Regula Staempfli is a Swiss-born political philosopher and newspaper columnist. A left-leaning feminist, she has been involved in lobbying the European Union to ban commercial surrogacy. MercatorNet asked her to comment on a call by The Economist to legalise it.

MercatorNet: The Economist argues that banning surrogacy – as Sweden did recently – makes it more dangerous and costly, and leads to legal uncertainty. How would you respond to this?

Regula Staempfli: This is a classic argument and has been used for organ transplants as well. But human beings would never sell their organs or sell their wombs if it weren’t for financial necessity. They might offer their organs to family members, friends, or their community, but they would not sell a kidney unless they desperately needed money.

The same goes for surrogacy. Ask any woman if she wants to be pregnant for nine months and then sell the baby right after the birth. If it weren’t for the money, no woman would choose that fate (except, again, maybe for the sake of close family members). Surrogacy negates all human values, no matter what the remuneration is.

If we wanted safe global organ transplants and safe global surrogacy we would have to guarantee all human beings a basic income. My point is that legalising surrogacy just opens a new global market for human flesh, a rising market, if I may say so, for the future.

But as long as we live in a deeply unjust and inhuman global economy we cannot introduce a market for humans and their biological parts. Because that is — as the philosopher Immanuel Kant said — treating humans as a means to something else, which is deeply unethical.

Human beings — and I would argue this for animals as well — should be treated as ends in themselves. Life has value in itself and should not be turned into money. It should definitely not be commodified. 

If women are paid fairly for their work in bearing children for other people, how can it possibly be regarded as exploitation?

There is no fair payment for being pregnant. Surrogate motherhood is not work; it is an obscene exploitation of human beings. Being pregnant is a status, not an act.

“My body belongs to me” was the slogan of the 1968 feminists. What happened to that and why are some feminists so much in favour of surrogacy?

Surrogacy alienates the subject from her own body. Surrogacy is the occupation of the subject’s body by another subject. No matter how well paid surrogacies are, human beings are never a commodity. Surrogacy is a form of prostitution involving a child and it is clear that selling physical, intimate, bodily services is selling your flesh in return for money.

Let me say it again: if all women had access to water, food, a minimum income for their families, education, etc. — in short, a decent living, no woman would ever choose surrogacy except possibly for friends or family members. As long as women are subjected to incredible poverty worldwide there is absolutely no ethical basis for a global surrogacy market.

So far I have only argued from the point of view of the surrogate mother. There are a lot of reasons against surrogacy from the point of view of the child being “produced” within a stranger who was paid and possibly enslaved. We know from numerous studies how pregnancy can shape the child biochemically and psychologically.

Surrogacy therefore is the introduction of a slave market for babies. Would The Economist have argued that if slaves are being paid fairly, it would not be exploitation?

Single women and homosexuals are minority groups who have been marginalised and discriminated against in the past. Isn’t the practice of surrogacy a way of righting old wrongs?

Women and homosexuals are human beings. And as such no human beings are better than others. If we want to redress centuries-long discrimination against homosexuals and women we can compensate them with money, memorial funds, pensions etc. but not by selling other people to them.

Should we legalise surrogacy only for African Americans as compensation for the horrors of slavery in the past? Or enslave white people to make up for past discrimination?

Money is one form of compensation for historical tragedies, but redressing past horrors by turning present lives into horrors? What kind of an argument is that?

I would prefer to simplify the adoption process rather than legalise the production of human beings. Humanity is human by virtue of communication and not biology — so why not start on communication, democracy, living together in peace, rather than focusing on producing the best genetic material for your “own” children?

There is something deeply upsetting in the assumption that people own babies like they own cars. There is no right to your “own” child — there is only an obligation to look after children who already exist.

People seem to forget — and I do blame commodification by the market and the capitalist system — that throughout history trading flesh has been a deeply ritual and religious act. Life is far more complicated than the economic analysis of The Economist can grasp. Only if world resources are equally divided among humans can we start thinking about surrogacy — if ever. 

Do you believe that surrogacy commodifies women? And how about the babies themselves?

Surrogacy commodifies both women and the chain production of babies. Surrogacy is just a step away from the femicide (the abortion of female embryos in India, several African nations, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, China, Iran, Iraq etc.) which causes gender imbalance … It is deeply sexist and inhuman.

Why is international demand rising for surrogacy services? Where do you think that the “industry” is going?

I am currently writing about the close connection between money and the body. Today, everything is for sale. Literally everything. In some aspects this has modernized society tremendously; in other ways it has turned the whole world into commodities, goods for sale.

With the reproductive industry we have entered a neo-feudal stage where the rich will produce genetically clean, perfect offspring and the poor will have to pay for it in unimaginably horrible ways.

If you look at how the reproductive industry treats pigs and cows, you get a glimpse of what will happen to the ones at the bottom of the food chain. I am sorry to sound so bitter, but I have also studied the Nuremberg trials of the doctors in Nazi concentration camps and peered into the darkness of political and economic and scientific systems. We must change the discourse about surrogacy and human commodification 100 percent.

Artificial reproduction is like nuclear power plants. If something goes wrong, our descendants will suffer for generations to come. But nobody is discussing why it is a bad idea to change genetic codes, genetic information, biochemistry, hormones etc whose effects will last for hundreds of years.

The reproductive industry will keep on making “progress” in its unethical, inhuman and harmful business. What we must do is focus on its proven dangers, uncertainties, and failures. And we should globally start interviewing all artificially produced children — how they develop, how they cope and what it means for them.

I would love to see a global agreement that (a) not everything that can be done should be done and (b) writing new national constitutions that are not based on statistics, numbers, and functions but rather on democratic values that all people should be born equal and have a right and the opportunity to make the world a better place. 

Opposition to surrogacy seems stronger in Europe than in the United States or Britain. What accounts for that?  

Europe experienced eugenics under the Nazi regime and recognizes that what is happening now may not be eugenics imposed by a totalitarian state but it is still eugenics, even if it is being imposed by market forces.

Regula Staempfli (1967) is a Swiss-born political philosopher who has published several books on democracy, on the structure of media, on women and on the philosophy of Hannah Arendt. She can be reached at her homepage www.regulastaempfli.eu. Regula Staempfli does not belong to any political party nor church.

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Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet