Julie Bindel speaking at feminist conference against surrogacy
I am delighted to be at an event where this horrific trade in women’s bodies and body parts is being seen as a negative and as a human rights abuse that we need to challenge. My main work as a journalist and as a feminist activist is to work against the commercial sex trade. The connections, as we have heard already on this panel, between selling women’s bodies, women’s body parts, the renting of wombs, the renting of orifices are so connected that it is difficult as a feminist campaigner against prostitution and the abuse inherent in the sex trade to not involve myself and ourselves in fighting this particular atrocity.
I recently visited Gujarat in India and I was there undercover as a journalist, posing as a women who wished to hire a surrogate. The law had just changed ten days before I arrived, the Indian Government had written to all fertility clinics across the country saying it was no longer possible or legal to offer surrogacy services to anyone who wasn’t an Indian passport holder or resident. The government had already clamped down by making it illegal to provide these services to same sex couples or gay male couples and to single people, which wouldn’t have helped at all to curtail the industry in the way we wish to see it. I don’t want anybody to access surrogacy services, and it was quite telling that the majority of those seeking surrogacy services and egg donation services were heterosexual couples and they had not been targeted at all. Now it has been decided that no foreigners can access such services.
The fee clinics are all getting together, there is an organization which is like a union of fertility clinics in India that is putting together funding to challenge the Indian government in court when this law comes onto the statute books in February. But in the meantime they were quite happy to take my money and talk to me about the possibility of me having a baby through a friend I had taken who is of Indian origin who said that she was the sister of my husband and that we don’t live in India. She said that perhaps she could be the commissioning parent, or asked if there was perhaps a way around it and she said she would be very happy to discuss this and to consider this with me. I was deeply disturbed by what I saw and the practices from the commission.
I didn’t go to Gujarat to speak to the surrogate women, I wanted to speak to those who directly profited from these women. I was told repeatedly by the clinics I visited that the women would not be sent to what the physician called a ‘colony’ for the duration of her pregnancy because it was very bad for her mental health to be away from her husband. When I said I would really like the surrogate to be monitored she said ‘of course, but you’ll have to pay though.’ Having admitted it was bad for the woman’s mental health, she then said that if I paid, she would do that. I asked if she could reassure me that the women were not coerced into becoming surrogate mothers in the way that many women in prostitution are. She said ‘no of course not, we never allow the women to become a surrogate unless we have the permission of her husband.’ Which was quite a leap of logic.
I asked another doctor if there was much domestic violence towards the surrogate mothers during their pregnancy and this doctor affected a sad pose and said ‘yes, there is, one of our surrogates was being beaten by her husband and she came to us for help so we put her in the room upstairs and she had her baby and then we sent her home.’ Of course as we know with egg donors, the eggs of white women are worth more than the eggs of Indian women because this is a business built on racism and colonialism, but I was told that although it is very rare for a white commissioning parent to want the egg of an Indian woman which is worth about a quarter as much, there was one women who had chosen an Indian egg donor. When I asked why, she said she wanted a baby with black hair. So this is obviously about designer babies and eugenics. We are quite clear that homophobia has no place in the anti-surrogacy movement and I will not compromise on this principle, but there are particular misogynistic practices developing with the gay market being targeted and with some rich white gay women thinking they are entitled to use women’s bodies in whichever way they wish.
There is one gay male couple in the UK, the Drewitt-Barlow’s who have five children through surrogacy. They’ve spent a fortune on buying these children. One of the men said ‘you get what you pay for’ when he was told that one of his children was very handsome. So the children are seen as commodities not just the women whose wombs they use. One of the most disturbing things I’ve heard from commissioning parents was from this man who insisted upon a caesarian birth with all of his children’s births. I assumed from my conversation with clinics earlier that this was something to do with health- this is horrific but I assumed that, but they told me it was because they didn’t want any of their children coming in contact with a woman’s vagina because they found that so disgusting.
Now in the UK, commercial surrogacy is illegal, but there is a creeping acceptance of higher and higher fake expenses being paid to the surrogate mothers. The law is not being implemented and you can see the way in which the regulators are thinking about compensation for egg donors because they recognize the health risks are quite significant. Certainly a blind eye is being turned to women who are being paid commercially to bear children this way. There is a case in the British press of a couple called the Cutters, and they hired a surrogate to have their baby because they were unable to have their own child through the traditional way. This woman has just been convicted for fraud and will likely go to prison. What she did was terrible- she faked a pregnancy, sent the couple fake scans from the hospital and when the baby was due she lied and said it had been killed in a car crash. The woman was paid £8000 by this couple, she of course has been described as monstrous and terrible in the press, the couple are seen as tragic victims almost, all they wanted was their own child and this evil woman lied to them and took their money. No one is investigating why they broke the law, because this is commercial surrogacy. All of the sympathy is towards this couple, nobody is questioning anything about the practice of surrogacy. These people are entitled and this evil woman just didn’t fulfill her contract.
The argument the neoliberals use to defend surrogacy are almost exactly the same as the arguments they use to defend the sex trade. It’s all about ‘choice’ or about ‘agency’ or ‘how can a woman make so much money doing anything else’, or ‘the women enjoy it’, all of the same arguments. Bearing in mind this parallel we can see that legalization of the sex trade in countries where they have experimented with it such as Germany, the Netherland, Nevada in the US where all it does to legalize this trade is to encourage the illegal markets that creep up behind it. The same will happen with surrogacy- we cannot possibly look to regulation- we have to look to abolition.