Revisiting the Fertility Industrial Complex

The recent spread, “Outsourcing a Life”  in the San Francisco Chronicle on one couple’s experience with Indian surrogacy begs for revisiting and adding to a La Vie Childfree discussion from about a year ago.

Romney’s son and his wife have done it. E! anchor Giuliana Rancic has done it. Hollywood stars like Sarah Jessica Parker have done it.  They all have had a biological child/children with a gestational surrogate.  The business of surrogacy is part of what has been called the “Fertility Industrial Complex.”

What is it, and what ultimately drives it? Lets start with Kathleen Sloan, who is on the board of the National Organization for Women, and her thoughts.

She has major concerns. When people share the “good news,” it’s “always from the angle of the miracle of life and not the use of some other women’s eggs or the rental of another women’s womb. They don’t look at the health risks. They don’t look at the exploitation. It’s extremely one-sided and really a very classist treatment of the issue.”

It is not legal everywhere. But in the U.S. (and India), it is not only legal but not well regulated,  even called the “Wild West of third party reproduction.”

A recent statement by Sloan lays out the real problems with way to have a biological child:

“Surrogacy is a stark manifestation of the commodification of women’s bodies. Surrogate services are advertised, surrogates are recruited, and operating agencies make large profits. The commercialism of surrogacy raises the specter of a black market and baby selling, of breeding farms a la The Handmaid’s Tale, turning impoverished women into baby producers. Surrogacy degrades a pregnancy to a service and a baby to a product—an entitlement for those with the financial means to procure one.”

“As developments in biotechnology facilitate the commodification of reproduction, alarm bells should be sounding about the new door that has been opened for yet further disregard and degradation of women’s humanity, wholeness, physical and emotional inviolability. Simply put, if you care about women’s human rights, you cannot allow their exploitation as commodities and their health endangerment for others’ profit and gain.”

Even after the business of the baby is done, and the baby is delivered, problems remain. What if something is wrong with the baby? The “parents” can say they don’t want it, and who gets it? Surprise-the surrogate.

How did we get here–to where women will allow other women’s exploitation so they can have their own biological child?

handmaids tale

It started generations ago with the birth of pronatalist beliefs.  In times when societies needed to grow their populations to survive and gain power, but when pregnancy and childbirth didn’t come without risks.  Sociologists tell us that “romanticized myths” were needed to influence women to take those risks and create the desire for them to have many children.

Generations ago  it was the genesis of the many pronatalist beliefs that remain strong today, such as “I am not a real woman if I can’t have my own child.”  “When it comes to having children, biological is best.” And adoption is a distant second.

The fertility industrial complex continues to feed these kinds of beliefs,  which continues to promote commodification of birth and babies and its negative impacts, from Sloan’s concerns to other impacts, including doing a disservice to children already here in need of loving homes. The same day the big surrogacy spread ran, the Chronicle also did a piece on a same sex couple who had served as foster parents until they adopted two children. Where are the big spreads on this?

The negative impacts of the beliefs related to “do anything to have one’s own biological child” is what needs to be talked more about, as well as who really gains from continuing to reinforce those beliefs.

Who gains the most from the fertility industrial complex? Business.  The Chron spread argues it is a win-win as it helps Indian women who live in poverty. Yes, if all goes as planned they do get a sum of money that allows them to provide for their families in the short term, but it comes with many, many prices of  an unregulated industry that allows docs to “operate by their own rules.”

Debra Saunders titles her recent op-ed on the outsourcing a life spread, “Outsourcing Gestation isn’t Fair.”  I rarely agree with her views – at least the ones I read in the Chron, but this time I do. And it goes beyond unfair. It is a sad and scary commentary about the ever pervasive workings of the baby matrix.


3 thoughts on “Revisiting the Fertility Industrial Complex

  1. I wonder how this practice squares with the California statutes regarding human trafficking which we set forth via the initiative process a while back?

    1. In these Indian surrogacy cases, the women serving as “ovens” stay in “camps” at the clinic sites…the biological parents need to go to India. Are you thinking the “trafficking” would apply to the child they bring back with them? In any case, it is amazing – today the Chron ran an excerpt of the 12 page spread from Sunday – they sure are exalting the pronatalist notion that you gotta have a bio baby at all costs – even if it exploits another woman…seems this paper is going after increasing its local parent readers…

      1. As the Chron runs yet Another excerpt of their 12 page spread on this today, finally a Letter to the Editor that gets at what needs to be talked about – the ugly realities of the surrogacy Business-
        Thank you, Jennifer Lahl of the Center for Bioethics and Culture —

        “Ugly reality of surrogacy pregnancies

        Debra J. Saunders’ column ‘Baby farming isn’t fair’ (Oct. 1) brings to light the ugly reality of surrogacy contract pregnancies that many people are woefully unaware of or are unwilling to look at head-on. While we have sympathy for the Kowalskis’ struggle with infertility, how could they not think that what they were doing was wrong? And how could they not see how money corrupts the decisions made by poor women and their families in India? Surrogacy by its very nature is exploitative to women, reducing them down to wombs for rent, and the children they bear as objects to be purchased.

        The Kowalskis are worried that they will be seen as “bad” people. Maybe they should have thought more deeply about this before they signed their contract. Good people don’t pay poor, destitute people to gestate babies for them in exchange for cash. Good people don’t take a newborn baby from the only person they have ever known, its birth mother, and justify it as win-win.

        The Kowalskis are right to be worried that they be seen as bad people since they used a poor, destitute woman like a mule, as Saunders describes.”

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