WASHINGTON -- Women's reproductive rights have enjoyed a half-century or so of well-defined proponents and opponents, but the recently flourishing fertility industry, from egg harvesting to surrogacy, has produced fresh and surprising alliances among former foes.
Feminists, traditionalists, Catholics, evangelicals, ethicists and atheists alike have united to combat what many convincingly view as the exploitation and commodification of women, and the violation of human rights even as perfect babies and happy families are formed.
Speaking of quagmires.
Latest to the arena is Louisiana, where a pro-surrogacy bill creating a regulatory structure for surrogate parenting passed both legislative houses with few dissenting votes and now faces a possible veto by Gov. Bobby Jindal. A thumbs-down from Jindal would constitute an act of principled courage given widespread public support and lobbying efforts that have included the prominent display of two beautiful, surrogate-produced children born of the bill's chief author, state Sen. Gary Smith.
During his push for the bill, Smith brought his children to the Statehouse and circulated photographs of the two.
Whatever one may feel about Smith's happy family, "feel" being the operative term, one should also be aware that not all surrogacy stories are so pretty. There is a dark underbelly to the surrogacy industry -- and it is a business -- including a burgeoning industry that preys on vulnerable women, commodifying them as "ovens," a term Smith himself used.
It isn't necessary to demonize anyone here. It is only fair to assume that people who want a child this much are good people with the wherewithal to make dreams come true. The women who carry others' babies to term may be acting out of a sense of service or altruism, but the financial incentive can't be ignored. Surrogacy brokers are wise to their marketplace and specifically target populations that are likely to be attracted to surrogacy. Almost half the surrogates in this country are military wives, according to Kathy Sloan, a National Organization for Women board member and surrogacy opponent.
Though laws, where they exist, vary from state to state, advertising in military periodicals and elsewhere lists requirements that the woman must already be a mom and thus know the ropes, as well as be a proven breeder. She must be willing to stay in place until the baby is born and, of course, surrender rights to the child. Although the woman is paid between $25,000 and $50,000 for her surrogacy, the language of most legislation speaks only to "living expenses" and coverage of medical bills. Most allow for termination of pregnancy should some abnormality be discovered pre-term.
The simplicity of the human desire for children notwithstanding, there's nothing simple about the surrogacy business -- and we haven't scraped the surface of the metaphysical, spiritual, emotional, psychological issues with which a brief flirtation evokes mind-twisting complexities. Physical concerns, meanwhile, are plentiful.
This obviously is rich territory for pro-life crusaders for whom compromise on embryos is impossible, but NOW's Sloan, a pro-choice activist, shares no such concerns. She sees surrogacy only as the exploitation of vulnerable women. She also sees a variety of class and race issues at play. The rich take advantage of the poor for designer babies, Caucasian features for carrier preferred.
The U.S. is second only to India in providing surrogates, according to Sloan, who also works with the U.N. on human rights. But even India, where some women are warehoused for nine months and forbidden to leave during the pregnancy, recently has set limits on surrogacy. Here in America, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently vetoed a bill similar to Louisiana's upon learning the darker details behind the family portraits.
While no one wishes to cause pain to people who, for whatever reason, can't have a child on their own, there are more compelling principles and consequences in play. Human babies are not things; their mothers are not ovens. But bartering and selling babies-to-order sure make them seem that way. By turning the miracle of life into a profit-driven, state-regulated industry, the stork begins to resemble a vulture.