Equal Rights for Renting Women’s Bodies?

Another hot topic causing me distress these days: The fight for equality for gay men under Israel’s surrogacy laws. Grrrrr, talk about a can of worms. I’ve already butted heads with people I usually like and agree with on this. Here’s why.

Most people I know – of liberal leanings – have this kneejerk reaction: Yes! Equality for gays! Enhanced rights and opportunity for parenthood for gay couples! Yay!

Have you figured out what’s missing in this scenario? Yes, indeed – the same person who is being stashed out of site on an increasingly frequent basis: The woman.

Who is providing these surrogacy services? Who is looking out for her interests? Is there even any discussion about it? Any medical, legal, ethical, financial, or psychological standards being adhered to? Or being crafted, if there aren’t any in place?

Surrogate Mothers, India

How many people know what is involved from a health perspective (physical and mental) for the woman providing her body as a service? Versus how many people are jumping in with both feet with accusations of “Homophobia!!” at even the hint that such a discussion should take place?

(And let’s be very clear: no one in the discussion I’m referring to is advocating that heterosexuals should be allowed to this, while homosexuals should not.)

Why is it so easy to ignore the woman?

Here’s some background:

Israel was the first country in the world to legalize surrogacy, in 1996. While some (liberal?) feminists celebrated this as a victory for a woman’s legal freedoms (for example, to enter contracts, and autonomy to determine what to do with her body), other (radical?) feminists immediately classified the practice in the context of a patriarchal society’s attempt to use women’s bodies to further patriarchal ends.

But maybe some more background about Israel and the issue of procreation is needed here.

Israel is unique in its pro-natal attitudes, especially compared to other Western countries, in the sense that having children (Jewish children) is considered an imperative. Not only a cultural imperative, not simply a religious imperative, it is also a political imperative. This is for several reasons:

In the aftermath of the holocaust, many believed that Jews must reproduce to replace the 6 million lost. Others, including the political leadership of the time, viewed child-bearing as a military imperative – women must produce soldiers for the army (first Israeli prime minister Ben-Gurion famously wrote that “Any Jewish woman who, as far as it depends on her, does not bring into the world at least four healthy children is shirking her duty to the nation, like a soldier who evades military service.”). Part of it is traditional – Judaism is family-centric. Part is purely religious – the ultra-orthodox in Israel have a birth rate that is twice that of Muslims, and four times that of secular Jews.

Over the past few decades, one of the most common themes has been the “demographic threat” – if Israel wants to maintain both its identity as a Jewish state and remain a democracy, it simply must maintain a Jewish majority in relation to the Arab population. (Or, for more right-wing sectors, simply “winning out” vs. the Palestinians is the point, without regard to the democratic nature of the country.)

Whatever the reasons, the imperative is deeply ingrained in the culture, which places pressure and socializes people to place child-bearing at the top of their life priorities. It also created a legal and medical system in which parenthood is encouraged and state-supported through:

  • Reproductive technologies. Israel is the leading country in the world in in-vitro fertilization, leads in development of reproductive technologies, and also provides financial support for the procedures.
    (I can (and maybe will) write entirely separate posts about the negative effects this has on women, and how many of the procedures are untested, how low a concern safety is, on the cultural impact on women of being state-sponsored wombs… But alas this post is on another topic which I shall promptly get back to.)
  • Support of single-parenthood, through various methods including sperm banks (artificial insemination, IVF), adoption (international) and of course —
  • Surrogacy.

Okay. So now you might be getting an inkling of what parenthood means to Israelis.

And of course, the fight for equality and recognition of LGBT people’s rights to become parents, and creating legal and societal mechanisms for parenthood to be a realistic possibility, is an important one.

So, what’s actually going on?

As I said, Israel legalized surrogacy in 1996, and was the first country to do so. There have been various judicial decisions along the way determining who can do it, where, how… The bottom line is that under the current rules, only heterosexual couples can hire a surrogate to carry a child for them. This can occur either in Israel or abroad. Homosexual couples or single people cannot (as far as I understand it) contract a surrogate in Israel.

Gay couples can hire a surrogate in the US or India, but a court decision last year regarding DNA tests for both fathers has created some hindrance even to this practice.

So recently, a campaign began to change the law – though a Facebook page (in Hebrew) and an Internet petition. This has brought the discussion back to the forefront in both LGBT and feminist circles, as well as to the broader media and legal communities.

Another Facebook page – Gays Against Surrogacy (in Hebrew) – soon followed. As I mentioned before, claims of homophobia quickly surfaced.

And hence my personal frustration:

First of all, the LGBT association – or Aguda – Israel’s main LGBT advocacy group, is strongly supporting this initiative, to the extent of overshadowing just about any other issue. So once again, the interests of a minority of men, who are primarily white, homonormative, and from a socioeconomically advantaged background are taking precedence over, say – teen prostitution in the LGBT community (which is on the rise), teen suicide, transgender rights, AIDS awareness, or a myriad of other LGBT issues. I’m pretty sick of this lack of wider representation. If it’s the white gay men’s association, they should just say so.

And once again, women are being submitted – physically, mentally, financially, and legally – to the needs of men (or at least to the patriarchal priorities of this society).

I want to support parenthood rights for gays. I *do* support all brands of equality. I cannot, by any stretch, get behind yet another initiative that subordinates women to anyone else’s agenda.

~*~

Here are some resources on the topic for anyone who wants to read more:

From Isha L’Isha Feminist Center:


Old Patterns, New Ideas 
By Hedva Eyal
Council for Responsible Genetics

“There is plenty of scientific knowledge and understanding of health risks as a result of hormone treatments associated with in vitro fertilization (IVF). This raises questions about the widespread use of this procedure, especially when women are exposed to these health risks not for themselves but to conform to other people’s desires. Establishing surrogacy as a prevalent, accepted way of bringing children into the world entails significant risks to the surrogate mother herself, to the child, and to society”

Google Baby – a documentary on surrogate mothers in India:
Focused on a clinic in rural Anand where peasant women give birth to babies ordered over the Internet through an Israeli “pregnancy producer.” Western hetero and gay prospective parents click on the sperm and eggs of their choice, enter credit card details, and later travel to Anand to receive the newborn they couldn’t or wouldn’t conceive themselves.

Fertility policy in Israel: the politics of religion, gender, and nation, by Jacqueline Portugese

Surrogate Motherhood and the Politics of Reproduction, by Susan Markens

Explores how discourses about gender, family, race, genetics, rights, and choice have shaped US policies aimed at this issue.

Article: Homosexual Couples Fight for Right to Surrogate Pregnancy
(Note the complete lack of any reference to the legitimacy or risks of the practice)

Will Israeli Court Decision on Surrogacy Bring Changes for Gay Couples? Blog post, The Sisterhood
“In principle, I agree completely with the Court’s decision in favor of the petitioner who wants a fourth child. But there is also the reality of scarce resources to consider. I would have no issue with the Court’s decision if surrogacy were not a highly limited and regulated commodity in Israel.”
A commodity, indeed.

Israeli Feminists Slate Surrogacy, BioEdge, bioethics news

University of Technology, Sydney Law Review: Surrogacy in Israel: A Model of Comprehensive Regulation of New Technologies – [2005]

The Lolita Effect (Lessons for Girls series)

What do you think of thongs for 10-year-olds with slogans like “eye candy”? Underwear for teens with “Who needs credit cards…?” written across the crotch? Tini-Bikinis for toddlers? High heels for 5-year-olds?

~**~

Last week I wrote about what Disney princesses teach little girls, and it’s pretty scary. Except that this is only one of a multitude of ways in which little girls are socialized to be partners in their own objectification. Examples include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Teaching girls that it is more important to be pretty than to be smart (or successful/independent/fill-in-your-positive-value-here).
  • Sexualizing girls from a young age
  • Silencing. Girls are taught to avoid confrontation (so they have trouble saying and meaning NO). They are taught to please. They are taught that their role is to nurture others (often at their own expense). They are taught to apologize for having opinions. They are taught to be comfortable in support positions/the back row.

Each of these can be broken down into sub-categories, and I could probably happily spend my life writing a dissertation on each of them if I had the time and resources. Alas, all I have is this blog, but hey, that’s what I started it for. I have a feeling that I can’t begin to do justice to any of the topics in a mere paragraph, so I’ll do a separate post for each.

Part 1: The Lolita Effect, and sexualization of girls in the mainstream media.

In her book, The Lolita Effect, M. Gigi Durham, Ph.D., discusses what pop culture, and especially advertising, teaches young girls and boys about sex and sexuality. She defines five myths that are ingrained in this culture, which make up the Lolita Effect:

  • Girls don’t choose boys, boys choose girls–but only sexy girls
  • There’s only one kind of sexy–slender, curvy, white beauty
  • Girls should work to be that type of sexy
  • The younger a girl is, the sexier she is
  • Sexual violence can be hot

She talks about how the mass media undermines girls’ self-confidence, condones female objectification, and tacitly fosters sex crimes. (Here is an in-depth interview.)

I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of this – but how closely are we watching? Little girls are increasingly portrayed in mainstream media and advertising in a sexualized way, and treated as consumers of a sexualized self-image.

Remember in the late 70s early 80s all the controversy around Brooke Shields? At the age of TEN she was photographed by Gary Gross (via Playboy Press) in a series meant to “reveal the femininity of prepubescent girls by comparing them to adult women”.

Later, at the age of twelve, she triggered another media frenzy when she portrayed a child prostitute in the movie Pretty Baby. The movie included four Shields nude scenes (note: the original version of the movie with these scenes is no longer available; today’s version on DVD has edited out the nudity).

And later yet, at the age of fifteen, Shields let us know on national television, in no uncertain terms that “nothing comes between me and my Calvins”. Hard to interpret that in a non-sexualized way.

    

The thing is that back then, this still stirred controversy. Brooke Shields was not in any way mainstream. Let’s take a look at some of what’s being presented to little girls *these* days:

In 2006, UK supermarket chain Tesco marketed this in their online TOYS AND GAMES section with the words:Peekaboo Pole Dance Set

“Unleash the sex kitten inside…simply extend the Peekaboo pole inside the tube, slip on the sexy tunes and away you go!”

“Soon you’ll be flaunting it to the world and earning a fortune in Peekaboo Dance Dollars”.

The store subsequently removed it from the toy section and repackaged it as a “fitness accessory”, but continued to deny that it was sexually oriented. However, Tesco continued to face public outrage due to padded bras and other sexy items it marketed to young girls.

Other UK chains that targeted sexy clothes and underwear to pre-teens include M&S, ASDA, and Argos, while US retailers Walmart, and Abercrombie & Fitch also marketed push-up bras, padded bras, and thongs to girls as young as six years old. French Jours Apres Lunes markets lingerie for pre-teens. And have I mentioned Tini-Bikinis for toddlers?

Major UK retailers have since signed on to a government guideline banning such items for children under twelve (12-year-olds can still be sexualized freely). A&F, on the other hand, were pretty happy with the publicity they received (they eventually removed the word “push-up” but left “padded”).

Whether or not public pressure is applied on a case-by-case basis, there is still a very clear truth being outlined here: That there is a MARKET for this. This article suggests that 30% of clothing sold to girls is sexualized. And much has been written on how girls’ Halloween costumes are increasingly sexualized.

The fashion world hasn’t missed out on the party. This ten-year-old model featured in French Vogue in lipstick, high heels, and provocative poses has become the darling of fashion if not of parents:

Finally, lest anyone think that all this is objectionable from “merely” an ideological perspective, or that parents are being “moralistic” when they oppose this, the American Psychological Association concluded in their 2010 task force report that sexualization negatively affects girls and young women across a variety of health domains:

  • Cognitive and Emotional Consequences: Sexualization and objectification undermine a person’s confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to emotional and self-image problems, such as shame and anxiety.
  • Mental and Physical Health: Sexualization is linked with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women – eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.
  • Sexual Development: Sexualization of girls has negative consequences on girls’ ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.

Read the full report here.