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What’s special about the labour of labour?

Bronwyn Parry
Fertility ethics
Fertility industry
Ethical Consideration
Unregulated fertility sector
Regulated fertility sector
I am particularly interested in issues surrounding the commodification of life, and life forms. And one of the areas that I have begun to work in more recently is around the questions of surrogacy. And one of the things that interested me initially about surrogacy was the fact that there had been many debates, you’ve probably read many of them in the public press in recent times, that all allude to the fact that surrogacy is a particularly exploitative kind of labour. And that is one of the primary sort of ethical concerns around surrogacy.
So people would say, “don’t you think it is really rather immoral, to ask someone else to have a child for you on your behalf when especially, if that person comes from a situation in life where they are more impoverished, or they’re in a situation where the social or cultural circumstances are more challenging?”
And part of that rests on an assumption, I think, that the people who are doing the commissioning, what we call the commissioning, so they are paying for that person to have the child, are people who are from a higher social cast/class, if we can use that-, I use the word cast because in a way I’m, a lot of my research has been in India, in Mumbai, Jaipur and cities like that where commercial surrogacy has become a very big thing in India. And I could talk a little bit about the globalisation of that in a minute.
But one of the concerns is that it is wealthy, white westerners who are coming to make use of these services in countries like India and that they are exploiting the very poor impoverished women who are there to carry babies on their behalf. So, there are a few really sort of pressing issues that arise there. And in fact, I came to work on surrogacy first of all because I was very concerned about that exploitative practice So I was very concerned on behalf of the Indian women. I was thinking this is terrible, you know, I agreed with all of that argument. But then I always challenge myself to try and think more critically.
And I began to think to myself is that the whole question or is that the whole answer? And I really wanted to go and see for myself, what was surrogacy actually like in these cities? Who was doing the surrogacy? Who was commissioning the surrogacy? And what I discovered was I think, a number of very interesting things that rather challenged some of those presumptions that we are working from.
So, the first thing that I found that I think is of interest is that, a lot of these women who perform surrogacy, there is no doubt that they are operating under what anthropologists would call, ‘conditions of structural violence.’ So what that means is that they are at the absolute bottom of the heap when it comes to economic-income, you know, their social standing, many circumstances, their living conditions, and so on. However, I would say actually it is important to realise, not at the very bottom. So they are not women who live in the worst of India’s slums for instance. They are people who are slightly up the sort of order from that.
And interestingly a lot of them are women who are sometimes single parents and single parents of girls. And what that means is that, because of the kind of gender issues in India a lot of their female children will struggle to get an education, will struggle to get on in life. And so what these women are doing is they are taking on the act of being a surrogate for someone else because they are determined that their girl children will not suffer the same social and economic fate that they have. So, they are doing this in a very sort of deliberate almost a kind of entrepreneurial sort of way.
They’re doing it because they are thinking that they are women who have to have had at least two children before, of their own. And they are thinking this is something I could conceivably do. I could relinquish this child if it means that what I am going to do is improve dramatically the position of my own child or my own family. Now a lot of people think well how could those women possibly come to terms with that? Or is that too much to ask of any person? And I think that is a very valid question to ask. Is it too much to ask of one person?
However, what I would say is that a second set of arguments around surrogacy are that there is something that’s sanctified about the labour of labour, if I could put it that way. So, the labour of giving birth is about giving life to a human being, and that is a particularly unique kind of labour. However, when you deconstruct that a little more you have to ask yourself the question of, why is it unique? So, what I mean by that is there are lots of kinds of bodily labour that we all do, we’re all in situations in which we use our bodies.
Some people who are things like, people like stonemasons or brick layers or rickshaw drivers in Mumbai who are dragging rickshaws behind them, you know their bodies are punished much more, so than when you have a child because it is a life long, if you like, assault, affront to your corporeality. Which is often, you know, has very negative effects on you.
And a lot of the women who are performing surrogacy, if you actually look at what are their alternative forms of employment so, honestly, a lot of them are working in things like, you know, toxic waste recycling industries tramping dye in toxic dye vats, working in you know very, sort of dangerous situations that are threatening to their body, to their life. So in that sense I don’t think surrogacy is more of a physical assault than some of those other alternative occupations. Then people say, “well could it be that it is a more emotional kind of labour?” It is a more affective kind of labour. So the woman becomes invested in creating this life, in making this child, that is certainly true.
However, what I would say is, to raise a question. Is that unique? Does it make it a unique kind of labour? And I would say actually on reflection probably not. Now I know a lot of people won’t agree with me about that but If you look at our own society, if we bring anthropology back home, and think about how we actually do these things right here in the UK, you know, we have to admit to ourselves that we actually pay people to do a huge amount of emotional and affective labour for us. So, for instance we pay people to look after our very frail and elderly parents. We pay people to look after our grandparents who have dementia.
We pay nursery workers to care, comfort, love for, mop up the bodily fluids and so on of our tiny children who are in nursery, I might add some of them from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. So, let’s not get too judgemental about other people when we think about those kinds of labour because we might find that we are doing them-, doing that kind of labour ourselves.

Is carrying someone else’s child as part of a commercial contract necessarily exploitative? Does the fact that the work of pregnancy is carried out in the gestational carrier’s body result in some form of commodification?

These questions are not easily answered, and so Professor Bronwyn Parry travelled to India over several years to understand the motivations and the living conditions of women like Papiha.

After years of empirical research and visits to numerous fertility clinics across the vast Indian sub-continent, Professor Parry actually found that her views were slowly changing.

Prior to setting out with her anthropological field work, she had been of the opinion that gestational surrogacy cannot ever be ethical, that it was necessarily an exploitative business.

Yet the reality she encountered was more complex: some fertility clinics offer women a opportunity to improve their chances in life, to teach them vital skills like computer literacy and accounting, and this can enable them to become more independent.

For your discussion: Is there something special about the labour or labour? Is it different from other types of work, which, as Bronwyn Parry points out, can be even more physically demanding? If so, what effect does that then have on the act of carrying someone else’s child with the intention of giving it up at birth?

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