“I believe it is crucial to consider the degree to which one woman’s possession of reproductive choice may actually depend on or deepen another woman’s reproductive vulnerability.” -Rickie Solinger, “Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States.”
So everyone is talking about Alex Kuczynski’s article about surrogacy in last week’s Times Sunday Magazine. I’ve been hesitant to write about it, because I’m not really sure how to construct a post that honors all of the conflicting interests and social justice ideals (and failures) that Kuczynski’s story brings up.
First, there are the pictures: One of Cathy Hilling, the surrogate, literally barefoot and pregnant on her weathered porch in Pennsylvania; and one of Alex holding her baby, with a black “baby nurse” (their terminology, not mine) standing in the background, eyes averted, stiff and still as a piece of furniture. The images mirror each other — the porch, the columns — but while Kuczynski’s home is bright white and new-looking and her lawn is perfectly groomed, Hilling’s porch is distressed and old, and her lawn brown and overgrown. The cover image is a pregnant Hilling in wrinkled khakis and loafers, next to a tall, gorgeous Kuczynski, in heels and a little black dress. The juxtaposition is less about pregnant/not-pregnant and more about the clear class distinctions between the two women:
I think it’s pretty clear that the photographer had a particular point of view here, and succeeded well in translating it. It’s also clear that as much as the article is about a fairly new phenomenon aided by advancing science, the realities that undercut it are very old. The photo of Kuczynski and her “baby nurse” is particularly striking in its Gone With the Wind aesthetic. It doesn’t just feel retro; it feels two centuries ago. But as the photos explore, racialized economic divides and white families employing women of color to do “care” work is a seldom remarked-upon but disturbing reality.
Infertility is a complicated issue, and how women deal with it is fraught with a whole series of social justice implications. Reproductive rights certainly extend to the right to have children, and yet many women with fertility issues find themselves marginalized and ignored. Infertility afflicts women of all classes, but IVF is incredibly expensive, and often requires out-of-pocket payment, making it inaccessible for many women (not to mention the fact that many religious providers won’t offer IVF at all, or will only offer it to women who are married to men). Artificial insemination, and a variety of other fertility treatments, pose the same problems. And if those don’t work, there aren’t many other options for having biological children.
That’s where Kuczynski found herself. Because she had quite a bit of disposable income, she opted for surrogacy — she paid a woman in Pennsylvania $25,000 to carry and birth her baby. While some of Kuczynski’s commentary is grimace-inducing — she’s impressed that the woman knew how to use a computer, for example — her honesty is striking. Kuczynski isn’t a moron, and I’m sure she knew full well that sharing her story would bring a slew of criticism. She talks openly about endless rounds of IVF, where other women in the room speak in hushed tones and promise that her “secret” is safe with them; she discusses her miscarriages, one of which ends in a D&C (the same procedure used for abortions); and she admits to feeling barren and less-than-womanly. She also writes about feeling free from the constrains of pregnancy — being happy she can still drink and go water-rafting, while simultaneously feeling ashamed of her lack of fecundity (and being shamed by other women who seem to think she purposely “got out” of pregnancy). I’m glad she gave voice to those experiences and concerns, especially in a media-saturated culture where pregnancy is roundly portrayed as natural and easy, and where 40-something celebrities seem to have no problem making babies.
And the article is not without nuance, to the point of raising disturbing truths. Kuczynski talks about the ethical issues, and mentions that none of the potential surrogates made more than $50,000 a year — meaning that the $25,000 paid to them would be a substantial part of their earnings for that year. None were living in poverty, because surrogacy groups don’t accept them –in part because surrogacy may then be considered coercive, and in part because poor women “are less likely to be in stable relationships, in good health and of appropriate weight.” Kuczynski ends up likening surrogacy to organ donation, or “organ rental.” But then, paying for organs is illegal, and for good reason.
As the Rickie Solinger quote illustrates above, reproductive rights do not always come for free. And when we talk about reproduction in a justice-based framework, it’s very difficult to argue for a system where more powerful women with greater freedom of “choice” have the liberty to use other women’s bodies for their reproductive ends.
And, at that moment, having a biologically related child felt necessary. What began as wistful longing in my 20s had blistered into a mad desire that seemed to defy logic. The compulsion to create our own bloodline seemed medieval, and I knew we could enjoy our marriage — our lives — without a child. Yet I couldn’t argue myself out of my desire. A child with our genes would be a part of us. My husband’s face would be mirrored in our child’s face, proof that our love not only existed, but could be recreated beyond us. Die without having created a life, and die two deaths: the death of yourself, and the death of the immense opportunity that is a child.
Her husband already had six children from two marriages. It’s interesting to me that Kuczynski sees a biological child as the only option. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t get that urge, and I cannot for the life of me understand why people would spend tens of thousands on reproductive technology just to have a biological child.
But just because I don’t get it doesn’t mean that their experiences and desires aren’t valid. The desire for biological children is apparently a widespread one; it just happens that only a small, relatively privileged number of infertile couples are able to realize that desire. It’s problematic that the Times, again, focused only on the story of a rich white lady, married to a hedge fund manager on his third marriage who has already fathered six kids. It’s problematic that the article included relatively little context of the class issues tied up in access to infertility treatments. Instead, infertility is again represented as a rich white woman’s issue.
There’s a lot about surrogacy itself that is deeply problematic — it is almost universally a wealthier family paying a lower-income woman for use of her body, and it’s hard to argue that there isn’t an element of economic coercion involved. It gets stickier when it’s largely unregulated. Organ-selling is prohibited because it would create incentives for lower-income people to compromise their health by selling organs, and because it would mean that wealthier people had disproportionate access to life-saving organ transplants — effectively creating a lower class of organ-sellers and an upper class of organ-buyers. Don’t similar ethical issues apply to surrogacy? On the other side, of course, most people make relatively rational choices given their circumstances — an argument that applies as well to surrogacy as to child labor or prostitution (not saying those things are equivalent, obviously). If, the argument goes, a woman in Pennsylvania could use an extra $25,000 but doesn’t need it to survive and she likes being pregnant, and a woman in New York has an extra $25,000 but isn’t able to get pregnant, what’s the problem? And to take it a step further, why should surrogacy only be for the rich? If a middle-class woman in Pennsylvania has an extra $5,000 and a woman in India could use an extra $5,000, where’s the problem in paying for her pregnancy? After all, organ donation may be free, but do we really want to suggest that pregnancy in the service of someone else isn’t labor that should be fairly compensated? And the women serving as surrogates aren’t being forced; many of them say that they enjoy being pregnant and enjoy helping other families. Plus the extra money is very, very helpful. Are we going to say that these women are suffering from false consciousness? That they don’t know what’s best for themselves?
(Caveat: These are not my arguments; I’m putting them out there because they’re commonly-made and I think there’s some merit to them, even though I don’t agree).
And then there’s the question of where “choice” comes in. Obviously all of the women choosing to act as surrogates aren’t suffering from false consciousness; they’re making rational decisions based on constrained circumstances, which is what we all do. But how constrained must circumstances be before we say enough? I’ve expressed my discomfort with surrogacy before; I think it’s exploitative on its face. But, as someone who doesn’t believe that labor is inherently exploitative, I imagine that there has to be some way to outsource pregnancy where the rights and interests of all parties are protected. Kuczynski’s story seems to come as close to that ideal as we’re going to find. And yet, while I certainly don’t begrudge Kuczynski her new baby or her wealth or her success, I can’t help but feel more than a little bit uncomfortable with the article; I’m further discomforted by the pictures, which really illustrate just how classist and racist reproductive “help” can be. Perhaps the conclusion is that capitalism has its limits, and this is one of them.
I’m also uncomfortable with a lot of the discussion about Kuczynski. The criticisms too often seem to target Kuczynski herself – for being rich, for being “selfish,” for generally being unsympathetic. I don’t find her particularly sympathetic either, but it seems that women’s stories are often judged far more harshly than men’s. When women write about their personal lives, it’s narcissistic. When men do it it’s literature.
And on the domestic front, women are given the particular burden of doing it all. Men have long had a built-in support system in their wives — someone to bear and raise their children, clean the house, and generally maintain the domestic order. That’s a full-time job in itself. When middle-class women began working outside of the home in large numbers (something lower-income women had always done), that support system was weakened — and instead of men stepping in, the void was largely filled by the labor of lower-income women who had long worked outside the home (often in the households of the wealthy). Some men, of course, did step in, and the amount of time that fathers dedicate to child care and domestic work has steadily increased over the past few decades. But the amount of time that women spend with their children has also increased since the golden-era 50s; that’s not a bad thing to be sure, but it does mean that everyone is stretched thinner, and that domestic work is increasingly outsourced even among the decidedly not-rich. And while I’m of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with paid domestic labor, there’s a lot wrong when paid domestic labor is under-valued and low-wage work done disproportionately by women of color and female immigrants in order to enable someone else’s career ambitions. There’s also a lot wrong when critiques of paid domestic work are too often targeted at women who “pay someone else to take care of their children” (hint: those children probably belong to two people, one of whom has never been faulted for pursuing a career and paying — or hell, not paying — someone to take care of them).
Point being, these are large and systematic problems, and they’re tied up with race, class, immigration status, and other markers of identity just as much as with gender. And for a lot of women, a quick survey of their own situations seems to leave few options. That doesn’t excuse individual women who make exploitative choices, but it does raise questions of how we can function in an essentially untried, but still transitioning, economy. What would a gender-egalitarian economy look like, and how do we get there without stepping on the backs of other women?
On a small scale, what would it look like when it comes to reproduction?
The easy response might be “just adopt!,” but that isn’t so simple, and offers its own share of potential exploitations.
American feminists rightly fought for single motherhood to be less stigmatized; today, far fewer babies of single mothers are put up for adoption, and the days of the pregnant teenager being cloistered away until she gives birth — “staying with her Aunt for the summer” — are largely over. Homes for pregnant girls still exist, but there is no longer a steady supply of healthy white babies awaiting adoption, borne of scared teenage girls — most of those babies are being raised by their birth mothers.
Women giving up their babies for adoption also have more rights than they did decades ago. Open adoptions are much more common. And while there is still an overwhelming silence on the psychological impact of adoption on birth mothers, the U.S. is a slightly more hospitable place to them than it once was.
Women abroad, especially in the biggest adopting-out countries, often don’t have those privileges. Many Western couples seek to adopt overseas because of the “blank slate” factor — there’s an assumption that there will be no birth mother showing up years later, that the pregnancy was not “damaged” by drug or alcohol use, and that the baby essentially arrives with no history. The rights that feminists fought so hard to secure for American women — the right to keep the baby you birthed, even if your circumstances are outside of the cultural ideal — hasn’t been translated to women abroad. Instead, wealthier Westerners are typically the ones with the wider variety of “choices”:
In an interview with Mirah Riben, Solinger stated that “adoption, as a social practice, absolutely depends on the existence of groups of women rendered deeply vulnerable most essentially today because of their poverty.” Some critics of intercountry adoption have noted that historically the streams of children have run one way-from the so-called Third World to predominantly white adopters-and likened it to a form of modern colonialism.
So, while bashing Kuczynski is certainly easy, and while I’m the last person who is going to defend her, my feminism is more concerned with women who don’t have their voices represented on the pages of the Times Sunday Magazine.
So I wonder what the “right” solution is, because while I can usually visualize something better, I have a hard time figuring out how to get there; or at least, how to negotiate existing inequalities with feminist goals in mind.
How do we build just and equitable reproductive rights norms that encompass the full spectrum of reproductive choice? There’s lots of theory out there and I don’t have too difficult a time seeing the end goal, but what kinds of decisions must we make in the here and now to put us on the path to a world where all people have access to certain resources and all people can make truly free reproductive choices? Given the current constraints on reproductive freedom, and the greater limits women face to freedom generally, what does reproductive justice look like today?
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