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Paid surrogacy makes disadvantaged women into walking wombs – an unacceptable solution to infertility

Liberal feminism has painted itself into a corner from which it is very hard to launch a coherent critique of surrogacy. 

Last week, a national newspaper ran a piece on the shortage of people in the UK willing or able to sell a kidney.

“It’s terrible,” said one interviewee, a stockbroker forced to buy his kidney from an organ farm in Mumbai. “UK regulations need to change so we can have this service closer to home.”

Another customer agreed.

“It’s very distressing to know that if someone over here sells you their kidney, they can change their mind. The ownership documents aren’t worth the paper they’re written on as long as your kidney’s still busy filtering waste products in the body that grew it.”

A lawyer specialising in cases such as these confirmed that this was a problem:

“The UK has a long way to go in catching up with other nations, some of which have even built dedicated hostels to prevent donors – or living incubators, as we call them – from departing in possession of body parts which are reserved for those with more money.”

Of course, no such piece was actually written.

Wealthy people in this country are not permitted to harvest the bodies of poor people elsewhere. While a shortage of organ donors is a recognised problem, it is widely understood that the exploitation of extreme wealth inequalities is not the solution.

We cannot allow ourselves to reach a point where certain people, born at the wrong time, in the wrong place, have the same status as the clones in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Unless we are talking about international surrogacy. While no one may be publicly complaining of the difficulties of purchasing organs from abroad, the Guardian recently published a highly sympathetic piece on “childless UK couples forced abroad to find surrogates”.

The piece focused on two barriers to finding surrogates: the cost (“attempts to keep costs down have seen the creation of ‘hybrids’, where an egg is fertilised in one country, often where the commissioning parents reside, and then implanted in a woman in a developing country”) and the risk of a surrogate changing her mind (celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi, whose own child was born to a surrogate in the US, claims it is “definitely time the laws were adjusted to allow people to sign legally binding contracts here”).

Throughout the piece, the difficulties are portrayed almost entirely from the perspective of those wanting easier access to rentable wombs. That surrogates are people too, not property on an unstable market, would be an easy thing to miss.

We shouldn’t miss it, though. There is something horrendously dystopian about the growing acceptability of trans-national surrogacy, involving an industry which places poor women of colour in closely monitored residences and treats them as potting soil for the planting and growing of children for wealthier, usually white clients.

While radical feminists have long been critical of the practice, mainstream liberal feminism, which claims to be more aware of intersections of race, class and gender, has remained surprisingly silent on the topic. This is the most literal example we have of women being treated as walking wombs, yet it appears that it would be bad manners to point it out.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we are dealing with competing social justice narratives. While one can feel sympathy for someone needing an organ transplant, there is nothing politically sexy about being restored to health in this way.

Finding alternative ways of understanding and creating family units is, on the other hand, exciting. It feels – and often is – a way of challenging traditional, repressive beliefs about how people should be allowed to live, love and raise their children. Feminism should support such objectives.

For too long, the idea that families are created when women submit to their husbands and give them children has been used to dehumanise anyone who is not a fertile heterosexual adult male.

However, discomforting though it is to see a different side to this story, we need to ask whether all alternatives are better alternatives. In particular, we need to examine the cost of maintaining a belief in continuing one’s genetic line, even as all other beliefs in what makes a family are dismissed as outdated and harmful to others.

If you want a baby to be genetically “yours”, the alternative to being a person who bears it yourself is not going to be finding it under a gooseberry bush. Someone has to gestate that baby. In ways that we may neither wish nor be able to define, that baby is theirs, too.

The status of the surrogate as an actual human being rather spoils the neat, non-patriarchal narrative we may be trying to construct. You may not live with her. She may not have promised to honour and obey you. She may support you in railing against the petty squeamishness that leads people to oppose IVF and other positive developments in reproductive technology.

Still, she will be going through a pregnancy that places her autonomy on the line, compromises her health and changes her mind and body forever. Still, you will be attempting to assume ownership of something that cannot really be sold: her relationship with, and feelings for, the baby she is going to bear.

Liberal feminism has painted itself into a corner from which it is very hard to launch a coherent critique of surrogacy. Two effective but dangerously simplistic slogans, “work is work” and “my body, my choice”, make it almost impossible to claim that what is happening is wrong.

A woman can, it is suggested, rent out any part of herself. To question this would be a denial of her agency. The logical conclusion of such a line of thought is that nothing that is mutually agreed and paid for can be deemed abusive or exploitative, regardless of the gendered, class-based and/or racial conditions under which the agreement is made (which seems to me the antithesis of an intersectional approach).

Even worse, we seem to have reached a situation whereby the more physically or sexually intrusive gendered work is, the more it is seen as anti-establishment and therefore beyond criticism. Thus one woman employing another to clean her house is seen as more abusive than a man employing a woman to gestate, bear and relinquish a child. I can see how we got here but it does not look much like feminism to me.

There is nothing wrong with wanting a family of one’s own. Those who mutter about selfishness and over-population should, but rarely do, have as much censure for people like me, for whom reproduction was straightforward, as they do for those for whom the route is more difficult. But paid surrogacy, involving the exploitation of those disadvantaged by sex, race, class and global inequalities, is not an acceptable solution to infertility, regardless of whether the cause can be connected to other forms of structural oppression.

I’d like to think the problem is not that our restructuring of the family is too radical, but not yet radical enough. If you can convince yourself that a woman’s ties to the baby she bears can be contractually relinquished, why is it so hard to convince yourself that the child you raise need not have any of your genetic matter? Why is the body so important as an idea, but not when it involves actual flesh, blood and pain?

What it comes down to is always the same thing: some people are seen to count more than others. And fine, we can outsource the not-counting to other people, other bodies, other countries. But is this really as far as we want to go?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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