What the Surrogacy Debate Can Learn from the Sex Workers Movement: Part 2

In India, a fiery debate regarding surrogacy illustrates how we, including those in the women’s movement, have still to resolve a number of uncomfortable questions when it comes to women’s choice and autonomy.   Continued from Part I.

Surrogacy opponents raise diverse ethical, religious and nationalist arguments against the practice. Women and men alike have proclaimed that women’s bodies and their reproductive capacity are reflections of God, and should not be the sites of production within a capitalist system. Nationalists oppose wealthy, white westerners benefitting from the purchase of poor brown bodies. Another principle of some of these arguments is that women’s bodies, and their reproductive capacities, are public goods, belonging to families, states and religions, rather than women themselves. 

However, these arguments are founded on the same underlying assumptions about women’s agency.   While concern about the power imbalance between poor women in developing countries and rich families in the West is understandable, an unstated implication of many of these arguments is that poor women are intrinsically without rights and incapable of making decisions themselves regarding their bodies, and therefore, must be protected by laws that prevent them from “selling their wombs.”

 In many ways, this debate has illustrated similar tensions that exist about sex work, an old and still-burning fire amongst feminists. Many feminists believe that sex work is inherently a form of violence and mistreatment against women, and therefore deny that thousands of women worldwide choose to engage in sex work. On the other hand, sex workers’ rights activists argue for the need to respect women’s different decisions regarding how to use their bodies for paid labor.

A few feminist organizations in India, like CREA , have wisely recommended that feminists try to learn some lessons from the sex workers movement: Respect women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies and lives, and work on social, political and economic empowerment for all women through a long- term commitment.

Issues regarding consent and choice are complicated. Most of us make rational decisions based on a set of circumstances. Women throughout the world face difficult circumstances, but that does not change our right to make those decisions. In India, it is clear that people’s ideas of nationhood and manhood are threatened by the “outsourcing of reproduction.”  However, it is important that we focus on the issue at hand- ensuring fairer circumstances and greater choices for women. Women have the right to be surrogates, just as they have a right to make various other kinds of decisions about their bodies and lives. The role of policymakers is to ensure that labor and health regulations protect the rights of women in cases where they opt to be surrogates.

As a sex worker with SANGRAM in Maharashtra recently told me, “Those working to make brick-making a safer profession don’t try to ban brick-making, so why are people trying to get us to change our professions?”



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