Surrogate mothers now said to be victims of trafficking

Surrogacy was the other target of the Swedish author of an extremely bad book called Varat och varan: Prostitution, surrogatmödraskap och den delade människan (very hard title in any language but something like Being and being a thing: prostitution, surrogate motherhood and the divided person). Other more reliable commentators on the idea of commodification worry about surrogate motherhood, including Arlie Hochschild. For extremists in this area (which Hochschild is not), women should not allow themselves to ‘be used’ to incubate other people’s babies, and they find it specially enraging that richer whiter people should be the ones paying for these babies. In line with the anti-prostitution argument, anti-surrogacy activists feel that sexual and reproductive organs should be employed only for personal pleasure and fulfillment. The presence of money in the childbirth process offends them monumentally, even if the women involved say that they want to earn money having other people’s babies – an argument familiar from the prostitution field.

Here the suspicion is raised that women from Viet Nam were trafficked to Thailand and forced into surrogacy. The person from Human Rights Watch interviewed below makes it clear, however, that at least some of the women involved knew what they were doing. Now the authorities have to try to separate the true knowers from the pseudo-knowers, just as happens after brothel raids. To me it sounds very difficult to ‘force’ people 24 hours a day for 9 months to do what they are told if they don’t want to: if the babies are to be born healthy the mothers can’t be allowed to suffer, after all.

Thai police bust Asian surrogacy ring

28 February 2011. ABC Radio Australia

Thai authorities are trying to decide what to do with the offspring of Vietnamese women freed from an illegal surrogacy ring in Bangkok. A total of 14 women, half of them pregnant, were freed on Wednesday. The baby-sales operation used the women as surrogates for wealthy childless couples overseas who placed orders for newborns online. Thai police have arrested four Taiwanese, one Chinese and three Burmese nationals in connection with the operation. But the babies have been born into a legal grey area, with Thailand still mulling the ramifications of the case.

Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Phil Robertson, deputy director, Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, Bangkok

LAM: Phil, first of all tell us about this ring, were the women forced into surrogacy, or were they willing participants?

ROBERTSON: Well, it’s still a bit unclear at this time. The police and social workers from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security are still interviewing them. A lot of information hasn’t come out yet. It looks like there was probably a mix here of some people who may have known what they were getting into and some people who were forced, but there’s clearly a number of cases where we believe human trafficking was taking place.

LAM: And I understand the surrogacy is illegal in Thailand, so the owners of this company seem to be pretty bold in offering their services so openly. Do you think that’s largely due to government inaction?

ROBERTSON: Well, I think that many people know there is some sort of laxness in enforcement of laws in Thailand. I think that they probably thought they could get away with it. They had on their web site very clearly that there were no Thai women involved. Perhaps they thought because of that they would not come under scrutiny of authorities, but it’s still unclear like many things in this case exactly what they thought, because of course the people have been arrested have not been bought to court. There’s been very little information coming from the authorities beyond some of the general statements from the public health minister that you’ve referred to.

LAM: And do you have any news of the Vietnamese women who now face being sent back to Vietnam after having had their babies?

ROBERTSON: Well, the important thing here is that the authorities treat them in a very – in a way that is supportive of the human rights of the women themselves. There should be a victim-centric approach and I expect that there will be some period of time where they are assisted to understand what’s going on and then we hope asked what they want to do. Many of them may be sent back to Vietnam eventually. However, there has to be a period of time where they are taken care of, because they are in fact victims of this ring and of this trafficking enterprise.

LAM: What about the new parents, the adoptees, the people who bought the babies. Do you think they’re equally culpable?

ROBERTSON: Well, they’re certainly culpable if they knew what they were getting into. They may have also been lied to as well, it’s unclear. But we think that there has to be a thorough investigation in all four countries and there are four countries involved here, Vietnam, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we believe that they were probably brought through Taiwan, of course where many of the people who were perhaps buying these babies were in Thailand. So far, we haven’t seen a level of cooperation between the four governments that we would like to really smash this ring and indicate this kind of criminal enterprise will not countenanced in the future.

LAM: And Phil, what is the attitude of Human Rights Watch towards surrogacy? If it’s properly regulated, do you have a problem with it?

ROBERTSON: We have not set a specific policy on that issue. In this case, we’re focused really just on the issue of the human trafficking element, the fact that women in some cases were truly forced in this, duped, brought to Thailand where they were probably going to be doing some other sort of work and then forced into this surrogacy. So right now, our focus is on the human trafficking elements of it.

LAM: How serious do you think this problem of baby selling in the Asia-Pacific region?

ROBERTSON: Well, I mean frankly when it first came up, I think everybody was shocked. It’s unclear now. This is something that many people didn’t believe could actually occur. I think now people are going to be very much more watching for this kind of ring. I think many of these companies will come under greater scrutiny to make sure that in fact if there is such surrogacy taking place, that it is voluntary.

LAM: Just very quickly Phil, just very briefly, what would you like governments to do, particularly the government in Thailand now?

ROBERTSON: Well, I think they really need to get to the bottom of this, this specific case. It’s very worrisome that some reporters went back out to the housing estate and found a number of employees of that company still working there. So it’s clear that there has to be a much more significant and strenuous effort made to investigate this case and bring out very clearly all the international elements to it and there should be again that investigation involving all four governments that we believe were probably touched by this criminal enterprise.

16 thoughts on “Surrogate mothers now said to be victims of trafficking

  1. Asehpe

    The presence of money in the childbirth process offends them monumentally, even if the women involved say that they want to earn money having other people’s babies[…]

    Well said. That is the main point, isn’t it? If reproduction is bought, then all anti-slavery, anti-oppression instincts are immediately awakened. One wonders if they shouldn’t also agree that working for wages (as opposed to working for one’s pleasure or for self-fulfilment) is demeaning and ultimately a form of slavery, no matter how high the wages (perhaps especially bad if the wages are high): since it implies the commodification of human skills and capacities which would otherwise be employed for our presonal betterment.

    In a sense they do, don’t they? To many of them, ‘work’ is not about survival, but about a career; the fact that we actually are paid to work is secondary when compared to the personal development (agenthood, independence, self-improvement, goal achievement) that ‘work’ gives us. As if this were remotely true of the overwhelming majority of working people in the world!…

    But of course things get worse with sex, the Quintessential Thing Not To Be Sold. Sex is apparently taking the place of the soul as that which defines our essence; and selling sex (via the metaphor of selling oneself, or selling one’s body) is now akin to selling one’s soul. Even when you think you are doing it out of your own free will, you are simply being tricked by Old Nick and will end up in hell (= trafficking, exploitation).

  2. Laura Agustín

    as you say, the point of view doing the condemning belongs to an elite who believe that their jobs are completely different, and that the money they get for working is neutral. it is quite a blind spot. in zurich last november a gender expert in another field became somewhat exercised over money-oriented terms in talking about trafficking and sex work: industry, supply demand, commercial, market. i finally said ‘but you are not saying money itself is the problem, are you? i suppose you make a salary and buy things with the money you get.’ i call it a fetish when such a distinction is made in the realm of sex and reproduction. and it is rescue industry ideology to pretend that ‘nice jobs’ that provide pleasure and fulfillment are available to more than a handful of people in the world.

  3. payu pinn

    Good. We are moving steadily toward every person in possession of a vagina being a trafficking victim. When we reach that point there will be no choice but to consign the term trafficking to the bin where it belongs.

  4. Maggie McNeill

    Asehpe said: “Sex is apparently taking the place of the soul as that which defines our essence; and selling sex (via the metaphor of selling oneself, or selling one’s body) is now akin to selling one’s soul. Even when you think you are doing it out of your own free will, you are simply being tricked by Old Nick and will end up in hell (= trafficking, exploitation).”

    Damn, sugar, I think you’re on to something there! The widespread materialism of the modern world denies the soul, yet man yearns for the metaphysical and so seeks a replacement concept. For many moderns it appears to be mere biological life (the idea that it’s “immoral” to kill even non-sentient lower organisms, for example), but for many others it does indeed seem to be sex. Seen in that light the much-feared “premature sexualization” of the child cultists becomes something more sinister than just growing up; it becomes a contamination of the soul.

    Laura said, ” i call it a fetish when such a distinction is made in the realm of sex and reproduction. and it is rescue industry ideology to pretend that ‘nice jobs’ that provide pleasure and fulfillment are available to more than a handful of people in the world.”

    Yes, I call it a fetish as well. And as for “nice jobs”, I always laugh when some moralist says something like “no little girl wants to grow up to be a prostitute”, and I respond with “No little girl wants to grow up to be a Wal-Mart cashier, either, nor any little boy to be an accountant.” People work to make a living, and its the rare job which provides self-actualization in addition to income.

    Payu Pinn said, “Good. We are moving steadily toward every person in possession of a vagina being a trafficking victim. When we reach that point there will be no choice but to consign the term trafficking to the bin where it belongs.”

    I agree; these moral panics always have to reach the level of complete absurdity before the more gullible members of society wake up.

  5. Laura Agustín

    all sexual identity movements i know about use some version of the ‘soul’ argument – that is not new. the idea of personal identity itself is wholly spiritual, and wholly western: that there is some essence that resides inside an individual that is somehow realised through sexual desire, and that there is a ‘right’ to realise it. sexual-liberation arguments are often used to explain and justify having as much sex as possible with any and everyone, on the grounds that experimentation is necessary to find out who we ‘really’ are.

    anti-prostitution theorists are only saying the same thing in a different way: that there is an essence of our true individual selves that resides somewhere deep inside (the heart, the womb) that can be damaged if it is used badly.

  6. asehpe

    I suppose the ‘sex’ = ‘soul’ idea is ultimately a continuation of the romantic connection between sex and love. Since the original ideal was that one would have sex with the one you love, the sex being an expression, a physical manifestation of this true love, then it had a ‘meaning’ and a ‘purpose’ that could simply not be betrayed without dire consequences. (The fact that ‘love’ is also the word used in English — unlike e.g. Greek — for a number of non-sexual interpersonal attractions usually believed to belong in a higher spiritual plane [maternal love, fraternal love, etc] further strengthens the cognitive connection in the sexual case.)

    The idea that sex expresses love comes of course from the Romantics, who were influential in the development of the Western concept of individuality: love is the attraction between two individuals (‘soul mates’) and sex is the consummation of this attraction, the ‘thirst for the other.’ Sex under other circumstances would therefore defeat the purpose; it would be identity- and individuality-destroying.

    It is curious that the modern world and its philosophies, which in so many ways abandoned essentialism (a necessity if one is to take evolutionary theory seriously), still sees a need for it in individuality: the closest thing to an essence we are still deemed to possess.

    It is also ironic that a society which, via capitalism, celebrated the individuality of a free agent by ascribing him/her the freedom to act as s/he wants in the marketplace — ‘anyone can be whatever s/he wants if s/he works hard enough’ — should deny this possibility when the work involves sex. I suppose this is because putting ‘sex’ and ‘economic agency’ together short-circuits these two sources of individuality, probably because these two sources are conceputalized as feeding two different aspects of individuality: sex (via love) would feed the aspect which wants communion with other individuals (the ‘brotherhood of man’) while economic agency (via the market) would feed the aspect which wants self-affirmation, individuation via battle against the environment, leading to the conquest of one’s independence. Sex/love = connectedness/dependence; money/agency-in-marketplace = independence/self-reliance/aloofness; two yin-yang factors that complement each other but should not be confused lest the two polarities of the same electricity short-circuit into a disastrous explosion.

    Hm, I guess it’s metaphor day for me today. 🙂

  7. laura agustin Post author

    hm indeed: i am thinking about your idea of the two different sources of individuality and am not sure any such super-clear history exists. to be continued.

    but the idea of sex as revealer of the soul also emerges, as i was trying to explain above, in non-love situations in the west. rights movements that foreground sexual identity claim the high seriousness of one’s sex life, now called sexuality. the invention of the concept of sexuality is as important as the idea of romantic love. and according to the sexuality idea, we all have the right to have promiscuous, anonymous or public sex as well, if it forms part of our quest for the true self. it is only money that causes problems.

  8. Asehpe

    Laura, then I suppose this brings Foucault back to the picture, with the history of the concept of sexuality. I will defer to your knowledge on the topic: this is not my specialty, and I was simply going on an intuition that suddenly possessed me to see where it would go.

    Still, I would say that the fact that it is the money that causes the problems does suggest a conflict in the sources of individuality. A free agent in the marketplace is rewarded by money; the old Protestant idea that riches in this world reflect the blessings of god also seems to indicate that money is a positive thing. So why should money be a reward — a good thing, and a symbol of god’s blessing — for any commercial activity other than sex?

    I’d say because of the difference between the economic free agent sphere — in which we actualize (and glamorize) our desire for success in the world as measured in the monetary reward that we obtain from it; and the intimate self-realization sphere, in which money is bad (‘money doesn’t buy everything’, ‘the really important things are free’).

    Consider love instead of sex. Even Christian mythology considers love our duty to others: we should love our neighbors, open our hearts to our brothers and sisters, and so on. We should be as ‘promiscuous’ with our love as you can; why, we are supposed even to love our enemies. Yet the idea that we might sell love instead of giving it away for free seems repulsive, and even self-contradictory (if you can sell it, it isn’t love; if you try to sell it you destroy it; you just ‘can’t’ sell it — in both the deontic and epistemic senses of ‘can’t’ — and any selling of attention that looks like love is in an important sense a ‘perversion’, and the people who sell it are ‘gold-diggers’.)

    Sex, in many people’s mind, works like love; and, I’d say, because they’re assumed to be connected.

  9. Laura Agustín

    wait, no, you can’t mix up sex and ‘love’ like this, not if you are trying to make this particular point. because in fact it is quite acceptable everywhere to hire babysitters, nannies and elderly-carers and want them to ‘really love’ the objects of their caring. there are many ethnographies with both mothers and maids where only rarely does someone disapprove fundamentally of this commercial love, though of course many condemn rich people for using poor people to love their children, depriving those children of their own mothers’ love, but that is a slightly different argument. (similarly, a gigantic sector of other kinds of caring is considered okay, counselling and so on)

    the money fetish i am talking about is peculiar to the use of female sexual and reproductive organs. the same people condemning surrogate mothers are not heard condemning male sperm donation.

  10. asehpe

    But in the cases you mention — nannies, baby-sitters and elderly carers — it always seemed to me that the money was not for ‘love’, but for ‘care’; these people were not ‘supposed to love’ the ones they took care of, but simply to perform the tasks necessary for the well-being of those in their care. They were like nurses (‘wet nurse’ is a telling expression), it seems to me — and nurses are another class of people who are supposed to serve and take care of patients regardless of whether or not they love them.

    I am certainly not familiar with the ethnographies you mention; but I would indeed be surprised if any of them claimed that said people were paid to love, rather than to care for, children or the elderly. Was that the case? Are there indeed cultures who think it is OK to sell love?

    (Of course, love may be a culture-specific concept. The one culture I studied closely — the Tiriyó/Trio Indians of Northern Brazil [cf. Peter Rivière’s famous ethnography, Marriage among the Trio] — doesn’t really have a word for ‘love’; rather one for ‘want’, and one for ‘care for’/’be jealous of’.)

    Now it is indeed curious that those who condemn surrogacy have no beef with sperm donation. I suppose the perception is that of the work involved: a male donating sperm doesn’t really have to do much work for the money (and the monetary reward is not very high), whereas a surrogate mother goes through a lot more and also gets a lot more money. Their differentiated perception may come from this asymmetry. A part of the general idea that sex ‘costs’ more to the woman than it does to the man, and that forcing the woman is therefore ‘worse’ than forcing the man.

  11. Laura Agustín

    no, it is definitely ‘real love’ that many employers clearly describe. no question about that.

    at the same time, in a lot of languages and groups it is not easy to make the distinction you refer to – between love and care – i am talking about amongst the large numbers of researchers and theorists who write and worry about these issues.

    the lack of interest in sperm donation derives from this gender-fundamentalist idea that it is women’s biology that is sacred, uteruses and vaginas. men’s role in the drama is not worried about, in the same way that anti-prostitution people only really oppose women selling sex, they don’t care about men who do it. ‘prostitution’ for them is about women’s misusing their inner selves, and men abusing them. there is no parallel concept of men being abused, unless they are under 18, in which case they are considered boys.

  12. asehpe

    OK. It would be interesting to see one of these ethnographies; they go against my own personal experience with nannies. But since the plural of anecdote is not data, I defer to these studies.

    I wonder how the author of that book would react to your thesis on gender-fundamentalism as the explanation for the difference between the value ascribed to female and male reproductive biology. It certainly is something they should think about if they care about the topic.

  13. laura agustin Post author

    you mean the author of varat och varan? oh heavens, she is a fanatic who sticks to the ideological line rather than actually converse with anyone else. to them it is ‘obvious’ that women are exploited and men are not.

    i am starting to wish we were having this conversation in a bar somewhere, with a slightly quicker give and take! but not complaining, no indeed.

  14. tika

    Okay, I think surrogacy or surrogate motherhood is the product of polygamy. Just imagine, three person doing sex on one bed. If you’re anti-polygamy, just don’t pick the options of using surrogate mother.

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