Surrogacy: a global trade in women’s bodies

Sweden’s leading feminist lobby regards surrogate motherhood as a revival of serfdom for women.
Swedish Women's Lobby | Oct 27 2014 | comment  



The Swedish Women’s Lobby strongly opposes surrogate motherhood. Our position is that surrogacy is a trade with women’s bodies and children, as well as a threat to women’s basic human rights and bodily integrity.

Surrogacy is presently not legal in Sweden. However there is no legislation that regulates the fact that Swedish citizens use surrogate mothers abroad, and that their children have been brought to Sweden. In the last couple of years the issue has been up for debate and the Swedish government is examining whether surrogacy should be legalised. The results of its investigation will be presented in a few months.

Last year, the Swedish Medical-Ethical Council commented on the proposal. A majority of its members declared that they were positive towards legal altruistic surrogate motherhood in Sweden.

The Swedish Women’s Lobby has reacted to this position. We have expressed concern about an unproblematic understanding of altruistic surrogacy, as well as the fact that the Ministry of Justice is handling the investigation. There is a lack of a women’s human rights perspective. The Swedish Women’s Lobby has been active in the public debate around the issue and has written several letters to the Ministry of Justice as well as the Social Ministry and the Medical-Ethical Council.

Together with several other women’s organizations we have launched the campaign Feministiskt nej till surrogatmödraskap (Feminist No to Surrogacy). Through the campaign, we have provided an alternative forum on feminist grounds where the focus lies on women’s bodily integrity and not the rights for childless parents over women’s basic human rights. We are also working actively to affect and engage the political parties in this matter.

Altruistic and commercial surrogacy

Unlike commercial surrogacy, altruistic surrogates are expected not to ask for any compensation for sacrificing their bodies. Altruistic surrogacy relies on the goodwill of other women, their readiness for self-sacrifice and to make available their own bodies and reproductive organs without any remuneration for the entire pregnancy. And at the end, they are expected to give away the child they have been carrying for nine months.

Experiences from countries where altruistic surrogacy is legal, such as Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States, show that when altruistic surrogacy has been legalized, commercialization has ensued. It is very hard to ensure that no money or bribes have been involved or that undue pressure has been exerted. These issues are of little concern in the public debate and have not been properly taken into consideration.

Social and economic inequality as prerequisites for exploitation

In the majority of the cases of commercial surrogacy, purchasers come from Western countries and surrogates from Third World or developing countries. There is an unequal power balance between purchasers and surrogates. Western people prey on Eastern women’s vulnerable economic situation in their quest for a child. Becoming a surrogate mother is a way for women in socially vulnerable positions to sell what fundamental human rights should protect them from selling – their own bodies.

To speak of free will and a women’s choice in these contexts is highly problematic. A study of surrogate mothers in Anand, India, revealed that 50 percent were illiterate and that many could not read the contract that they were signing. Signing a contract means signing away the right to one’s own body. The women are dependent on someone else to ensure that they understand the terms of the commitment and their rights during the process of the pregnancy. They often come from poor backgrounds and their conditions of living do not allow them a fair array of choices when it comes to making a living or making a choice that does not compromise their bodily integrity.

The purchasers often make demands on how the surrogate mother lives her life, for example regarding her diet, exercise and sexual activity. Her life is best described as temporary serfdom, since the woman no longer has the right to decide over her own body and lifestyle. It is also important to remember that legal safeguards in Western countries do not help surrogates in vulnerable countries. Clients who come from countries where surrogacy is legal, like Great Britain and the Netherlands, still make use of surrogates from these parts of the world.

Medical consequences

The effects of pregnancy, both physical and psychological, are impossible to predict. Every pregnancy is unique, just as every woman and every child is unique. What we do know, however, is that being pregnant and giving birth is one of the most perilous things a fertile woman can commit herself to. A pregnancy is never risk-free. Some of the risks, apart from death, are fecal incontinence (3 percent), depression (12.5 percent), preeclampsia (7 percent) and Graves’ Disease (6 percent). The statistics refer to Swedish women under the conditions in our country, not to conditions in India. Children born to surrogate mothers in India are more often delivered by a caesarean since the children are too big for the mother. This entails further risks of complications, both in the present situation and in future pregnancies.  

Ethical concerns

The right to enter into an agreement with another individual has never been absolute. It is forbidden to enter into a contract to commit a murder or to sell oneself into slavery. Contractual freedom only goes so far. The Swedish Women’s Lobby views surrogate motherhood as a contract of temporary serfdom, where the surrogate mother waives her rights to bodily integrity during the pregnancy. Such a contract is void for the basis of a contract is the possibility of enforcing it. What if the surrogate mother changes her mind? Are we to involve the police and force her to fulfill her contractual obligation? Can we deny her the right to abortion? Can the purchasers demand a refund or indemnity if she doesn’t follow through or if she has a miscarriage? The judicial system cannot and should not enforce the realization of a contract where a woman has waived her human rights.

Neglect of a human rights perspective in the debate on surrogacy

The aspect of social and economic vulnerability, however tangible it may be, is not the primary reason why surrogacy should be illegal. Allowing surrogacy is to make use of women’s bodies and reproductive organs for the enjoyment of someone else, to the detriment of the woman herself.

We must privilege the right to bodily integrity and fundamental human rights over a supposed right for parents to have children. Children always have the right to have parents, but there is no human right for parents to have children. Every child has the right not to be a commodity on a market. We must renounce the view of a liberal market-approach to surrogacy which privileges paying buyers while women’s rights are negotiable.

The Swedish Women’s Lobby fears a dismantling of fundamental rights in favor of the desire of some individuals to become parents in the name of personal fulfillment. The issue of surrogacy has been treated within the discourse of reproductive rights and the means of childless parents to have a baby. But a human rights perspective is the only plausible way of dealing with this issue. We find that the current investigation in Sweden is being framed in the wrong way. We therefore call on the Swedish government to forbid surrogate motherhood.

Having a feminist approach to surrogacy means rejecting the idea that women can be used as mere vessels and that their reproductive capabilities can be bought. The right to bodily integrity is a right which should not be able to be negotiated by any form of contract. However the contract is worded, surrogacy is still trading with women’s bodies and with children. The rights of women and children, not the interests of the buyer, must be the focus of the debate surrounding surrogacy.

The Swedish Women’s Lobby (SWL) is a politically and religiously independent umbrella organization for women’s organizations in Sweden. We work to achieve women’s full human rights and a gender equal society within Sweden, the EU and internationally.

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