Newborn 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.
Roni Berkowitz says
I think there is a more nuanced story, here, Katey. In Judaism, the concept of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, trumps any other religious law, and that isn’t only Jewish life. I didn’t get to hear the NPR story, but I wouldn’t be so quick to rush to judgement. I think you know that I’m often very critical of Israel, despite my being Jewish and strongly supportive of its right to exist. But I’ve been very proud of the role Israel has been playing in the rescue effort, being among the first to send troops and medical personnel to Nepal, and doing so in great numbers. I’ll check this story out–there’s got to be another side to this.
Katey Zeh says
Roni, thank you for your insight and for helping shed more light on what is an incredibly complex issue.