The headline of an opinion piece pubilshed in prominent Spanish newspaper El País, “We are not sheep,” implies a story of oppressed women reclaiming their agency. The piece, though, turns out to have been written by Noelia Oses Fernandez, who identifies herself as “a future mother via surrogacy,” and is a member of the pro-surrogacy organization Son Nuestros Hijos (“They Are Our Children”).
The article features an image of two men holding two children — one holding a pink doll and the other a blue one. The men are protectively shielding the children from the camera lens; one of the men looks straight at us, defiantly. Readers are to assume this is a gay couple, the man’s stare daring us to feel terrible about any qualms we might have about this couple’s desire to be parents.
The article contributes to the heated debate about surrogacy that rages in Spain. Conservatives and some naïve liberals are working to gain public support for surrogacy through a combination of neoliberal and feminist arguments.
“This is a reality given the economic situation,” they say. Others argue that prohibition would encourage baby trafficking and the black market, and say surrogacy should be treated as any other legal contract in order to avoid this. Some, like Oses Fernandez and They Are Our Children, simply hijacked feminist rhetoric and analysis and used it against feminists themselves. Oses Fernandez writes:
“I am not defending surrogacy because I believe it is my right to be a mother. No! Nor do I defend it because I want to have a child that is genetically mine, because it won’t be that way. I defend it because it is a woman’s right to decide over her own body. Surrogacy is a technique for human reproduction in which women donate their capacity to gestate to favor another person or couple. I defend it as a technique but only as a last resort, meaning, only when a person or couple wants to have a baby but can’t gestate it.”
She never explains why she believes another woman should gestate her baby, instead resting on the passive “it’s her choice” argument. This line of argument is convenient for proponents of surrogacy because it prevents us from asking a different set of questions. For example, why are so many people intent on having biological children as opposed to adopting children already born? Why this desire to industrialize the bodies of women?
Therefore, Oses Fernandez acknowledges that “Collectives opposed to surrogacy accuse those of us who defend it of exploiting women and of trying to buy and sell babies,” but quickly brings the conversation back to “free choice.” She goes on to claim that “professional feminists” are working to prevent a debate around “whether a woman can decide freely to gestate for someone else” from happening at all.
The question of whether a woman can decide to gestate for someone else is easily answerable. Given that there are three billion women and girls on the planet — and that they are disproportionately affected by poverty across races and national boundaries — it is likely that you could find at least one or two women who would be game for any postulation imaginable. A common liberal feminist argument is “let women choose their choice,” but this is an individualistic analysis devoid of any understanding of structural power dynamics which, it might disappoint liberals to know, has much in common with conservative approaches to empowerment rhetoric. For example, Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to President Trump, recently said it was “difficult” for her to call herself a feminist because feminism is associated with being “anti-male” and “pro-abortion” and she was neither. But luckily, she added, there is a different feminism out there:
“There’s an individual feminism, if you will, that you make your own choices… I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances. That’s really to me what conservative feminism, if you will, is all about.”
There are many more similarities between conservative approaches to women’s empowerment and liberal approaches than we often acknowledge. The idea that women’s oppression (rooted in male control over female reproduction/sexuality) should be monetized and reframed as empowerment is not exactly a progressive one. Yet efforts to dehumanize women and turn them into utilitarian objects for the benefit of more privileged people cross political lines.
Oklahoma Representative Justin Humphrey proved that last week when he referred to pregnant women as “hosts,” saying:
“I’m like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”
Humphrey’s bill, House Bill 1441, would require a woman seeking an abortion to get written consent from her sexual partner and provide his name to her doctor. This would effectively allow men to block women from having abortions.
As for the women whose bodies and pregnancies his bill would regulate, Humphrey said:
“I understand that they feel like that is their body. I feel like it is a separate — what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship, you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that, then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant.”
Feminists were quick to condemn the idea that we could or should decentralize females from the material realities of womanhood. But where is the outrage when it is done in the name of “inclusivity?”
A document produced by the British Medical Association (BMA) for its staff also apparently intends to divorce women from the very real biological ramifications of their bodies… But instead of conservative anti-abortion rhetoric, the BMA used social justice language. The document states:
“A large majority of people that have been pregnant or have given birth identify as women. We can include intersex men and transmen who may get pregnant by saying ‘pregnant people’ instead of ‘expectant mothers.’”
While the BMA believes this language “shows respect for and sensitivity towards everyone,” it also has the effect of erasing women from their role in reproduction. Must we uproot the language we use in regard to something so deeply connected to the biology — and therefore the oppression — of women and girls in order to accommodate a small minority of people who, despite being born female, choose to identify as transmen or gender nonconforming? Considering that women are jailed for undergoing clandestine abortions and that girls and women die every single day as a result of dangerous pregnancies, it is utterly bizarre that so many people, particularly on the left, seem more concerned with “inclusive” language than with addressing this material reality.
Even if we were to entertain the hypothesis that all language referencing biological reality should be made gender-neutral, the reality is biased against women and girls. Where are the think pieces asking urological associations to stop referring to vasectomies as operations for men? I’ve yet to see queer keyboard warriors complain that strip clubs are “exclusionary” when called “Gentlemen’s Clubs” or that circumcision is a gender-neutral practice.
Women are constantly in a Catch 22: expected to overcome our biological constraints while at the same time being oppressed and punished due to our biology. By erasing the material realities of our femaleness from discourse, both the left and the right have agreed to hit us where it hurts the most: where women’s oppression and biology intersect.
As a woman who lives in a country where abortion is illegal in all circumstances (even in cases of rape and incest) and that has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the region due to the prominence of unsafe abortions, I am baffled by the dissonance I see in Western progressive circles regarding pregnancy and women’s reproductive rights. People who get up in arms about “inclusive language” often have very little to say about what pregnancy means for the least privileged women and girls in society — those who can’t afford to worry about terminology because they are dealing with direct ramifications of their sex.
To the postmodern left, it seems language games are more important than material realities like dying as a result of puncturing your uterus while attempting a self-induced abortion. This focus on “inclusivity” has been so successful, in part, because it presents the needs of a minority, like transgender people, as a matter of life and death, while simultaneously presenting the concerns and realities of females (approximately half of the population) as trivial and dismissible.
The oppression women face due to their reproductive capacity is neither trivial nor dismissible considering that 246,275 clandestine abortions took place in El Salvador last year and 11 per cent of those women and girls died as a result. Women’s oppression is not trivial or dismissible when, according to reproductive rights organization Marie Stopes, the Global Gag rule reinstated by Trump’s administration has the potential to result in 2.1 million unsafe abortions and in the death of over 21,700 women and girls worldwide in the next three years. The oppression of females is not trivial or dismissable when teen girls make up 20 per cent of all pregnancy-related deaths in the Dominican Republic.
Where is the outrage over the deaths of those gestators, hosts, and pregnant people? We don’t hear a peep about this from the people who advocate to erase women from our own lived experiences. This is because the absolute majority of those gestators, hosts, and pregnant people are girls and women. And today, there is a bipartisan consensus between the left and the right that their lives are not even worthy of mention.