Discount Babies, Discounting Dignity
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Violations against human dignity, sadly, abound in many of forms. The problem of mass labor exploitation is one that has not gone unnoticed, yet it seems little progress is being made to correct this wrong. Adults and children in all parts of the world are victims of societies that have elevated economic prosperity over human dignity. Poor working conditions, long hours, and low wages are just the tip of the iceberg. A recent set of allegations reported by ABC News confirms what we already knew. The report states that 12 year old children in China have been employed for seven day, twelve hour work shifts and paid only pennies —making Christmas ornaments which would find their way into American discount stores.
The issue is very basic—the higher the production costs, the higher the consumer costs. In order to keep prices low and profits soaring, wages and quality materials are often compromised, placing the consumer at risk. We are just beginning to express serious outrage over these circumstances and, as consumers with a conscience, hold industry leaders accountable. Yet, somehow we have come to embrace an industry that presents parallel concerns for everyone involved—the laborer, the product and the consumer. The industry is international commercial surrogacy.
Tempted by the prospect of payment that exceeds what would take most families in India many years to earn, and in some cases a lifetime, women in India are making themselves available to function as commercial surrogates to infertile couples from Western countries. The problems associated with commercial surrogacy apply equally to these foreign contractual arrangements, yet are magnified by the similarities to exploitive labor practices of other third world countries that are a violation of human dignity. A young woman from India can make roughly $4,500 per pregnancy, a fraction of the cost to the would-be parents in a domestic arrangement. This is regarded by some as a win-win for all involved, arguing against the charge of economic exploitation because these women would never have a chance to earn these relatively large sums of money any other way and the would-be parents who could not otherwise afford a surrogate are able to have a child with assistance from a third party. It is in these ways that this commercial surrogacy arrangement is regarded as altruistic. However, a thinking person is able to see that the pursuit of surrogates in India is not result of searching for ways to help these women rise out of poverty; rather it was arrived at by the financial interests of the industry and their infertile clients who cannot afford the costs in their own country. It is in this sense a violation of her human dignity and that of the child, to make use of her reproductive capacity for someone else’s financial gain.
In general, surrogacy of any type carries with it many practical concerns and problems. Commercial surrogacy, where money is exchanged for the "manufacturing" of a "product," by definition commodifies human life. In some states here in the US, regulations are in place that permit only the reimbursement for expenses incurred, though it is unclear how exactly these regulations are enforced. There is no financial benefit involved in altruistic surrogacy because such an arrangement is usually between close friends or relatives, though these arrangements are not without problems. Because of the nature of these relationships, one might find herself pressured to fulfill the role of surrogate, guilt and duty often reasons why a woman ultimately is manipulated to participate. As with commercial surrogacy, the attachment and bonding between birth mother and child is not absent between the surrogate and unborn child in an altruistic arrangement. We cannot not pretend that they will be unaffected by the termination of this relationship.
The problem with commercial surrogacy, whether outsourced pregnancy to India or domestic in nature, is that at its very foundation it rejects human dignity, the inherent aspect of what it means to be human, having been made in the image of God. No price tag can reflect this value. Arguments can be made that payment is for the process and not necessarily for the child, and so there is no violation of anyone’s dignity. But human dignity concerns itself with how we treat one another, not just in matters of economics. The concern over wages for the surrogate is a piece of the puzzle in that the prospective surrogate is viewed as a wage earner like someone who works an assembly line. Her dignity is violated by exploiting her financial vulnerabilities. Her dignity is violated by viewing her womb as a piece of factory equipment that can be utilized over and over again for the production of a product, or fixed when it breaks down from continued use. Her body is not a piece of property that can be monopolized for nine months by a child she may grow to love but cannot be held. She is a human being created in the image of God, and to treat her as such would mean to be generous to her without consideration of her procreative capacity, not to use this capacity as a means for her survival.
Scripture is clear that humans were created in the image of God, and the life and death of Jesus shows just how valuable the creation is to the Creator. We are given two commandments in the gospel of Matthew: to love the Lord with our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is on this basis that we concern ourselves with the treatment of sweatshop laborers, child workers, and commercial surrogates. And yet one need not be a Christian to see that engaging in these practices in India or any other part of the world shows a lack of love and respect toward humanity.