You can be happy for Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black and criticise commercial surrogacy at the same time

Surrogacy can be a joyful act of generosity – but there is a need to understand the risks to the most vulnerable women once we start to think of wombs as rentable spaces

Victoria Smith
Monday 02 July 2018 15:11
Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black welcomed their first child via surrogate last week
Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black welcomed their first child via surrogate last week

Same-sex parenting can be great for children. There are even studies that demonstrate this, although it’s not even clear why such things should be needed.

Children need love, care and acceptance, all of which can be supplied or withheld by parents of either sex. Antagonism towards gay and lesbian couples raising children has no basis in fact; it is prejudice, pure and simple.

The persistence of such prejudice is one of the reasons why the visibility of gay parents, such as Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black, is important. I’m old enough to remember the furore over the 1980s children’s book Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin. Three decades later, same-sex couples and their children should not still be having to deal with this crap.

Since announcing the birth of their son, Daley and Black have had to deal with a barrage of homophobic attacks on their right to be parents at all. This has been mixed in with criticism of their use of a surrogate to bear their child.

To many, all this amounts to the same thing. Daley has himself suggested that there is a double standard in play where criticism of surrogacy is concerned: “Take Kim Kardashian, for example – she used a surrogate and there wasn’t any issue with it.” It is, he implies, the same old homophobia. But is that really true?

When Daley and Black announced that they were expecting a child by displaying an ultrasound scan, I’ll admit I felt a sense of unease. It’s the same unease I felt when Sofie Vergara’s ex-partner Nick Loeb, a straight man, held forth about a man’s entitlement to “bring his embryos to term” or when Cristiano Ronaldo announced he was “expecting” again.

It’s the same unease I feel when I read about the growth in surrogacy hostels or see the list of conditions (medication permitted, health checks, forbidden foods) set for women gestating on behalf of others. Surrogacy is something about which I’ve written pretty extensively, without exclusively focussing on one set of parents. Hence the conflation of homophobic opposition to same-sex parenting and feminist opposition to commercial surrogacy seems to me in need of correcting.

Tom Daley and his husband have revealed that they’re expecting their first child together

There is tendency on the liberal left to see anything that is disruptive to the idealisation of the heterosexual nuclear family as a force for good. Same-sex parenting would fall into that category, and as such it benefits not just individual children, but all of us who want to see an end to prescriptive gender roles.

Surrogacy, on the other hand, is only superficially disruptive by association. It is not a recently developed concept – it can be found in the Bible in the story of Abraham, Sarah and their surrogate/slave Hagar – and discomfort with women being impregnated solely to bear children for others is not irrefutable evidence of a knee-jerk conservatism – witness, for instance, the current upsurge in popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale.

It’s simply not true that surrogacy is only criticised when used by gay men. There’s actually a long history of feminist critiques of surrogacy as a practice. Katha Pollitt raised concerns in her 1987 article for The Nation on The Strange Case of Baby M, in which a wealthy heterosexual couple paid a poor woman to bear a child which she did not wish to hand over.

In 1983’s Right Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin claimed there to be “no analogy between the sperm of a man and the womb of a woman”.

“Men have not yet grasped that women are not baby-making machines, and that women’s bodies are not commodities best suitable to be sold. […] Otherwise [surrogate motherhood] would be unthinkable.”

Meanwhile Gina Corea, author of 1985’s The Mother Machine, suggested that “in surrogate motherhood, the woman is again seen as the vessel for a man’s seed, just as she was under Aristotelian biology”. In more recent years, Julie Bindel has highlighted the moral issues and suffering caused by commercial surrogacy in a global context of sexual, racial and economic inequality.

Daley doesn’t seem to know the history of surrogacy, or its position within broader debates around reproductive justice. It can be a consensual, even joyful act of generosity – I know people for whom this has been the case, and trust this applies in the case of Daley and Black – but there is a need to understand the risks to the most vulnerable women once we start to think of wombs as rentable spaces. A narrative which erases the specificity of female reproductive experience, treating it merely as a service rendered, endangers those who are feel they have nothing but the spaces within them to sell.

Reproductive justice is not just a matter of securing access to contraception and abortion. It also means the right to bear your own children, not those of other people, and to be free from social, religious and/or economic pressures that force you to do otherwise. Right now there are women of colour in Indian surrogacy hostels gestating white babies for wealthy customers. As one asks interviewer Seemi Pasha: “Why would I do this if I had money?”

In claiming surrogacy enables him and his partner to be “just like any heterosexual couple”, Daley sidesteps – or possibly doesn’t notice – the way in which patriarchy has used enforced heterosexuality to facilitate the appropriation of female reproductive labour. This has harmed both women and gay men, and while it’s true that commercial surrogacy enables the wealthier members of at least one of these groups to partake of the spoils of patriarchy, too, this is hardly liberation for all.

The right to parent must be seen as distinct from the right to have another person gestate a child for you. This is not something that applies solely to gay men; it applies to everyone, and while some people have traditionally had greater access to the exploitation of female reproductive bodies than others, this does not make exploitation itself a right.

I hope the surrogate used by Daley and Black is well and happy, just as I hope Daley and Black enjoy parenthood. What I also hope is that we can change the current narrative regarding surrogacy, recognising the enormous costs and particular risks to marginalised women.

Conservative narratives – the same ones that tell us same-sex parenting is wrong – tell us that foetuses are merely “unborn children”, lone travellers existing in their own right without the enormous sacrifices and risks of pregnancy and birth. We must resist seeing the world this way. Everyone matters; no one’s body is merely a means to someone else’s ends, and no one’s body should be presented to the world so partially, as merely the background to a scan, the remainder lost in the dark.

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