Nepal, Israel, and Surrogacy

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 12.29.22 PMNewborn pictures usually evoke tenderness and joy, but the ones circulating of Israeli families holding their rescued infants born to surrogate Nepalese women have caused me great pause.

I’ve been following the horrific aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal that, according to the latest official count has claimed more than 5,000 lives, but some are projecting the total death count could be as high as 50,000 or more. Statistics like these are always shocking, but while they point to the monstrous loss of human life, they cannot fully capture the tragedy. Perhaps that’s in part why the story of Israelis rescuing their surrogate babies–but not the Nepalese surrogate mothers themselves–has been circulating among my colleagues who work on reproductive health, rights, and justice.

As a new mom, a maternal health advocate, and a person of faith, I couldn’t get over the sheer cruelty of it all when I first read the story. Giving birth under the most ideal circumstances is a toll on the body and spirit, but to be in the early postpartum period while a natural disaster ravages your your country, only to be met by rescuers who want the baby you just gave birth to–but not you? Trauma does not even begin to describe what these women must be going through.

My knee-jerk reaction to this story is to cry out for justice for these women–and I do–but there is a much larger, more complex narrative about surrogacy, parenting, and reproductive justice that would require a team of theologians, bioethicists, international law experts, maternal health advocates, and LGBTQ activists among others to examine all of the issues at play.

For starters Israeli law currently prevents anyone but heterosexual couples from using surrogate mothers, so gay couples and single people who wish to have a child through surrogacy must do so internationally. Even then very few countries permit gay couples to do this. Nepal is one of the exceptions. Additionally the costs associated with surrogacy there are substantially less than in a country like the United States. One of the tenets of reproductive justice is that everyone has a right to have the children they wish to have. Undoubtedly this right extends to couples and single people who, for whatever reason, cannot or choose not to conceive a child without some kind of intervention but who want to parent children. I firmly believe that access to assisted reproductive technologies should not be limited to those who can afford the enormous costs associated with them.

At the same time I cannot ignore the power dynamics between those with economic means who pursue surrogacy and those who ultimately provide the surrogacy, which are often poor, marginalized women. Exploitation of women’s bodies for reproductive means is nothing new. In fact, it’s something I talk of often with regard to the biblical story of Hagar, Sarai, and Abram, a narrative I first studied while reading the womanist theology in Delores Williams’s Sisters in the Wilderness. This ancient text has much to tell us today about how women continue to be reduced to their reproductive organs to fulfill the desires of those in power.

This is not a plea to end the practice of surrogacy. I believe that under ethical conditions with both parties equally consenting to the terms, surrogacy is something to be celebrated. But when a baby is born with immensely more resources, rights, and access than the woman who birthed that life into the world will ever have, something is terribly, terribly wrong.

The Caged Bird Keeps on Singing

A few nights ago on the eve of my daughter turning six months old, I did something I’ve only managed to accomplish a handful of times since her birth. I finished an entire book. Not a parenting book either, but Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I felt compelled to read it after catching an interview Jon Stewart did with Tavis Smiley talking about his mentoring relationship with Maya Angelou, just a few days after the murder of Walter Scott.

Reading books and consuming media in general post-baby are limited to occasional and unpredictable moments. I do read myself to sleep, which most nights only takes about five minutes after crawling into bed, but many times Angelou’s words shook me wide awake and demanded my attention:

My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful… If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.¹

All of these years later her words continue to speak truth and wisdom to the atrocities of systemic racial oppression and a broken law enforcement system that plague our country. She was talking about a boxing match, but could she not have easily been speaking about Walter Scott or Freddie Gray or any number of black men dying in the hands of police?

I have been replaying the words of Audre Lorde in my head over and over again: “Your silence will not protect you.” I am a privileged white woman who is often guilty of silence and complicity, often fearing my voice will only prove harmful rather than helpful.  I do not know how our country goes about dismantling the systems of racial oppression. But I will continue to lift up the voices and efforts of those who do.

1. Angelou, Maya (2009-04-15). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (p. 146). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

One Good Thing I Learned in Church: Embrace

t_t_cover_front_1As a contributor to Talking Taboo: American Women Get Frank about Faith, I had the opportunity to guest post for Erin Lane, co-editor of the anthology, in answering the question: what’s one good thing you learned in church?  

Growing up I never got to be the new kid in class. For some this might sound ideal, but for me it was stifling. I went to the same school my entire life, and when I graduated from high school there were twenty students in my grade, four of whom I’d known since kindergarten. If I could go back to that first day of school and talk to my five-year-old self, I’d tell her, be careful about what version of yourself you choose to be today because that’s the person everyone will think you are for the next twelve years.

Church was my chance at reinventing myself.

Read the rest of my post at Holy Hellions.  

Reclaiming Birth with Sacred Worth

Photo Credit: Rebecca Ames Photography

This post was originally published on the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet blog

In most instances when U.S. media portrays the birth of a baby, the storyline typically goes something like this: The woman’s water breaks in the grocery store. Her awestruck partner starts panicking that they need to rush to the hospital immediately. When they arrive the woman screams obscenities as she is wheeled into the delivery room where a doctor shouts like a drill sergeant for her to push a few times before the baby is born. It’s loud, exciting, and kind of terrifying.

The birth of my daughter was nothing like this. In fact, as it turns out very few women I know have had experiences like the ones we see in movies and on TV. But our consumption of this Hollywood narrative of childbirth—excruciatingly painful, lightening fast, always with a happy ending—shapes our collective imagination about childbirth in powerful ways. If the only births we ever see are fictionalized, sensationalized, and sanitized representations of the experience, what else do we have to go on?

There are consequences to this. I spent a good portion of my pregnancy trying to unlearn the culture’s explicit and implicit messages about childbirth that taught me to be afraid of it, to discount my physical and mental stamina; that told me to entrust my birth experience to medical professionals without complaint or question. I was shocked when a friend of mine shared that her OB, who entered the delivery room groggy from a nap, answered her cell phone and talked casually as my friend begged to push her baby out. Even as her daughter was crowning, the doctor said to my friend, “Hold on another minute.”

As a person of faith, I hold to the sacred truth that as children of God, all women and girls have innate sacred worth. No woman should have to beg for compassionate, respectful maternal health care.
In my advocacy for global maternal health, I am passionate about lifting up and honoring the stories of women’s births that we find in our ancient scriptures and connecting them with what is happening in today’s world. Even though these women lived thousands of years ago, their experiences are not unlike those of many women today. I’ve written about Mary as a young, poor teenager with an unexpected, high-risk pregnancy. I’ve shared about the story of Rachel in Genesis who died in childbirth, not unlike the more than 800 women this very day who will lose their lives bringing new life into our world.

This year on April 11th organizations and advocates who care about maternal health are calling for the day to be recognized as the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights. Communities of faith have a real opportunity to reclaim our collective stories, both past and present, to ensure that the sacred worth and dignity of every woman–no matter where she lives, no matter the circumstances of her pregnancy, no matter what access to resources she has—are honored during pregnancy, childbirth, and throughout her life.

Birth is sacred. Let’s make sure it’s treated that way.