Chapter 13  : Reproduction: Assistance and Control Issues 

Section 4. Readings

Damali Joseph

Author:  Elizabeth S. Anderson

Title:  Is Women’s Labor a Commodity?

Publication information:  Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 19, no.1 (1990): 71-87, 91-91. 

 Summary by Damali Joseph QCC (2002)

The childbearing days are no longer a required element in the reproductive period for some.  Commercial surrogacy has opened the doors for many who can’t bear children of their own.  Commercial surrogate motherhood has increased notoriety as a means for obtaining children.  A commercial surrogate mother is paid to produce a child for someone else and then has to give up all parental rights and love for the child, she then has to allow others to raise the child as their own.  This behavior has raised many concerns about the suitable scope of the market in commercial surrogacy.  Some totally object to commercial surrogacy because the children and women’s reproductive ability are being treated as a commodity like children as buyer durables and women as baby factories.  This article offers a solution to what things are looked upon as commodities and supports the claim that commercial surrogacy decreases and lessens the rights of children and women and degrades children and women’s reproductive ability. 


What Is A Commodity? 

The modern market can be described in terms of the legal and social norms by which it runs the production, exchange and enjoyment of commodities.  If the norms of the market are suitable for modifying this production, exchange, and enjoyment it is regarded as a commodity.  But, the moral and ethical aspects prevent the purpose of the market norms to good and therefore the good is not a suitable commodity.  We should not apply market norms to the production or distribution of a good because to produce or distribute the good in accord with the norm is to fail to value it in an appropriate way; to treat people with no regard is to fail to respect them.  As rational beings people need respect and are worthy of that respect and not just for use. 

Commodities are things, which are properly treated in conformity with the norms of the market.  When allowing market norms to control the way we treat things and express modes of value, there is no respect.  If value is appropriately given, then it’s production, exchange, and enjoyment must not remain within the market norms and must be placed somewhere else surrounded by a different set of social relationships. 

The Case of Commercial Surrogacy 

When applying commodities to commercial surrogacy three parties are involved, the intended father, the broker, and the surrogate mother.  Everyone has to be in agreement for this to work.  The job of the intended father is to find representation, a lawyer, to find a surrogate mother and make arrangements for medical procedures and any legal arrangements, and the transfer of legal custody to intended father.  The surrogate mother agrees to go through with the pregnancy, give up her parental rights, and transfer custody to father and in return, a fee and paid medical expenses.  There must be no form of parent-child bonding that would affect transfer to this intended father.  A lawyer arranging this contract would receive about or more than $15,000, while the surrogate mother would only receive about $10,000.  What a small fee for such a big part of her.  

Commercial surrogacy has been defended for four reasons.  1) Shortage of children available for adoption and difficult qualification as a adoptive parent, 2) Two fundamental basic human rights, the right to procreate and freedom of contract; autonomous, rational adults can make whatever decision they want, just as long the child is not harmed, 3) The surrogate mother is said to be a labor of love; altruistic and humane acts should be allowed and encouraged, and 4) no different then other acceptable means of child bearing therefore this too should be accepted. 

The incursion of the market on women’s labor- the labor of carrying children to term in pregnancy brings about many ethical issues.  When women’s labor is treated as a commodity, women are disrespected and degraded.  Lowering their status to this commodity too also degrades the children.  The commercialization of parenthood affects people’s regard for the child and the women’s reproductive labor.  Parents have a calling to love their children and shouldn’t be used for a person’s advantage.  The analysis of the zealous, unconditional commitment to love and provide care, affection, and guidance to one’s child shows how a child should be valued and this is the interpretation of how everyone shows their parental rights over their child.  Parents must always be for the interests of their children who uphold both their shared life as a family and the shared interests and bond between the child and parent.  Because of the interpretation of the love a parent should have for a child, this means that others should never stand in the way of this love between the parent and child and they, the parents are understood to have a child’s trust’s in their hands, so therefore they should always act in the best interests of the child. 

Commercial surrogacy acts a substitute in many cases for some of the norms of parental love.  Parental rights are no longer trusts but are rights of use and disposal of things owned; the child.  The miracle of children’s birth and labor is no longer sanctified and sacred when a child is deliberately conceived just for the advantage of someone else, in return the natural mother receives material advantage, cash.  This is done not for the sake of the child, but for the sake of the natural mother or the sake of the intended parents.  The child in turn is treated as a commodity; bought, used, and sold.  Commercial surrogacy is even taken to the lengths of having the choice to specify the height, I.Q., race and other attributes.  The child’s interests are not even considered.  During this process the intended parent has someone to properly look after their interests, but not the child.  The child has no one but it’s natural mother who is persuaded by money, and threat of lawsuit, which would break ties and bonds between parent and child.  All of these are ways in which children are degraded.  You are supposed to value and love a child.  So, in these cases children are being used for the good of others.  They are sold to others and even are being hereditarily created to suit the needs and fitting of others.  Children in this type of situation are seen as being lower value of a normal human being and therefore are treated as a commodity.  When there is a given choices to genetic traits and so forth, the expectations of parents affect the child.  The child may think that the parents were more interested in the genetic wholeness they wanted so badly, which leads to the child feeling unloved.  The child is being treated as property because she was created for the mere use of someone else in return for money.  If the child doesn’t live up to parent’s expectations then the child may feel the parent would return him or her since it was sold to them.  The other children in the family are also affected by this quandary.  They feel like their surrogate mother might sell them, too and they feel a loss of their missing sibling.  Therefore, children are being affected by the acceptance of this type of behavior, commercial surrogacy, and they are not being valued, as they should, highly.  They are being treated as means to make profit.  There was denial from the proponents of commercial surrogacy that they engage in selling children.  Because the payment was for the services of going through with the pregnancy, it would be impossible to sell something that belongs to you, that you helped create.  

How the mother is treated has everything to do with how the child is treated.  It is unrelated that the natural father has parental rights to the child because if she had not promised to give up on all parental rights she would have never been paid for any services.  Does she even care?  Also, it is beside the point that the mother regards only her labor and not her child as requiring reimbursement.  Supporters of commercial surrogacy see no distinction from other parental practices.  It is claimed that the option of aborting the fetus is given in AID (Artificial Insemination Donations) and adoption.  But these practices do differ.  Adoption is a way to take up their parental responsibilities by not killing the infant but placing it with someone else but there is no gain, no financial gain in this case.  In Artificial Insemination sperm is sold, not a child, so there is no sale of a child.  There are two factors that may degrade commerce in children.  1) Technological- transplanting a human embryo into an unrelated woman, and 2) legal development-establishment of the proposed “consent intent” definition of parenthood.  There are good reasons not to challenge the place of genetic and gestational ties.  1) Genetic ties- children have sheltered places in life and interests respected because the continuation of a system of involuntary (genetic) ties, 2) Consent intent- no obligation to take responsibility for a child created, no respect for genetic ties.  The genetic principle allows the caring for children by grandparents and other family members if parents cannot provide proper functioning in the household.  Therefore children are provided a stable environment.   

In the section “Women’s Labor as a Commodity” it will be defended that the gestational ties to children are necessary.  Any contradiction to this claim is to deny what the women feel during the reproductive labor because she’s the long involved and to degrade the mother.     

Women’s Labor as a Commodity 

Amongst Commercial Surrogacy there is a transformation of women’s labor into a commodity.  Parental norms, natural birthing of children, are substituted with economic norms, production process.  When there is an application of commercial norms to women’s labor surrogate mothers are objects of use instead of persons worthy of respect and consideration who have given natural birth.  Both respect and consideration is important but is violated by surrogate industry practices.  To treat one in accordance with acceptable principles and to protect their autonomy and rational interests is to show respect.  To treat one with authentic real sensitivity refraining from purposing themselves is to show consideration.   

There are three ways in which economic norms applied to women’s labor violates their respect and consideration.  First, requiring the surrogate mother to hold back whatever parental love she feels for the child; conversion of women’s labor into alienated labor.  Second, manipulating and denying legitimacy to the surrogate mother’s evolving viewpoint on her own pregnancy; market degrades her.  Third, taking advantage of the surrogate mother’s noncommercial motivations without offering anything but exchange demand in return; leaves surrogate mother open to exploitation.  These problems arise due to commercialization of the labor of having children, which shows no respect and consideration for women’s labor, and this labor is not suitably regarded as a commodity.  These problems can easily be understood by applying the normal emotions of bonding between surrogate mother and child during the gestational periods. It is not only a biological process but also a social practice.  The expectations of having a child is to prepare by buying baby things and getting your home ready for a baby.  So, indeed it is a wonderful thing for the mother to bond with her child. The industry doesn’t agree with this kind of thing, they follow a different process called the putting out system.  They put out the father’s sperm as raw materials for production to the surrogate mother, and then engagement of production begins.  She is checked on periodically by doctors and surrogate agencies to ensure that she doesn’t change her mind because of the love she’s’ been putting into her baby.  In the contract between the surrogate mother and the intended father she agrees not to bond with the fetus and because of this her labor is estranged.  The contract replaces a norm of parenthood to a norm of commercial production.  Commercial surrogacy is also degrading to the surrogate mother.  The mother has to suppress all feelings towards the child she’s carrying and cannot give into the social norm, which would require preparation for the child.  The surrogate industry is only in the business of suppressing, manipulating, and trivializing the women’s perspective on her pregnancy.  The biggest danger to the surrogate industry is the woman’s perspective broadening on her pregnancy.  They would like for the woman to treat this as a perspective of a contract laborer.  Because the surrogate industry’s job is to suppress the women, they have to find a way to accomplish that.  The women are therefore treated as inanimate objects, having no emotions or feelings.  They refuse to accept that what they’re doing is affecting the women’s labor emotionally.  Even though they may be liable for the trauma caused to the woman there can be no compensation for herself or her medical bills.  At least 10% of women who give up their children are faced with problems that may lead to having to take therapy.  This kind of thing puts a lot on the surrogate mother and she is so full of grief in the end.  Some people who believe in commercial surrogacy would like there to be a law that enforces the surrogate mother to give up the baby to calm their nerves in the situation.  If this happened, if market norms were imposed it would be looked on as merely an economic change.  This industry also leaves a woman open for all kinds of exploitation.  Exploitation occurs when the woman is given gift values (love, gratitude, and appreciation of others) and in exchange she has to give her baby away and suppress the mother-child relationship.  They have to look as if they cared and have the best interest of you at their minds.  Usually the mother does work according to the norms of accepting the gift relationships.  The surrogate agency looks out for their client and finding the best deal while no one looks out for the surrogate mother.  So, the agency will say or do anything to manipulate the woman to gain positive terms for them.   

Some women involve themselves in the surrogate industry not only for money.  Many women feel depressed and unappreciated when they’re not pregnant because they feel like no one cares for them or appreciates them.  Lacking the power to achieve some valuable status in their own right, they must lower themselves to others definitions of their proper place (as baby factories) in order to get from them the gratitude they need to get a sense of self-worth.  The surrogate industry also puts out a model of altruism to the surrogate mothers, which demands alienation from which one benefits, self-effacement, and the subordination of one’s body, health, and emotional life to interests of others.   

If women were treated properly the emotional commitment with her labor would not be alienated, degraded, and exploited which leads to women’s labor as a commodity.  Her labor is alienated because of suppression of emotional ties with child, she is degraded because her ethical perspective is denied, and she is exploited so she can be manipulated and pressured so everything is for the advantage of the broker and adoptive parents.  If woman were stripped of their parental feelings and love for their children there would be emotional damage, which would cause violence to their emotions. 


Commercial Surrogacy, Freedom, and the Law 

Besides the ethical issues of commercial surrogacy there are issues involving the law.  When surrogate mothers have children they are forced to give up these children who they have learned to love and care for and that in it is degrading and harmful traffic in children, violates the dignity of women, and subjects both children and women to a serious risk of exploitation.  This is the very reason why surrogate contracts should not be enforced.  This act should be illegal and the provisions set by surrogate agencies are blemished and they should be subject to criminal penalties. 

For couples who can’t have kids this is wonderful, but what about the children who already exist, waiting in adoption agencies for a good home?  Sometimes race and prejudice interferes with the adoption process, which leaves kids no better off than they already are.  The shortage of white healthy babies is very high comparing to the high amount of available infants of other races, older and disabled.  Because of this, the practice of commercial surrogacy will proceed.


When market norms are substituted for parental norms questions are raised about the proper scope of the market in modem industrial societies.  When market norms are used we must resist this market to ensure the value of women and children to bring about the rich conception of human flourishing.  Women’s labor is not a commodity.                 

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2002. All Rights reserved.

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