The recent media attention given to the case of “baby Gammy” — the child of an Australian couple born to a surrogate mother in Thailand, and left in her care by his parents allegedly because he was born with a disability — has led to suggestions that rules around surrogacy should be changed.
The rates of surrogacy in Australia are very low. In 2011, only 80 women volunteered for it, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on August 10.
Paying someone to be a surrogate is illegal in Australia. Because of this restriction, Australians are travelling to countries where surrogacy laws are much less strict and paying women to have a baby for them.
Former Coalition minister Peter Reith suggested on August 19 that a review of surrogacy laws in Australia was needed, with the aim of making commercial surrogacy possible that would allow for tighter regulations.
But in all this discussion there has been little examination of the impact surrogacy has on women’s rights.
For people who cannot conceive naturally, surrogacy is an important option for them to have a family.
The ABC program Foreign Correspondent screened a story in April about couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, as well as single women, who tried surrogacy after not being successful with in vitro fertilization (IVF).
In one interview it was revealed that a couple had successfully acquired a child through surrogacy and were now thinking about “growing their family” with a second child through the avenue of surrogacy. The choice of words suggested something uplifting and essential.
In these stories, there seems to be an unquestioning assumption that childless couples have a right to be able to access surrogacy.
It is accepted that some people are desperate to have children and their desire should trump other considerations.
The personal cost to women who carry the babies is rarely explored. It can paint the booming business in surrogacy in places such as India as consisting of women who blissfully go through nine months of pregnancy and then nonchalantly hand over the baby.
Perhaps we need to be reminded that we are talking about babies, not dolls, and about women who must develop some feelings about what has grown inside them.
Underlying much of the discussion is the assumption that women are not individuals in their own right, separate from their ability to give birth. Instead, women are seen as wombs that can be rented.
In a world of economic inequality, those wombs will invariably belong to women who are poor and need the money.
Baby Gammy’s Thai mother, who the ABC described as “impoverished”, explained that she already has two children and she saw the money she was paid by the Australian couple as a way out of poverty.
An Indian surrogate mother told the ABC: "The amount of money that I would make in these nine months, we cannot ever think of making that amount with the money that we make every month.”
This woman had a family, including a blind son to support. Indian surrogate mothers can earn $5000 for each baby.
Indian author and critic Kishwar Desai has strong misgivings about the surrogacy industry in India. "We're treating these women like animals, like you would do with cattle ... so I think that is something we need to be very careful about," she said.
The baby Gammy case also highlights the fact that things can go wrong. This case was not the first time that surrogate mothers had been left holding the baby, literally, because the baby did not meet the expectations of the prospective parents.
One question that is rarely asked is, why are people, and especially women, so desperate to have children?
For example, a recent program on TV showed the case of a single woman who had tried several times unsuccessfully to have a baby using IVF. She had already set up a complete nursery with everything from cupboards full of nappies to a cot and pram and baby clothing.
Why is it that some women feel that they are incomplete or not real women if they can’t have children, while other childless women live happy, fulfilled lives without any regrets?
Many women even choose not to have children. Why does such a discrepancy exist?
Women feel pressured to have children because our society still teaches us to follow strict gender roles. For women, this involves being a mother and caring for a family.
There have been many advances which challenge strict gender roles, such as the acceptance that women have the right to work and a career, should get equal pay and should not have to put up with discrimination or sexual harassment.
But the message that men and women have different roles is pervasive. One example of this is the story of seven-year-old Charlotte Benjamin who wrote to Lego to complain about gender stereotyping in its toys. She asked them to make toys that “make more Lego girls to go on adventures”.
She added that “all the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and had no jobs,” while the boy figures “went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks”. Lego responded by launching their first-ever female scientist set. The toy set sold out in days.
For myself, the influence of growing up with ideas from the strong women’s liberation movement which ran counter to traditional view of the role of women, meant I did not feel flawed despite the fact that I do not have children.
Sadly, many of the ideas and role models of the feminist movement have been blunted. It shows us that patriarchal capitalism does not give up easily and that feminists need to reboot our movement.