DANIEL VAUGHAN: Kardashians, surrogacy, and the dehumanization of women

If you’re the type to keep up with the Kardashians, you may have already seen one of the latest stories from the clan. Kim and Kanye are having their fourth, and last, child.

This child, like the third, is being born through surrogacy, though through a different surrogate woman. I think my favorite line from their announcement of this was when Kim explained that she didn’t want to stretch herself too thin and leave less time for Kanye.

Surrogacy is the act of being a surrogate: that is, a woman carrying a pregnancy to term for another couple. In modern times, this means that using in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other artificial reproduction techniques (ART), the fertilized egg is implanted into the surrogate woman to carry to term.

Among the many legal and ethical concerns around surrogacy is the central problem that surrogacy commodifies a woman, making her and her womb the end product. But in the U.S., there is sparse legislation on the practice. California broadly protects it, which is why the Kardashians found it a viable alternative to either adoption or natural pregnancy.

The laws surrounding surrogacy are relevant to note because they’ve encouraged surrogacy tourism across the globe.

The problem with this level of commodification is that it thoroughly reduces women to nothing more than any other economic good for purchase on the market, and there is very little protection for them.

For instance, in 2013, when India — the top country for surrogacy tourism — tweaked its laws in 2013, surrogate women started traveling to Nepal to give birth. The surrogate clinics followed them there.

Then, the horrific 2015 earthquake hit Nepal, killing 4,000 people. TIME magazine had correspondents in the region, and they noticed that surrogates mothers were ditched to the side when Israeli homosexual couples flew in, snagged the babies, and jetted off — leaving the surrogates for dead.

Nepal was forced to ban foreigners from using their country as a surrogacy destination. The surrogate women received little support and once they were used, they were thrown to the side.

Indeed, even though India experienced a billion dollar industry from surrogacy, they’ve had to crack down on reproductive tourism because so many women were exploited in the process. Other problems involved couples who “ordered” the babies deciding to break their contract last second and decline to accept the children.

A paper in the Indian Journal of Community Medicine noted that it was ironic that surrogacy was so popular in a nation with more than 12 million children up for adoption.

In the U.S., there’s isn’t much evidence to show that women are being abused to the extent that they are abroad. But the commodification and dehumanization of women is still happening. And you get a sense of that even reading the various Kardashian stories: they chose the surrogate they wanted to use, brought her on their reality TV show for entertainment, and continued as if nothing was at all abnormal about the setup.

Matthew Tieu, writing for Bioethics Research Notes in Australia, also argued that surrogacy reduces all normal ethical and legal controls we have regarding natural birth:

Surrogacy fails to respect the dignity or primacy of the welfare of the child. It involves the subordination of the welfare the child and surrogate in favour of the commissioning parents desires to have a child. As Rosalie Ber states: “The question of whether the suffering of a childless woman is greater than that of the gestational surrogate, who ‘abandons’ her baby, is ‘solved’ when the surrogate mother is de-personalized, and looked upon solely as a ‘womb for rent.'”

Some countries and U.S. states have attempted to circumnavigate this arrangement by banning surrogacy for profit and only allowing altruistic surrogacy.

But it seems to me even altruistic surrogacy misses the point. It’s saying the only time surrogacy is legal is when the woman in question is willing to sacrifice for another couple under contract.

There’s still the problem of dehumanizing another woman and reducing her to something less. In past cultures, entire castes developed around concubines for kings and other royals.

And therein is the crux of the problem with surrogacy: reducing a woman below the bar set by our moral, ethical, and statutory laws. Failing to deal with that complexity allows for the exploitation of women like we’ve witnessed around the world.

Law Professor Lynne Marie Kohm, the McCarty Professor of Family Law at the Regent University School of Law, correctly noted several years ago that these complexities simply can’t be ignored, writing:

Family building occurs with the assistance of artificial reproductive technology, making miracles happen, yet those miracles are not without moral and legal complexity. The law may attempt to clarify the legal issues surrounding those decisions, but personal and family vulnerability are guaranteed. Life may hang in the balance for a child; a marriage may be jeopardized; a beautiful family may be created; but moral decisions will not be absent.

While our entertainment media is fawning over the Kardashians for choosing surrogacy, there’s a real price getting paid for this practice.

The #MeToo movement unmasked all the horrors of sexual exploitation in businesses and industries across the world. The surrogacy industry is in dire need of a similar moment that reveals the horrors it glosses over.

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