Want To Work For $3 An Hour?Elisabeth Eaves, 07.24.09, 12:00 AM EDT
Try surrogate motherhood.
Hiring out the gestation of one's child is now a mainstream idea, if not a mainstream practice. Celebrities, whose reproductive habits are tracked by tabloids as though survival of the species were at stake, are leading the charge toward normalization. With Robert De Niro, Angela Bassett, Kelsey Grammer and now actor duo Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick having used surrogates, adopting African babies looks positively passé. The fact that Michael Jackson's third child was born to a surrogate didn't seem to raise an eyebrow, though that may be because his life was rich with bigger eccentricities.
Among mortals the figures are still tiny, but the trend is up: The American Society for Reproductive Medicine saw a 30% rise in surrogate births between 2004 and 2006, for a total of 1,059 live births in 2006, the most recent year for which it could provide data. But if surrogacy is increasing in practice and visibility, the idea still touches an emotional and ethical nerve.
In the U.S., there's no consensus on whether it should even be legal. State law varies widely, so that certain states, like Ohio and California, have become hubs for the gestation business. But the U.S. is more permissive than most other Western nations. Just as Thailand and Costa Rica have sex tourism, the U.S. is now a destination for gestational tourism, with couples from Europe and beyond hiring American wombs. For smaller budgets, there's India, where the number of surrogate births is thought to be at around a couple hundred a year and rising.
The most common narrative in news reports is that Americans feel OK about the practice--as long as the contracting parents are convincingly unable to reproduce on their own. No one has actually found a woman who hired a surrogate just to avoid stretch marks and bloat, but doctors and surrogates regularly avow in the press that they would never help such a selfish specimen.
If you're infertile, on the other hand, the consensus seems to be that you have every right to harness medical science and someone else's healthy body to your needs. (Though Alex Kuczynski, who wrote in the New York Times Magazine about using a surrogate, was reviled, despite having tried other means first.) Society's permission goes, too, to those incapable of giving birth because they are men. Not much hue and cry has been raised over single guys, like Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin, hiring surrogate mothers. Unlike contracting mothers, contracting fathers don't have to make announcements about how hard they tried before hiring the job done. With single men using surrogates, we've now arrived at a situation in which it's illegal to pay a women to have sex for any amount of money--but acceptable to pay to use her body for nine months for well under minimum wage.
In the wake of publicity about the Parker-Broderick twins, blogger Meredith Simons at Doublex.com did some number crunching. For a typical carrier fee of $20,000 in the U.S., the surrogate ends up getting paid about $3 an hour for each hour she's pregnant. (That's based on a pregnancy of 266 days, or 6,384 hours.) The New York Times recently reported an arrangement that paid the surrogate $12,000. That's 50 cents an hour.
On Doublex.com, other posters quickly pointed out that billable hours can't possibly tell the whole story. On one hand, the true costs of undergoing someone else's pregnancy include pre-insemination treatments and postpartum emotional pain, and can extend to long-term health risks. On the other, some surrogates enjoy the feelings of beneficence and prestige associated with pregnancy. In the womb-rental business, contracting parents and surrogates alike always protest that it's not about the money. Even when it is.
In an in-depth report in Newsweek last year, one surrogate avowed that she couldn't possibly be in it for the money, because the rate "would barely be minimum wage." But let's consider that $20,000 figure. Newsweek observed that surrogacy has become popular with military wives, whose husbands, as enlisted soldiers, make $16,080 to $28,900. At those salaries a surrogate could double her family income--for a job that, like her husband's, is a risky, full-bodied, around-the-clock experience.
In India $20,000 would be wildly above market. The Straits Times reported that there, at the Akanksha clinic in the city of Anand, a high-caste womb fetches 300,000 rupees, or $6,219, while a lower-caste woman gets half that amount. A New Delhi NGO has said that some Indian women are paid as little as 25,000, or $518.
Some call it exploitation, which is basically a word for perceived market failure. We call a thing exploitative when we feel that the market has gotten the value of the good all wrong, indeed may not be capable of valuing it at all. We sense that a legal market for organs would be rife with possibilities for exploitation, and so for now, at least, selling organs remains illegal--though hotly debated--in the U.S.
The market is only ever a paltry proxy for what things really mean to us, and most of the time that doesn't matter. Who cares how your neighbor truly feels about his car? When it comes to the human body, though, the market makes us uncomfortable. We don't even grant the owners of bodies full jurisdiction over them.
I think the laws on the body, though--against selling sex, surrogacy and organs--will continue to fall away. They're already impossibly inconsistent. And for better or for worse, most Americans don't want their government to legislate morality, because we never know if the legislator's version of righteousness will match our own. We've cast our lot with secular capitalism. And so the only shared value system we have, however paltry, is the market.