From a feature article in last Sunday’s New York Times:
In an era of globalization, the market for children crosses national borders; witness the longtime flow of Americans who have gone overseas to adopt babies from South Korea, China, Russia and Guatemala.
Other than the United States, only a few countries — among them India, Thailand, Ukraine and Mexico — allow paid surrogacy. As a result, there is an increasing flow in the opposite direction, with the United States drawing affluent couples from Europe, Asia and Australia. Indeed, many large surrogacy agencies in the United States say international clients — gay, straight, married or single — provide the bulk of their business…
Together, domestic and international couples will have more than 2,000 babies through gestational surrogacy in the United States this year, almost three times as many as a decade ago.
What, if anything, is to be made of such developments?
A little more than a decade back, a succession of startling innovations in biotech, the turn of a new millennium and Clinton’s ‘New Economy’ boom together spawned a potboiling genre of fanciful prognoses, fretful futurology and journalistic speculation on the fate of the ‘body’, marriage and parenthood, and human reproduction.
Around the same time, Foucault’s ‘biopolitics’ was rediscovered by the Anglophone academy, a narrow seam contributing another rich source of mischief and vapidity for cultural studies.
In the midst of this scene, in 2001 Duncan Foley delivered a clear-eyed scholarly lecture on economic growth and demography. In it, he anticipated the new century bringing ‘opportunities and pressures’ for what he termed ‘reproductive arbitrage’.
The latter, he suggested, would ensue in a world where sub-replacement fertility prevailed in the ageing metropolitan economies, alongside a demographic floodtide of human misery elsewhere, as much of the globe experienced industrial growth insufficient to absorb its massive, stagnant ranks of young and prime-age people into employment.
This reproductive arbitrage — a ‘global market for children’, buying where cheap and selling where coveted, at a premium — would, he pointed out, be something novel.
It was to be distinguished from the traditional migration of underutilized reserves of labour from remote hinterlands to the industrial centre.
The twentieth-first century, at its dawn, heralded a ‘sharp polarization between countries with rich ageing populations which cannot reproduce themselves and countries with poor, younger populations which are growing’:
Productive arbitrage opportunities will arise because the rich countries will have chronic shortages of labour and surpluses of capital, while poor countries will have chronic shortages of capital and surpluses of labour. Arbitrage suggests either the movement of capital to the poor countries through foreign investment, or the movement of labour to the rich countries through migration…
Reproductive arbitrage opportunities will arise because of the tendency for poor countries to specialize in producing children, as the rich countries specialize in producing wealth. Thus, we can expect an explosive growth in the trade in reproduction and its associated services like surrogate parenthood, adoption, and the provision of child-care services between older, richer countries and younger, poorer countries. We have also begun to see the early stages of this phenomenon already.
Amid warm applause for the realization of parental dreams long held, misgivings are voiced, shortcomings admitted. Queasiness rarely rises, however, to the level of outright reproach, rejection or, least of all, investigation of underlying causes.
Prurience of the ‘Octomom’ variety carries its share of denunciation and spite, of course. But few right-thinking people would see fit to deny that the technology and ‘bioethics’ of assisted reproductive procedures are the chief matters at stake: philosophy, of a sort, rather than politics.
‘Regulation’, by vigilant international NGOs if not local authorities, is the prescribed salve.
(Not yet accustomed to the ways of the world, earlier journalistic treatment of ‘traditional’ surrogacy [insemination with sperm rather than embryo] was, in the 1980s and 1990s, rather more stringent in its scrutiny of market participants and their claims.)
Typically less given to delicate euphemism, the gurus and think tanks of the libertarian right have maintained a cautious silence on surrogacy’s cosmopolitan turn. Perhaps wary of upsetting a precarious apple cart, they are more likely to have found intervention unnecessary.
Inferences can, however, be drawn from past forthright statements.
In 1977, Judge Richard Posner notoriously proposed ‘legalizing a market for babies’. Affecting bemusement at the outraged response that greeted this calculated provocation, Posner observed in his own defence, and with some justification, ‘we have legal baby selling today… I simply think it should be regulated less stringently than today.’
The University of Chicago’s Richard Epstein, in a 1995 paper on surrogacy and contract law, complained that ‘condemnation of any transaction as “baby-selling” is all too often treated as a conversation stopper’.
A more phlegmatic outlook was called for.
Surrogacy’s ‘commercial aspects’ were ‘a regrettable but necessary part of transactions that yield enormous nonquantifiable benefits to the biological father and his wife, and to their friends and family who have comforted them during their years of anxiety and distress’:
The ability of individuals to handle these transactions with sensitivity and discretion is not precluded because money changes hands. Indeed the success of the venture may be aided if the money allows skilled professionals to ease the transition of both sides.
Meanwhile the industry of international adoption receives promotional services from the likes of Harvard Law School’s Elizabeth Bartholet.
Foley’s remarks were little more than an aside, to which, as the phenomenon he identified has since grown, detail can be added.
What circumstances underpin the global specialization of reproductive tasks, linked increasingly by commercial transactions undertaken for profit?
Relative prices and jurisdictional peculiarities play their part (an Indian surrogate at the most internationally renowned clinic in Gujarat is fortunate to receive a fee of $6500, some others as little as $800, while their North American counterparts fetch around $30 000. Merely donating ova, if their source is an Ivy League graduate, itself attracts $20 000).
Fertility rates are inversely related to female labour-force participation (and per capita output), lifetime births per woman being highest where female paid employment is least, and the costs of child rearing (education, medical care, foregone wages) smallest.
Malnutrition causes half of all Indian women to be anaemic. Nearly half of all Indian children under three are underweight and undersized, and maternal mortality (around 200 per 100 000 live births) is estimated to kill 80 000 Indian women each year, contributing with Nigeria around a third of the world’s annual maternal deaths (most from anaemia, haemorrhage or uterine rupture, eclampsia and septic abortion).
Why is it that ‘poor countries’, seemingly so ill-suited for the task, should today have come to ‘specialize in producing children’ for the industrially developed zones of the planet?
‘Reproduction’ arises as a topic in classical political economy (Smith, Ricardo, Marx) because of the peculiar character of that productive input known as human labour.
The latter is not (as are capital goods) produced as a direct commodity via the capitalist system of production; nor (like land, minerals and similar resources) garnered freely from nature; but must instead be born, reared, trained and socialized, in the domestic household or elsewhere, before it can be hired on the market as employable labour-power.
Thus, in the view of classical political economy, labour supply is induced by demand, growing or shrinking according to demand for employees at a given real wage, caused by variation in productive investment.
Over a few decades, labour supply is flexible or elastic, because employers seeking workers may tap in to external sources (idle pools abroad drawn in as immigrants) or underutilized domestic sources (the unemployed, housebound women, etc.).
Conditions in the slums and shanty towns of today’s Delhi, Jakarta, Lagos, São Paulo, Karachi, Kinshasa, Dhaka, Istanbul and Cairo may thus be compared to those of Henry Mayhew’s London.
In early Victorian times, Britain’s industrial revolution had breached Malthusian limits, detonating population growth and urbanization that, for the moment, outstripped the pace of fixed-capital accumulation and demand for employees.
The London streets of 1840 therefore teemed with petty vendors and sole proprietors (fruit sellers, flower stalls, artisans, prostitutes) whose meagre inventories and simple tools of the trade were of a scale measly enough to be owned by a single precariously placed individual or family, hawked and peddled by day and carried home at night.
With the available workforce more plentiful than the needs of capital owners required, human life came cheaply and the necessities of subsistence were procured in haphazard, opportunistic fashion, as described vividly by Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor, and captured in the crowded tenements of Dickens’s fiction.
Despite rapid growth in productivity, British real wages remained stagnant throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, its urban hordes preserving slack in the labour market.
Nearly two centuries later, in today’s Britain and other advanced economies, shrinking working-age cohorts (15-64 years) support relatively large economically inactive cohorts of the elderly and infirm.
In this metropolitan core, most strikingly in Europe and Japan, mechanization of production has caused output-capital ratios eventually to fall, as the stock of factories and equipment accumulates more rapidly than the number of available employees.
Beyond the frontiers of the OECD, however, in the less industrially developed countries whose populations comprise the overwhelming majority of the world, Mayhew’s vista of scrounged livings now predominates.
In today’s official lexicon, it is designated as the ‘informal economy’.
Ninety-three percent of the Indian workforce, and 85 percent of the non-farm workforce, is deployed outside the organized corporate or state-owned sector in tiny household enterprises.
These marginal hundreds of millions of South Asian ‘self-employed’ and sub-contractors, whose low business revenue and few tangible assets makes them uncreditworthy to formal lending sources, provide the social infrastructure for those microfinance initiatives that so capture the hopes of well-meaning left-liberals abroad.
More importantly, such vast pools of urban misery — propelled out of the countryside by the Green Revolution, into cities where insufficient investment exists to draw them into paid employment — form a latent reserve of potential employees, thus keeping a ceiling on wage growth.
In Africa, South Asia, Latin America, West and Southeast Asia, low labour productivity corresponds to lesser capital intensity (fewer tangible assets used per worker), high output-capital ratios and a younger population.
Indian agricultural, construction, pottery and textile workers thus perform manual labour whilst their more productive counterparts abroad are assisted by machinery and equipment.
The capital-labour ratio in India is less than one-tenth its level in the United States. The resulting difference in labour productivity yields a stark income divergence: India’s average real wage is one-twentieth that of the USA.
In these circumstances, with the postcolonial prospect of secular ‘development’ and improved living standards having long since receded, those offering otherworldly salvation and similar religious consolations have naturally thrived.
In India, appeals to the devout, and invocations of Hindutva, have multiplied under the impeccably business-minded administrations of Rao, Manmohan Singh and Modi. BJP and Congress alike truckle to local piety while catering to foreign creditors.
Typically backed as an anti-left bulwark by the local security apparatus, favoured as a counterweight to unruly secular nationalism by imperialist intelligence services, and firmly planted in the soil of matrimonial and sexual conservatism, such confessional movements, of whatever stripe, have not looked favourably upon the entry of women to paid employment, female enrolment in public schooling and other novel social roles.
Along with these superstitious revivals, the persistence of archaic social relations — debt bondage, small farms and petty proprietorships, landlordism and sharecropping, patriarchal tyranny, hereditary caste occupation, and various other forms of labour tying — tends to encourage precocious marriage sealed by dowry, relatively early age of first pregnancy, reduced spacing of births and high birth rates.
Nearly half the female Indian population is illiterate; fewer than half receive secondary education.
The wealthier Indian states — Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat, Punjab — have the most imbalanced sex ratios, with sex-selective foetal reduction facilitated by imaging technology. The practice of female-specific abortion therefore increased from the 1990s.
Yet the origin of commercial surrogacy in India, Thailand and the former Soviet republics is not simply the penury and devastation internal to these countries, enormous though these are.
The ‘market for children’ depends upon economic and jurisprudential developments pioneered in the advanced regions of North America, Europe, Northeast Asia and the Antipodes.
Trails of commodification are blazed in California.
There, the presence of an advanced biomedical-university complex, a favourable judicial environment, and cultural deregulation to make the rest of the United States blush, have placed the state at the forefront of proprietary and contractual developments governing human somatic material, as well as probate and family law (disputes over inheritance and parental rights).
Efforts by universities and research hospitals to secure intellectual-property claims to their research findings, and to patent the research tools (including biological material) used in obtaining them, have spurred the process.
Moore v Regents of the University of California (1990) — establishing that a patient or donor had no claim to profits derived from use by recipients of his or her own harvested or extracted tissues, cells or gametes — encouraged resort to sperm and ovum donations, and sped development of the ‘oocyte economy.’
The ruling in this case explicitly referred, as a foremost consideration, to its implications for biomedical research, the judges dutifully genuflecting before the needs of industry.
Similarly, to facilitate the practice of IVF, sperm donors are legally held to have relinquished parental rights over biological offspring born as a result of artificial insemination. Californian judges have found that gestational hosts do likewise, in order that surrogacy arrangements should proceed without a hitch.
It is in Sacramento, rather than Ahmedabad, that authorities have been asked to rule on the ownership and disposition of frozen embryos.
And it is in the beating heart of world capitalism that a 1996 article in a legal journal could announce that gestational surrogacy had brought about the ‘demise of the unitary biological mother’. (Its author is now a ‘philanthropy consultant’ who ‘helps charities and brands secure celebrity support for cause-marketing campaigns and fundraising events.’)
This image of divided maternity (‘demise of the unitary mother’) furnishes an almost parodic example of the fragmentation that follows from commodification or rationalization, as described in the Marxist and Weberian traditions.
Once an activity (such as human sexual reproduction) is drawn into the sphere of production for the market, or a need is supplied as a commodity, the division of labour splits it apart into its specialized aspects or components.
‘Reproductive arbitrage’ and the ‘market for children’, therefore, are symptoms of what Arlie Hochschild calls the ever-advancing commodity frontier, the encroachment of commodity production and the capitalist sector upon ever more elements of human life.
Activities once performed by individuals or households for their own use, for satisfaction of their own needs — with both the labour and its output free of monetary cost — become services available for purchase on the market, in return for payment.
The ‘relinquishing of family functions to the market realm’ is hardly novel. The role of the domestic household as a production unit that self-provisions has ebbed for several centuries, its scope annexed and chiselled away since at least Britain’s Agricultural Revolution.
Few households now cultivate their own crops, educate their own children, spin and weave their own textiles, or construct their own houses. Responsibility for all these activities has been transferred to the capitalist sector or the state.
A few residual tasks remain for unpaid housework: the final stages of food preparation, childcare for infants and preschoolers, some custodial care of school-age children, cleaning of residential premises, etc.
The waning role of the domestic sector — and the transfer of production to a capitalist sector that can introduce efficient new techniques, raise productivity and realize economies of scale — has meant a degree of liberation from isolation and household drudgery, freeing up women for paid employment and other social roles.
Yet Hochschild, since The Managed Heart (1993), has drawn attention to recent new incursions by the market into the domestic household, in the fields of emotional intimacy, affective display and attachment.
With supply of these to customers now yielding a profitable return, employees, especially in ‘hospitality’ or service occupations, are obliged to convincingly demonstrate emotion: the solicitousness of the waiter, the empathy of the care worker, the conviviality of the flight attendant, the cheerful verve of the tour guide.
Emotional labour ‘requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.’
Such transactions may be extended, Hochschild has noted, to ‘outsourcing’ (from independent contractors or employees) family functions traditionally performed by women, as mothers and wives, within the domestic household: cook, teacher, nurse, nanny, but also provider of emotional support, companionship and sexual partnership.
Intimacy may be purchased either in spot markets or by entering into long-term bilateral arrangements, with previous methods of attracting mates and forming pair-bonds having now dissolved or become too time-consuming,
A ‘familial role’ is ‘shown to be divisible into slivers, a whole separated into parts.’
Here, too, efficiency gains are made from turning tasks over to dedicated specialists:
Especially in its more recent incarnation, the commercial substitutes for family activities often turn out to be better than the “real” thing. Just as the French bakery may make bread better than mother ever did, and the cleaning service may clean the house more thoroughly, so therapists may recognize feelings more accurately. Even child care workers, while no ultimate substitute, may prove more warm and even–tempered than parents sometimes are.
Thus, in a sense, capitalism isn’t competing with itself, one company against another. Capitalism is competing with the family, and particularly with the role of the wife and mother.
Recoil, if it occurs here, is surely inspired not just by dread of the ersatz, but from threatened fulfilment of the bleakest Frankfurt School visions of the ‘exchange principle’ making human beings fungible and interchangeable.
In the banalization sought by use of the term ‘sex worker’, there is a caricature that mimics and nullifies the earlier hopes of women’s liberation, in the guise of realizing those aspirations.
To be sure, demands to revise the family, and disrupt standard reproductive arrangements, have long featured as a staple in visions of social transformation.
But surrogacy in a dingy Gujarati basement dormitory, or a gleaming Californian clinic, is far indeed from the sexual and matrimonial innovations proposed for Fourier’s phalanstère, Bacon’s New Atlantis or Campanella’s City of the Sun, let alone Firestone’s utopia of ‘artificial reproduction’ and parthenogenesis.
The relationship of gestational host to client is less novel than supposed, as made clear in an anecdote from Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self:
I didn’t want her to think of me as this big rich American coming in with my money to buy her womb for a while. So I did touch her at some point, I think, her hair or her shoulder. I tried to smile a lot.
Through the interpreter I told her, “I am very glad and grateful you are doing this.” I explained that we’d tried to have a baby but couldn’t. I told her not to worry for herself; she would be taken care of. I asked her about her own child.
She didn’t look at ease. It was not the unease of, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” but more the unease of the subordinate meeting her boss.
Of course, the precise relationship is rather presumptuously misspecified: the surrogate is a commercial subcontractor, not an employee. The contracting parties, holding all cards, are the surrogacy clinic and its commissioning clients.
World capitalism is capable of accommodating, and indeed of promoting, those survivals of domestic servitude and patriarchal terror that assist the growth of its latest production lines. The hereditary dynasty of Nehru, not to speak of the lineages of Bush and Clinton, attest to an official capacity for preserving the atavistic: inherited charisma, or family branding, at the head of the bureaucratic state.
Maintenance of a servile pool of Indian women (contractually denied any right to abortion, etc.) thus serves roughly the same social function as does existence of the idle, squandered two billion or so human beings wasting away, on standby, in the slum workshops of Asia’s informal sector, and in the continent-sized skid row of Africa: exiled from capitalist employment yet useful to employers.
Liberal capitalist societies, in ideal form, prohibit certain market transactions (e.g. the sale and purchase of human beings, contracts of indentured servitude).
They offer thereby a more limited scope for commodity exchange than do slave-owning societies. When the Roman civil code was rediscovered in the High Middle Ages, and used as the foundation for European commercial law, a good deal of antiquated material relating to trade in slaves had perforce to be discarded by the glossators.
However, it is a commonplace of Marxist thought that capitalist property relations tend, by their nature, to expand into every available territory, occupy each vacant line of production, and invade any vulnerable social nook. Commercial transactions, and property rights, thus tend to encompass more domains of existence than ever before.
This may be most apparent in the industries of health, physical embellishment and body transformation: repair, modification, procreation and enhancement.
What types of entities and powers may legitimately be alienated, surrendered under the profit motive, or acquired by payment? What parts of the body, or human capabilities, have recently lapsed into chattel status, and may validly be transacted in the market; which of them are murky?
While the United States’ National Organ Transplant Act (1984) forbids the sale or purchase of vital organs for ‘valuable consideration’, some philosophers have recently advocated legalization of payment for kidney sales; another salutes ‘commodification of human body parts’ and, indeed, ‘universal commodification.’
The attitudes of some, it has elsewhere been remarked, betray ‘an underlying fear of treating the human body, or the cellular material that will develop into a human being, as the personal property equivalent of cars or television sets.’ This, ‘although perhaps justifiable on moral grounds’, is unhelpful. All rights, ultimately, flow from proprietary interests.
Thus speaks the wisdom of the age.
It brings to mind the young Marx’s description of the ‘power of money’, which Adam Smith had said conferred the ‘power to command’ labour and the products of labour.
As the productivity of human labour increases, the fruits of the entire world are brought within the grasp of the wealthy, who can through spending remedy all deficiencies:
That which is for me through the medium of money — that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) — that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my — the possessor’s — properties and essential powers.
Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.
I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness — its deterrent power — is nullified by money.
I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame.
I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest.
I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever?
Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?
If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation? It is the coin that really separates as well as the real binding agent.