Contracting Wombs

Society & Culture | By Wanjiku wa Ngugi, Author | 21 November 2014

A few years ago I followed with trepidation the story of a Kenyan evangelist who claimed to have created miracle babies through prayer in the UK. He later lost a battle against extradition to Kenya to face five charges of kidnapping.  His is not an isolated incidence.

The media is awash with stories about child trafficking, and babies, some as young as weeks old being sold to the highest bidder.  There is also the booming baby factories, where, in some cases women are held captive, raped and released after they have given birth to the babies who make their way to the seemingly insatiable baby market. But it was when I was writing The Fall of Saints, a novel about a woman who finds her agency through dissecting the murky world of baby trafficking, that I found just how widespread trafficking of babies had become.

Now there is a new frontier of the baby business. Surrogacy. It seems so simple. A couple desperate to have a child. A poor woman desperate to make ends meet. A middleman. A signed contract. Everybody wins. But not so fast. In an emerging new story recently, an Australian couple took one healthy twin born to a surrogate Thai woman and left her with the other twin born with Down Syndrome. Enter into the world of the morally questionable surrogacy.

But before we start debating who did what, where and how, perhaps it’s wise to consider how we arrived at this place, where we feel it’s okay to transform a biological function of a woman´s body into a commercial contract? I am not against surrogacy but mostly worried about the moral and ethical questions in the industry. It’s indeed an industry. Supply and demand. There are buyers. Sellers. Middlemen. Advertisements. Recruitment. Interviews. Agents. Brokers. And like any industry it has created an immense opportunity for a black market. In Nigeria, police discovered what they referred to as a baby factory for 32 teenage girls some of whom were allegedly being held against their will, raped and their newborns sold on the black market. In another case it was reported that five Albanians had been arrested near the Greek-Albanian border for the alleged sale of eight Roma infants.

Somewhere in our psyche we have made it okay to trade in babies. As we do with corn and flowers, only perhaps the laws for transporting food from country A to B are probably more stringent. It should be alarming to think that children can be literally manufactured for exportation. It reeks of days when youthful men and women were kidnapped assembled and then sold off into slavery. Now babies are the ones being assembled in the wombs of often poor and low income women for the gratification of the needs of the rich. That we live in a world where poor women are disposable for a price.

There is an argument to be made that the exchange of currency indicates that no coercion was in place, therefore a legit transaction. But given the economic conditions of most of these women in surrogacy arrangements, can we really argue that they have a choice? I would instead argue that these kinds of transactions highlight troubling questions about the relationship between choice and global inequality.

“…Not in my entire life do I want my daughter to be a surrogate,” says one surrogate mother in India. In yet another case an Indian mother weeps for her dead daughter, who convulsed and died during her last stages of pregnancy as a surrogate. In this case one wonders whose responsibility her death is, amongst all the players, who include the clinic as well as the contracting parents of the baby who survived.

This leads us to examine what it will mean to women´s reproductive rights if embryos become legally defined. In cases of surrogacy it could mean that the fetus belongs to the client, and not the woman it is dependent on. That the contracted womb of the woman does not belong to her, reducing her to a mere incubator. There are other questions too, pertaining to genetics, and if the baby has a right to access the birth mother´s genetic history. How about the recipient parents, other than dishing out cash, should they take responsibility of knowing the history of the babies they buy?  Or does one´s need to be a parent supersede all moral and ethical questions.

It should be troubling to anyone to buy the womb of an economically and socially vulnerable woman. We ought to be concerned about vulnerable young girls, as well as the babies born in these arrangements.

From the cases we have witnessed so far it´s quite clear that in countries with deep socio economic disparities the possibility of abuse is very apparent.  But most importantly we need to address the inequalities that make it possible for a woman to contract her womb to make ends meet.