In light of the recent proposed changes to the UK law regarding surrogacy by the Law Commission, there have been some fairly scathing attacks on surrogacy, in its entirety, by many women’s rights groups. As someone who has always strongly identified as a feminist, and champions equal rights for women in my life and in my careers as a midwife and a teacher, some of the arguments presented on this topic have been quite upsetting and offensive to read. So, I have decided to reply to this, with what feminism, and surrogacy, mean to me.
Firstly, I want to address the ethical concerns with surrogacy. Trust me, I do get it. Surrogacy absolutely has the potential to be exploitative of women, and in many countries I feel strongly that it is. Believing in surrogacy in a safe system does not mean I condone it in all its guises. It is one of the main reasons that I find the idea of commercial surrogacy very concerning. I don’t object to women financially benefiting from surrogacy per se, but when women may be coerced into it through financial hardship and possibly without their own consent in the matter, we need to be critical and concerned. There is a reason that international surrogacy has become illegal in many less developed nations; women have been used as a womb to make a small financial gain, whilst big companies have taken most of the profit. They may not have access to safe IVF procedures, or access to safe health and maternity care, and there is little or no relationship with the intended parents.
However, in the UK, the system does not work in this way. We do not have a commercial system, surrogates can only claim back our expenses, therefore the danger of financial exploitation is far reduced, and there are no big corporations making profit on top. In the UK, you only choose to be a surrogate if you want to help someone, and we have measures in place to ensure that surrogates have been fully informed, consenting and reimbursed. Nobody asks us, we offer if we want to help. It’s an equal playing field and based on friendship, trust and mutual respect.
It’s My Body
Surrogacy is often described as just another way that women are exploited for their bodies. That their wombs are objects to be bought and sold, and it is compared frequently by anti-surrogacy groups, to sex work. For me, intersectional feminism means respecting all women, in all the informed and consensual choices they make regarding their bodies. Be that what clothes they wear, abortion and contraception rights, trans rights, surrogacy and yes, sex work. By all means, make sure that all women are protected from being abused and treated with anything less than equal respect, but if a woman tells you that she is fully consenting and understanding of something and has made that choice, respect her right to do so, regardless of whether you would make the same choice. Women supporting ALL women, no exceptions.
By telling me that you are saving me from the patriarchy by making it illegal to use my body to help another person, you are restricting my body rights, the same thing that you suggest you are liberating me from.
In the UK, as commercial surrogacy is not legal, the carrying woman retains all of her body rights at all times. You can discuss your preferences as a team, and if they do not align then it is wise to not go forward together as a team, but once the baby is in the woman’s uterus, it is a part of her body and nobody can force her to do or not do anything regarding the baby. It has no rights in utero, and I believe this is a crucial part of feminism. As soon as we make demands of a woman regarding the baby in her uterus, then we infringe on her human rights, and that is why I feel so safe as a surrogate. This does not mean that I do not make decisions in partnership with the baby’s parents, but if commercial surrogacy meant that I was contractually obliged to behave in a certain way, eat in a certain way, birth in a certain way, to me I would have lost my autonomy and my body would now be bought and sold. I would not choose to be a surrogate in this instance.
Poor and Uneducated?
We have seen protests from groups claiming that UK surrogates are mainly poor, uneducated and ill-informed. That we mostly come from low socio-economic backgrounds and must be being coerced. No evidence of this has been provided from UK statistics. I am not going to list my qualifications, but I can certainly say that I am distinctly middle-class, and always have been. I know and love many surrogates, and trust me, we are a mixed bag, but we are not idiots. Of course, our surrogates range in backgrounds and lifestyles, but I am definitely the rule rather than the exception in terms of socio-economic status.
And we are offended. We are hurt and angry to be told that by choosing to donate our wombs for a short while that we must be fools. Sure, you don’t have to understand it, we all have different things that light us up in life. I cannot fathom why anyone would want to climb Mount Everest, but I respect their right to do so, and that it is well informed. I don’t think anyone would get so distressed about somebody choosing to do that, even though you have a 6.5% chance of dying on Everest, and a 0.01% chance of dying in childbirth in the UK. Nobody would be so upset if I donated a kidney, why is loaning your womb so problematic?
What I can tell you about most surrogates, and anybody who knows and loves a surrogate will agree, is that we are obstinate and determined, and people who think outside of the box. We are humans trying to make the most out of this one life, regardless of the opinions of others. As my family will tell you, nobody has ever persuaded me to do anything in my life, and certainly never stopped me doing something I wanted to. We are strong women with strong minds, don’t try to tell us that we are not or that we must not. Well behaved women seldom make history, and we are making family histories.
Motherhood, Feminism and Surrogacy
If there is one thing that most feminists get fed up of, it is defining our worth as women by motherhood. Yet somehow, when we take surrogacy into account, our ‘motherhood’ is constantly called into question. The idea that we can carry a baby without developing a maternal bond is considered beyond us as women. I understand that many women would not be able to carry a child without developing a bond, but we know that we can, and we are able to be rational thinkers and great women, whilst not developing a bond to the baby residing in our uterus. It is a strange argument to me, because it feels so at odds with the idea that we deserve reproductive freedom.
Parenthood is not defined by the vagina which birthed you, it is about those who loved, raised and parented you. Ask the children, they are not scarred or damaged by the anecdote that they grew in their family friend’s tummy, it’s very inconsequential in their lives. They were never rejected or abandoned, they were created in love for their family, with a bit of help. And the idea that a child needs a mother’s love? As we move away from the idea of the incompetent, toxically masculine father, as men step up to their roles as loving, supportive, co-parents in every way. Suddenly the idea of a ‘mother’s love’ becomes less significant. Research shows that children in same-sex parent households are just as happy as those in mixed gender families. Don’t project your homophobia and call it feminism.
If anybody has made it all the way through this, I hope you get a sense of how it feels to be a surrogate and a feminist, and why those protesting it need to open their minds and listen to other women.
Jessica Smart is a surrogate with SurrogacyUK, currently expecting her first surrogate baby. She lives in Sussex with her husband and two children, and currently works as a college tutor, but her background is as a midwife. She recently won Surrogacy Maternity Professional of the Year 2019.