Taylor Robinson: Unit 9 – What’s Motherhood Got to do With It?

The movie and readings for this week focused on themes related to motherhood, including how it is defined with regards to surrogacy, religion, and women’s agency. Two of the readings, both published in 1991, “Reproductive Technologies and Surrogacy: A Feminist Perspective” and “New Reproductive Technologies: Protestant Modes of Thought”, focus on theories posed by a feminist and Protestant ethicists, respectively. In contrast, we looked at two ethnographic approaches completed in the past 10 years, “Made in India” documentary and “Blessing Unplanned Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health”, which observe various women’s experiences with pregnancy, whether unplanned or via reproductive technology. These methodologies allow us to take the issues with motherhood posed 20 years prior and apply it to the life experiences of women observed today.   

Barbara Katz Rothman’s paper, “Reproductive Technologies and Surrogacy: A Feminist Perspective”, details her perspective as a feminist, sociologist, and surrogate mediator. She details her opposition to surrogacy due to its “underlying ideology of patriarchy” (Rothman, p 1599) and employs a feminist perspective to argue against the support of surrogacy. Rothman uses the example of Baby M to demonstrate surrogacy results in issues regarding custody of the child. We see similar complications of this nature arise when Lisa and Brian Swtizer of “Made in India” encounter legal obstacles taking their twins from the Indian hospital. She claims the ambiguous and complicated genetic relationship, which is forged by the existing patriarchy for their ultimate benefit, demonstrates that women are “just the flowerpot in which men plant it…mommy is simply dirt” (Rothman, p 1603). Rothman also argues women’s gestational process allows them to earn motherhood, stating that “her nurturing of that child with the blood and nutrients of her body establishes her parenthood of that child” (Rothman, p 1607). She argues that the patriarchal system fails to recognize the intimate social relationship women have with the children they carry and allows for the commodification and subsequent purchasing of a woman’s parenthood.

 I’m curious as to how Rothman would presently view medical tourism for surrogacy and if she would attribute this to an extension of colonialism and the patriarchy. India is just one of many countries with a long, brutal history of colonialism that find themselves hotspots for medical tourism companies such as Planet Hospital, which is featured in “Made in India”. I would be interested to hear Rothman’s thoughts with regards to the extension of means and privilege beyond domestic borders in pursuit of cheaper reproductive technology.

While Rothman states her opposition is separate from religious institutions, Gilbert Meilaender writes about surrogacy through various Protestant viewpoints in “New Reproductive Technologies: Protestant Modes of Thought”. His paper displays prominent Protestant theological ethicists interpretations of surrogacy through a Protestant lens. Meilaender identifies the differences in their arguments and attributes them to various interpretations of religious texts, a point he attributes to the diverse thinking of Protestantism, compared to the reliance of religious institutions, such as  Catholicism. 

Meilaender begins by looking at the meaning of parenthood, in which ethicist Janet Dickey McDowell sources the Biblical story of Abram, Sarah, and Hagar to suggest “there is a high value on procreation”. We’ve seen this scripture used in other arguments regarding reproductive technology, including Rothman’s use of the text to suggest the fundamental message in the story of Haagar because mothers do not define the relationship. The father defines the relationship.” (Rothman, p 1601). Meilaender demonstrates the variability among Protestant ethicists by referencing  Paul Simmons contrasting argument that “these are parents by design, intention, and purpose”, reinforcing the commitment one endures through reproductive technology reassures love for their children and should we welcomed (Meilaender, p 1639). Overall, Meilaender’s use of multiple Protestant ethicists interpretations of surrogacy reinforces the idea that religious associations with surrogacy and reproductive technology are not black and white, especially within the Proestant Church. 

The documentary by Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha, “Made in India”, follows American couple Lisa and Brian Switzer as they travel to India to seek reproductive technology. After 7 years of infertility, the couple uses the aid of a medical tourism company to hire a surrogate, Aasia, for a substantially lower cost than in the US. This ethnographic film documents outsourced surrogacy and motherhood from the perspective of both the biological mother and gestational carrier.  

Personally, two of the main questions raised by the documentary are the limitations of agency and the morality of medical tourism. The documentary draws upon the fact that medical tourism often results in individuals with different economic means and cultures. For example, Lisa is an educated, employed Texas woman who hires Aasia, an Indian mother of three who is unable to read or write. Due to this class dichotomy, my question centers around whether surrogates in the medical tourism industry are subjected to a lack of agency, including education and influence, over their health. For example, Lisa and Aasia’s doctor in India noted they would implement 4 embryos in the single transfer, which is known to pose a significantly increased risk to both the fetuses and mother, but (falsely) increases the success one will stick. While I’m unsure if Aasia was made aware of the risks associated with a multiple transfer, she does note she was initially scared to hear she was carrying twins. The dangers become a reality when Aasia begins hemorrhaging, which forces her to give birth and leaves her in the hospital for 12 days and the children in the NICU. In my opinion, the documentary highlights and calls into question whether medical tourism companies prioritize the agency and health of the surrogates.

In the paper, “Blessing Unplanned Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health”, written by Don Seeman, Iman Roushdy-Hammady, and Annie Hardison-Moody, an ethnographic study is conducted at Naomi’s House, a women’s homeless shelter in the southeastern United States from 2007-2008. The study focuses on predominantly African American women who had unplanned/unintended pregnancies and how these pregnancies are viewed as religious/spiritual “blessings” in their lives. It also reframes the negative connotations associated with unplanned pregnancies, and instead shift the focus of such pregnancies to rational decisions with positive community and personal outcomes. The ethnography identifies  “agentive capacities”, such as divine agency, as a pivotal role in the pregnancies of mothers at Naomi’s House (Seeman et. al 2016). Seeman et al. (2016) notes “Naomi’s House residents frequently described pregnancy or motherhood as effectively beyond their control yet simultaneously emphasized that motherhood provided the context for them to start over…triumph over adversity.”(Seeman et. al 2016).

I think the ethnography demonstrates that desire to create a better life for their children is a key element of motherhood, specifically for women with less economic resources.  I was especially focused on that fact that both women in Naomi’s House and Aasia are willing to forgo current comfort for the betterment of their children’s future. Aasia, rather than use the money as a surrogate now, chose to put it in accounts for her children – a decision that will allow her children the possibility to marry into a higher economic class. One women in Naomi’s House, Tiffany, stated “I could have … stayed with family and with friends, but I needed to start over; I needed to better myself for my children. I needed to stop and break the pattern” (Seeman et. al 2016). To me, the experiences of these women exemplifies a distinct application of personal agency that puts the needs of one’s children over their own, a true demonstration of motherhood.

A common question I reached in each of the sources is: can you buy motherhood – whether through privilege and/or monetary means? “Made in India” demonstrates lower costs as a key element of why people are exporting surrogacy, why women are choosing to be surrogates, and the complications that arise when paying through third party medical tourism companies.  Rothman and Meilaender discuss oppositions to surrogacy based on class complications. Rothman states it is another way for the men to “buy themselves privileges [of patriarchy]” (Rothman, p 1602), while Protestant ethicist David H. Smith opposes surrogacy since “the fertile partner is purchasing authentic parenthood” (Meilaender, p 1640). However, Seeman et al. demonstrates that while women at Naomi’s House lack many economic resources, they view motherhood as a rational, positive choice (Seeman et al. 2016). Therefore, I would argue that while money/privilege often form the basis of many structural beliefs, it can’t be reduced to a single standard of agency. I think what constitutes experience of motherhood is constantly changing across communities and cultures as reproductive technology and public health evolves.   

The questions I pose to the class are: 

  • Are there limited ways women can express agency? If so, who decides how agency is or isn’t expressed? 
  • How can public health and legal measures extend agency to surrogates in medical tourism? What about women like those in Naomi’s House whose ideas surrounding divine agency don’t fit the rationale of many public health efforts? 

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