Womb for rent

Have infertile couples taken a maternity leave of their senses?

Beginning in the mid-1970s, Americans watched generations of manufacturing jobs outsourced overseas, leaving America’s waves of grain far and permanently behind. More recently high-tech and service jobs likewise have departed into the hands of lower-wage, though high-skilled labor in India, Ireland, and emerging economies in central Europe.

Some jobs—retail and landscaping, for example—are rooted in the local and remain secure from overseas wage competition. But the homo sapiens is an imaginative creature, capable of all kinds of creative destruction, so it should come as no surprise that the latest “victim” of outsourcing is one truly close to home: natural motherhood.

Stop by planethospital.com, a “medical tourism” site, and be transported into a world of ethical wonder. Behold, an e-brochure for the modern “womb worker”: women in the developing world offering up this most vital resource in exchange for reasonable compensation. This cheap labor is located in India, land of the commodity kidney, where laws are apparently more imaginative about such enterprises.

Economists will tell you the birth of this new commercial opportunity reflects the classic outcome of the struggle between supply and demand, albeit for a service not traditionally associated with the free market. Struggling with infertility, many couples in advanced economies have turned to the Third World to gestate their offspring. Turns out surrogates come at too high a cost in the First World, and the legal headaches surrounding such births are many. Overseas outsourcing offers cut-rate wombs with a good view on paternity laws.

For families struggling with infertility, this new market is like the answer to a prayer, while for the Indian women who willingly commodify their own bodies, the labor and its $6,000 payment represent delivery out of poverty and into economic and personal liberation. A win-win for all? Only if motherhood can be reduced to the stirring within a petri dish full of genetic material.

This economic innovation, even as it suggests a creepier, clinical brave new world, actually reminds us of how little progress we have made escaping the same old world of poverty and desperation, even one offering up such new and unlikely variants on exploitation and objectification.

Church teaching on extraordinary means in response to infertility is clear, even if it shuts the door on the hopes of thousands of couples struggling to have children. The dawn of the womb worker neatly captures one reason the church maintains its skepticism before our epoch’s endless parade of biomedical breakthroughs.

From stem cell research meant to treat terrible illnesses (who could argue with that?) or genetic research meant to prolong life (but lead some to dream of immortality), most of our play with the stuff of creation can lead to unintended and unpleasant outcomes. Too easily dismissed is our long record of allowing market forces to ultimately dictate biomedical ethics. Humankind may just not be ethically grown up enough to measure the moral and practical hazards our creativity opens up before us.

A rented womb may seem the perfect mechanism to relieve one couple’s struggle with infertility and a poor woman’s hunger, but it offers a terrible template for a future when such biomedical breakthroughs become thoroughly exploited, leaving motherhood and family devalued in the First World and human dignity degraded in the Third.

Authentic commerce can build relationships between peoples; this breed annihilates it, encouraging an Olympian distance on the demand side and reducing the supply side to a mere human instrument of another’s desires. There ought to be better economic mechanisms for poverty reduction than marketing human bodies.

There may be no legal barrier to this emerging trade, and no government is likely to intervene until the first genetically engineered child immortal is delivered screeching from a stranger’s womb sometime in the next five years or so. Until then, we’ll have to rely on our own good consciences. Last I heard, they hadn’t been outsourced yet.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the March 2008 (Volume 73, Number 3; page 46) issue of U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles