Thursday 10 January 2019

Keeping up with the Kardashians means paying other women to have your babies

If a group of men have their say Britain could soon have its own lucrative surrogate industry

Behold the handmaid (#2) of the Kardashians. Or at least, that of Kim, the celebrity, and Kanye, artist and Trump loyalist. The couple have just announced the commissioning of their fourth child, using the womb of a gestational carrier who will, since this is the US, be paid for the rental.

In details shared after their previous carrier delivered, last year, Kim Kardashian explained to her millions of fans that she was the first person to have “skin on skin” contact with her baby and that the experience, from carrier vetting to the carrier’s organic diet to delivery, had gone so brilliantly she “would recommend surrogacy to anybody” (presumably as the purchaser rather than the provider). One of the few problems was remembering she was having a baby: “I’m totally gonna forget and then a month before I’m gonna be like holy shit, we need to get a nursery.”

For the surrogacy industry, then, this ongoing Kimye promotion may be the most valuable publicity since Elton John and his partner acquired two delightful sons via a similar route – far more so, in fact, since Kardashian, though it could be risky for her to give birth again, at least had the not entirely tragic alternative to gestational assistance of remaining a mother of two healthy children. Conventionally, the attribution of desperation to infertile or gay would-be parents has been critical in eclipsing the other sorts of desperation that might make impoverished Indian, Greek or Ukrainian women consider becoming incubators for rich couples they are unlikely, post baby handover, to see again.

At the same time that the supposed agonies of infertility have for years been critical to burying ethical issues or concern for the surrogates’ wellbeing – as they were in addressing squeamishness about other forms of assisted reproduction – this narrative has also, plainly, restricted take-up of a service that, given the supply, could work for anyone with the money. Who says you have to be childless, in films, or tragic, to employ a willing human incubator? Especially when evidence from women who have done so often suggests that carriers have a super-rewarding time helping out sad, richer ladies, so much so that it’s a wonder that gestation, even with its restrictive contracts and limited long-term rewards, has yet to take off as popular career choice. But perhaps that could change?

Kim Kardashian pregnant with her second child in 2015. Photograph: Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
To have Kardashian now break off from marketing meal replacements to help normalise, say, the invasive scrutiny of surrogates by their hirers, as if it were no different from inspecting a horse’s teeth, or going back, those of a sturdy household servant, is a precious endorsement for an industry now facing organised international threats to its profits (at least $2.3bn annually). For local gestation facilitators, her intervention could hardly be better timed.

After decades in which the UK reproductive industry has lost out, thanks to the insistence on expenses-only carrier altruism, to less regulated overseas gestators – with resulting legal struggles for parents – the Law Commission has been asked by the Department of Health to consult on surrogacy law. Already, for any would-be clients and reproductive entrepreneurs who fear that the commission might be influenced by Sweden’s recent decision to ban surrogacy, the discussion looks likely to proceed along more pragmatic lines. Sir Nicholas Green, chair of the body, has noted that while British surrogacy has increased tenfold in 10 years, the law remains “quite cumbersome”. Streamlining, you gather, is a priority. Moreover, to the extent that the ethics of trading in gestational services, anywhere, do come up, they will be debated – more great news for the womb trade – by a body whose leading figures are, exclusively, male.

In charge of reviewing laws on UK womb rental will be five law commissioners who could only be at the paying end of such a transaction: Green, assisted by Professor Nick Hopkins, Stephen Lewis, Professor David Ormerod QC and Nicholas Paines QC. While the men are undoubtedly conversant with the ethics of gestational labour, and more sensitive to women’s biological reality than Maria Miller, it’s not great for appearances. That part of the female population that notes the uncomfortable parallels between current surrogacy practices and the regimes imposed in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale may need reassuring that Green’s commission had not, before the off, accepted that outsourced gestation, in docile human containers, is so unremarkable as to require only improved paperwork.

In his new, wildly inventive film, Sorry to Bother You, the director Boots Riley introduces an indentured workforce, property of the WorryFree company, whose members trade autonomy, privacy and their labour for a dormitory bed and food. Before the Law Commission considers what, if anything, could constitute appropriate payment for the risks, discomfort and long-term impact of carrying a foetus in circumstances designed for the benefit of the purchaser, it needs to ask if such transactions, even when they’re not fulfilled in remote gestational dormitories, are significantly less dystopic than WorryFree’s. However and wherever they are treated, the women can’t walk away.

That there are some surrogates who found the experience enriching can hardly excuse, or dignify, the related, international surrogacy racket, in which poor women, motivated much like WorryFree’s recruits, are controlled by their renters’ agents, then discarded. And if law reform were to lead to a legal, profitable industry in UK womb rental, as recently proposed by that benevolent judge, Sir James Munby, would this formal commodification of female body parts represent progress? “It’s probably better to face up to reality and move to a proper system of regulation rather than prohibition,” Munby said. A proper system of regulation? He’s talking about women’s bodies, not factories.

(Source: The Guardian)

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