Drawing lines: A review of Renate Klein’s ‘Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation’

How did we get to the point where this reduction of women to bodies is accepted and even celebrated — not only among many men but also many women, even among some feminists?

Reading Renate Klein’s elegantly argued Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation, it’s difficult not to keep repeating to oneself, “How did we get here?”, all the while trying to keep at bay a sense of despair.

“Here” is an allegedly civilized world in which treating a woman’s body as a commodity is regarded in polite liberal circles as not just acceptable but a sign of being progressive. Klein’s analysis of surrogacy focuses on the renting of women’s wombs, what she and others appropriately describe as “reproductive prostitution.” The term reminds us that many liberals also endorse “regular’ prostitution, men’s use of objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure.

How did we get to the point where this reduction of women to bodies is accepted and even celebrated — not only among many men but also many women, even among some feminists?

Klein’s Surrogacy, the third book in the new Spinifex Shorts series, reminds us that these social practices are the core of patriarchy: Men’s claims of ownership and/or control over women’s reproductive power and sexuality. Times have changed in sex/gender politics — largely for the better, because of feminism — but patriarchy has proved remarkably adaptable and resilient. It’s difficult to imagine anyone reading Klein’s book and ignoring a radical feminist critique of these patriarchal practices, yet much of the allegedly civilized world does exactly that — embracing a capitalist liberal/libertarian dogma that focuses on decontextualized choices. From the liberal perspective, when poor and vulnerable women “choose” to rent their bodies in this dangerous and dehumanizing practice, no further analysis is necessary.

Klein will brook none of these evasions. Near the end of the book, she puts it bluntly:

“… New reproductive technologies are used to literally ‘cut up’ real live women into our eggs and wombs, treat us with invasive dangerous hormonal drug cocktails, and, in surrogacy, psychologically manipulate us to believe the myth that gestating a baby without a genetic connection will not cause us to feel any attachment, and hence these ‘surrogate’ babies are not our ‘real’ children. This man-made compartmentalizing ideology creates Test-Tube Women. The idea is that ‘playing God’ (as 1980s critics of reprotechs were wont to say) continues the 6,000 years of patriarchal domination of women in which two points were, and are, central: One, men cannot gestate life and give birth to children (necessary to continue the species Homo sapiens). Two, men as a social group loathe women and our bodies for this power. Conversely, when women ‘fail’ to reproduce, the disdain expressed is stark.”

Klein’s rejection of this compartmentalizing — a function not only of patriarchy but white supremacy and First World imperialism, capitalism, and the worship of high technology — feels like a simple plea for our collective humanity, for seeing each other as fully human and not as things. That Klein’s book is so desperately needed signals how far we are from such basic values.

Klein’s definition of surrogacy reflects those basic values: “Pared down to cold hard facts, surrogacy is the commissioning/buying/renting of a woman into whose womb an embryo is inserted and who thus becomes a ‘breeder’ for a third party.”

Key observations and insights that Klein’s book provides include:

  • While many people have strong emotional desires to have children, there is no “right” to have a child genetically related to you. The moral claim for surrogacy is an illusion.
  • The surrogacy medical machine comes with risks for the women who sell eggs and those who carry the fetus, as well for the children born through this method, and there has been little research/testing on the long-term health effects. The health claims of surrogacy are distortions.
  • Surrogacy routinely involves the exploitation of poorer women, increasingly in the Third World. The political practice of surrogacy is exploitation.

Klein, a co-founder of the Australian feminist press Spinifex that published the book, has decades of experience in teaching and research, with expertise in health/biology and social theory, as well as feminist activism. The breadth and depth of her knowledge and experience is evidenced throughout the book, as she moves easily between technical scientific details, moral philosophy, legislative proposals, and organizing strategy. [Disclaimer: I have published a book with Spinifex, which Klein edited and in that process I acquired firsthand knowledge of her considerable intellectual abilities.]

But most for me, the distinctive feature of the book is Klein’s compassion for people on all sides of the issue. When arguing for political positions we hold passionately, it’s all too easy to valorize our side and demonize opponents. But even when Klein writes with an honest understanding of why some women may be on the other side, she doesn’t hesitate to criticize sharply the profiteers who exploit without concern. I finished the book feeling grateful for the way Klein models a humane approach to debating the subject.

But make no mistake, Klein doesn’t mince words in her analysis, asserting that surrogates “are reduced to incubators, to ovens, to suitcases. And the product child is a tradable commodity who of course has never consented to being a ‘take-away baby’: removed from their birth mother and given to strangers aka ‘intended parents’.” Returning to the parallel between surrogacy and prostitution, she drives home the common features of patriarchal practices:

“… Well regulated sex (or fertility) industries, according to their promoters, create happy hookers (happy surrogates) and happy sex buyers (happy baby buyers). Pimps and brothel owners equal IVF clinics, surrogacy lawyers/brokers, pro-surrogacy advocacy groups, as well as surrogacy/egg ‘donor’ agencies. The difference is that apart from deeply harming women in both industries, the end ‘product’ in prostitution is a ‘faked girlfriend experience’, whereas in surrogacy it is the creation of new human beings: children.”

Klein’s willingness to take on these questions goes a long way to alleviating some of the sense of despair that comes with facing honestly the routine dehumanizing practices of the modern world. But the question lingering just below the surface of almost every page of the book — as well as just below the surface of many of the “normal” activities in our lives in the affluent sectors of the world — remains troubling: How far can people drift from being human animals before we stop being human beings?

By that, I mean that we are organic creatures, products of evolution like all others, with material bodies that we can’t transcend, no matter how much high-energy technology allows us to manipulate the rest of that material world and insulate ourselves from it. But the more we treat high-tech interventions such as surrogacy as routine and uncontroversial, the compartmentalization continues, making routine the exploitation of vulnerable people and widening the gap between people and the larger living world. Can we be truly human beings, in the moral sense, if we do not accept the limits that are imposed on all creatures by that larger world? Do we lose our own humanity when we lose our creaturely bearings to such a degree that we imagine that we can create life on our own through high-tech manipulation?

This concern is not rooted in science-fiction fears of humans becoming robots or robots taking over the world, but rather is a real concern for today. Yes, humans have long used technology, whether Stone Age or Space Age, but the differences in technology matter. Yes, humans have long tried to control natural processes and reshape ecosystems to our advantage, but that doesn’t mean we cannot ask critical questions about the assumptions behind, and implications of, each of the interventions we may want to attempt.

The fact that it is difficult to draw lines does not mean we abandon the obligation to draw them. For me, some of those lines have long been easy to draw: No decent society is possible if men rent women for sex. Klein’s powerful argument makes it just as clear that no decent society is possible if women are reduced to a womb that carries a fetus for the privileged. Social justice and ecological sustainability come together in one clear mandate: stop surrogacy now.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, and Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu or through his website: robertwjensen.org. To join his email list, visit: thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html.

Guest Writer
Guest Writer

One of Feminist Current's amazing guest writers.

Like this article? Tip Feminist Current!

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $1

  • Buck Wheat

    Thank you for another excellent article!

    Please note that ‘birth’ or ‘bio’ mother means breeder. We all have only ONE mother. All others that provide mother’ing’ are the ones who get a descriptor such as adoptive, foster, step, -in-law.

    ““Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality.

    Language creates the reality it describes.” Desmond Tutu

    “Birthmothers” are a social construction. The term “birthmother” was devised by adoption professionals to reduce a natural mother to that of a biological function rendering her as a “non mother”. This term marginalizes mothers and creates a role for them in society which does not allow them to fully embrace their lived experience as a mother; but instead implies that the sacred bond of mother and child ends at birth and that her role is secondary to other mothers in society.”

    http://www.originscanada.org/adoption-practices/adoption-language/

    • hyperjoy

      Notice however that in modern surrogacy even biological motherhood has been split into two. The woman who donates the egg is often not the same woman as the one who gestates the fetus for nine months and then gives birth.

      • Buck Wheat

        Notice however that only a mother gives birth. “Way back when you and your mom shared a body, your cells mingled. Her cells slipped into your body and your cells circled back into her. This process, called fetal-maternal microchimerism, turns both mother and child into chimeras harboring little pieces of each other.”
        https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/growth-curve/children’s-cells-live-mothers

        • hyperjoy

          You know, you’re right. I know that, but apparently don’t have a consistent grasp on it for some reason. I remember reading Phyllis Chesler’s book on the Baby M case long ago and agreed when she called the father who donated the sperm the genetic (not biological) father and the woman who gave birth the biological mother. In the Baby M case (as in all cases of non technologically assisted reproduction) the biological mother was also the genetic mother, the one whose egg it was the baby developed from. Now I would say that both egg and sperm donors are genetic parents, but only a mother gives birth, is a biological mother, whether or not she has a genetic relation to the baby.

          • peopleareweird

            If she gestated the baby, she has a genetic relation to the baby, there is genetic transmission during pregnancy. Also, most of the time the eggs are hers, anyway.

  • Simone Firestone

    I dislike calling libfems as feminists. To me, they’re simply liberals or better yet, handmaidens of the patriarchy. Gyrating, writhing, squirming, and slithering in a fiery red g-string or thong and with glitzy star nipple covers on to some misogynistic mainstream crass music does not empower a woman and liberate her from this world of institutionalised male dominance, but rather only ensnares her further, deep down into the dark abyss of the patriarchy. Vagina, uterus, spinal fluid – women are being reduced to mere body parts and fluids. When will the violence against women stop? When will the great feminist revolution happen? Anyway, thanks for the insight on Ms. Klein’s must-read book. Despair is getting into me in this fight against the patriarchy which (as you so aptly observed) ”has proved to be remarkably adaptable and resilient”. I would like to liken the patriarchy to a nasty and disgusting legless cockroach that continues to thrive, eventually regrowing its leg. RF sisters and brothers here at Feminist Current are what gives me hope to carry on in this fight against the rampaging and resilient evil that is the patriarchy. Thanks to all for your work and courage. It truly inspires me.

    • Cassandra

      Patriarchy is for sure like a cockroach. I cling to the fact that they *can* be killed.

  • Alienigena

    “We don’t have mass slaughter, torture, or treat refugees like so much garbage washed up on various shores around the world; we have “ethnic cleansing” “collateral damage” “extraordinary or enhanced interrogation” “immigrant detention centers” “relocation centers.” Those aren’t real human beings used in pornography but merely paid actors exercising their “empowerment” and their “right to choose” to be beaten tortured and exploited before being tossed on the growing garbage heap of humanity we no longer deem useful to the endlessly greedy power structure that profits from living beings, grinds them to dust, and then discards them.”

    I started objecting to euphemisms during the first Iraq war in the 1990s when the media picked up on military terminology such as “collateral damage” and popularized its use by using it in news reports. Civilian deaths should never be referred to as collateral damage by anyone who is not a military strategist (they will use the term anyway, as a way to justify (including retroactively) a particular battle or campaign). This kind of language has long been used to obscure the reality of a particular phenomena or event. Think about Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” (intended as satire) that referenced a particular set of circumstances (treatment of the Irish (poor) by the British). His essay was just a faux ‘modest proposal’ about a potential program to deal with the ‘excess’ population of Ireland, specifically poor children. I’d like to look into the history of the use of euphemisms in modern history because their use seems to be aligned with particular political agendas, specifically a kind of public pacification through the use of misinformation or misleading language.

    • Can’tUnseeIt

      Alienigena,
      “…because their use seems to be aligned with particular political agendas,
      specifically a kind of public pacification through the use of
      misinformation or misleading language.”
      It is exactly the purpose and function of misleading language to mislead. To obscure the inexcusable actions, ill intentions, and harmful motivations by cloaking them in twisted language. On a public scale, the CIA, NSA & DARPA are the masters. But abusers of all kinds on a personal level also engage in what they consider “harm reduction,” meaning they won’t stop causing harm but they will make it sound like it’s nothing to pacify any objections raised.

  • Wren

    Yep. Not to mention the risk of death. Here in the U.S., it’s an increasing risk.
    https://www.npr.org/2017/05/12/528098789/u-s-has-the-worst-rate-of-maternal-deaths-in-the-developed-world

  • Alienigena

    I wonder if the next great indignity is transplanting wombs of organ donors into trans-identified men. Will the poor be pressed again into service as they are in surrogacy? Just because it is possible should it be done? Even in death are women not to be free of literal objectification of our bodies into their component parts to satisfy a perverse marketplace.

  • Cassandra

    What a beautifully written and powerful comment.

  • Sashimi73

    Agree totally.

    • Wombat

      George Orwell wrote about this in 1948.

  • Sashimi73

    I once met a gay man for the first time, (I’m a lesbian), who very quickly after meeting me, asked me if I wanted to have a baby because he wanted a child. I was horrified that he saw me as a walking womb on legs. I’ve felt disgusted, on some level, at the practice of paying women, to take away their children, ever since.

    • OldPolarBear

      That is horrible. I would have to know and become friends with a woman for a very long time to even talk about something like that, which I probably wouldn’t even. I find it difficult to fathom the desire to procreate, that is even for anybody of either sex. Nothing against people who do have that desire; I’m just saying I don’t get it. I’m sure over the course of my life, I’ve occasionally considered the idea of having kids, but no more than 5 minutes thought about it is enough to dismiss the idea. And especially for gay men — why in the world? You’re GAY. You have the perfect excuse to opt out of that crap. I just don’t get it.

      • Kelan Fox

        I’m gay too and I have had a desire to reproduce from very early on. I understand the desire. It is burning and powerful for me. It was the reason I stayed in the closet as long as I did. I hated how difficult reproduction would be and often thought about surrogacy.

        As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that MY desire and to procreate doesn’t supercede a woman’s bodily autonomy and I would never ask a woman undergo the physical and emotional trauma that goes along with it. That being said, it still hurts me to know I’ll never be a parent.

  • Ashley Braman

    Have you heard of the Chinese womxxn in basements having to do this

  • (((realinterrobang)))

    Most modern feminists, even of the wishy-washy liberal variety, are rightly critical of the historic practice of wet-nursing, wherein a woman of the servant class who was lactating would breastfeed the baby of her owner-class employer (or, technically, his wife), because it’s exploitative and uses the bodies of the poor literally for the benefit of the wealthy. How people can criticize that practice as a bad thing from the past and still not see ethical and moral issues with other forms of body rental is beyond me.

    I was just thinking about this yesterday. Even people who are in favour of surrogacy and/or egg donation never (as far as I know) argue that “it’s (just) work” or “it’s just like any other job” et cetera, ad nauseam. Yet prostitution advocates say this about prostitution all the time, and are trying to make this into the dominant narrative around prostitution, even though the three things are more similar than different. Is it because prostitution is so ancient, and therefore so normalized, and reproductive technology so new that people just have a blind spot about the similarities?