($7,000) would in fact keep her at the poverty line in the medium term. But her breathless discovery of science’s miracles form part of her accession to self-responsible entrepreneurship and neoliberal subjectivity. “I didn’t believe … ! A child without … [back-and-forth hand gestures] a man!? How could a child be conceived…?” The subtitles for Aasia’s speech convey her profound happiness at the opportunity to sacrifice for her own children’s better tomorrow—the same motive Whitehead had.
A notable number of surrogates cite their own kids as their direct motivation for entering surrogacy agreements. In what Silvia Federici has dubbed the new international division of labor, we thus find reproductive labor within reproductive labor, kids born under multimillion-dollar medical scrutiny so that other kids, born as a populational “surplus,” may barely live.
The new international division of labor describes the redistribution of reproductive work that has divided potential gendered allies by conscripting migrant and subaltern classes of women in the service of metropolitan, citizen, and bourgeois women.
Assistive reproductive work as it’s regulated today appears to be not only outside women’s control but actively corrosive to the possibility of surrogate mother–midwife solidarity: Each role becomes professionalized and narrowed, precluding alliances and shared responsibilities that undergird gender as a form of class-consciousness. The redistribution of baby-carrying creates new and deeper divisions among women, strengthening hierarchies inherent to the original sexual division of labor.
The divisiveness of surrogacy is masked with social tropes lauding the entrepreneurial “creativity” of the practice as nothing less than a sisterly form of practiced feminism. In the U.S., surrogates can rate in online forums the experience of commercially gestating a particular individual’s sperm (or given couple’s zygote). Can you recommend acting as “surro-mama” to the Duchamps, or can’t you? What was donor so-and-so’s sperm like, how did the child turn out? Yet marketized in this way, all gestators become strangely un-creative: discursively degraded as undifferentiated or machinic. Be it one womb or another that is fed with a given informational blueprint, the industry assures customers that the result will be the same.
The surrogacy industry in the West trades on a well-worn and powerfully gendering dyad, the idea of “doing it for love” rather than “for money.” For example, the Center for Surrogate Parenting showcases videos of “Breena, Maine” or “Rebecca, California” insisting beatifically that “I enjoy being pregnant.” “It’s a calling in life.” “I feel blessed that as a couple you would trust me to take care of something so precious,” and so on. But most tellingly, the script now emphasizes: “I’m not giving anything away: I’m giving something back that they were so gracious as to allow me to spend nine months with.” For love, not money, then, insofar as it’s Breena instead of Aasia.
Yet at the same time, this is love cocooned in a contract and so, it whispers reassuringly, it operates for money, too—not love. Surrogacy breaks those boundaries entirely, commoditizing affective labor that formerly belonged to the commons, and rendering real love—particularly between women separated by social class and geography—all but impossible.
Sadly, the “reproductive commons from below”—the revolutionary collective reclamation of life’s labors to which Federici calls us—cannot be announced and sustained simply through the recognition of a tiny singularity in the fetus, or through the mere belief that a utopian nonpossessive web of nurture ought to spring up spontaneously around it. The truth was that the Sterns and Whiteheads would not freely associate after the birth. They could not agree on who it was they were even fighting for. And outsourcing gestation across oceans makes any sort of continual association over a child near impossible.
Just as “wages for housework” is a struggle against both housework and the wage relation, disobedient surrogacy implies the valuation of the vital embodied processes of child bearing and then, necessarily, a revolt against value itself. In Baby M, Whitehead’s words—“That’s what I’m going to do, Bill”—open the question of whether well-worn labor strategies of striking and organizing can be transposed from the office or factory floor to the maternity ward or the newborn’s body. In forcing the father to say “our” instead of “my,” the surrogate confronts the proprietary character of the haloed liberal nuclear family with the idea of a reproductive commons from below.
Because women’s bodies are squatted by biocapital in fetal form, women’s struggles for freedom will, heartbreakingly, come into conflict with the lives of infants, as they did in Baby M. While Shulamith Firestone saw the oppression of women and children as linked and analogous, it is worth reflecting, too, on her decisive pessimism about the gendered reproductive condition as a whole—that is, the social arrangement of pregnancy, vis-à-vis our hopes for authentic feminist emancipation. In an age of assisted reproductive technology, Firestone’s call for the universalization of randomized test-tube gestations is too swiftly mocked by modern feminists. With the feminism of the familial sitting stagnant, it’s time to ask ourselves what a commercial surrogate strike would look like.