Unlikely Ally: Feminist Gloria Steinem Joins Fight Against Surrogacy

Jennifer Lahl, the nurse who heads the Center for Bioethics and Culture, discusses why Steinem helped derail a New York bill that would legalize commercial surrogacy and explains how the practice exploits women.

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Over the past few months, Jennifer Lahl has helped organize a coalition of New York groups that prevented the passage of a state bill that would legalize commercial surrogacy, entitled the Child-Parent Security Act. 

Lahl is the president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, which addresses issues that profoundly affect human dignity, including the rising practice of so-called “gestational surrogacy,” where individuals or couples contract with a woman to carry a child on their behalf. Lahl has worked with lawmakers and activists across the globe to help educate the public about the dangers of this practice, while producing films that feature personal stories of women harmed by paid surrogacy.

New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters June 19 that he didn’t believe the lower chamber was ready to support the bill. 

Paid surrogacy “still is a difficult issue in the Assembly,” he acknowledged in comments reported by Politico. “All members’ opinions count, but this was a decision that really relied on the feelings of the women in the conference, and I just think there’s a handful that are not ready.”

New York barred commercial “gestational surrogacy” in 1992, in response to the notorious “Baby M” case in New Jersey. 

On June 11, the New York Senate passed the Child-Parent Security Act, designed to help same-sex-attracted men and infertile couples have children with the help of a “gestational surrogate.” But as the debate over the bill moved to the state Assembly, Gloria Steinem and other prominent feminists spoke out strongly against it, joining a coalition of groups that includes the New York Catholic Conference.

During an interview with Register Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Lahl explains why Steinem attacked the bill and discusses the steps opponents took to overcome powerful monied interests that advocated for paid surrogacy as a civil right.

 

Earlier this month, the New York Senate passed a bill that would legalize commercial surrogacy. Where does the bill stand now?

After the bill’s passage in the Senate, opponents of the legislation worked to influence and educate assembly members. We tried to pick off as many of the bill’s supporters as possible by giving them accurate information about the problems with this practice.

Gov. Cuomo also doubled down, forming a 12-member New York congressional delegation that campaigned to legalize surrogacy before the end of the legislative session on June 19. He argued that the bill’s opponents were denying transgender and gay people their right to have children. Those who opposed it were “homophobic.”

That was nonsense: People also opposed commercial surrogacy for infertile couples. Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women, and Gloria Steinem also opposed this legislation, and both have been longtime supporters of the “LGBT” community and changing marriage law.

 

Steinem released a strong letter to state lawmakers, urging them to vote against commercial surrogacy. “Under this bill, women in economic need become commercialized vessels for rent, and the fetuses they carry become the property of others,” she said. How did Steinem get involved?

Feminists on the ground in New York reached out to her. They explained why they opposed the legislation and focused on the right of women not to be exploited. These are feminists who have worked long and hard against prostitution, and they have tried to get the sex-trafficking industry shut down and criminalized.

 

New York State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick told The New York Times that the high costs associated with commercial surrogacy meant that it was designed for “well heeled” New Yorkers. Glick, who is described as the “first openly gay member” of the state Legislature, also said she found the “commodification of women troubling.”

The bill’s opponents have been up against wealthy interests. The fertility industry, from the clinics, to the egg brokers, to the lawyers who draw up the contracts, are profiting from commercial surrogacy.

The bill’s opponents had very little money or resources, and the women who serve as surrogates are low-income. I am not advocating that we pay them more. I am against a practice that puts their health and well-being at risk. Egg donation also carries risks.

 

After critics raised questions about the rights of women who signed surrogacy contracts, the original language was amended, and its supporters now say that it includes a “bill of rights” for the women involved, like legal representation and health care paid for by those contracting for their services.

The law also gives the woman the right to oppose termination of the pregnancy.

There has been a push for additional legal protections because lower-income women are serving as surrogates for wealthy couples.

When things go wrong, the wealthy couple has access to legal representation and the woman [who signed the surrogacy contract] doesn’t have legal counsel, aside from help with informed consent at the initial signing of the contract.

Once commercial surrogacy is legal, however, anyone who wants this service can write up their own contract and include other things. [The woman] has the autonomy to agree to those conditions. Problems occur after she changes her mind.

 

Andy Cohen, host of Watch What Happens Live and the executive producer of the Real Housewives franchise, has defended “gestational surrogacy” as a “selfless” act and argues that it was wrong to deny this service to individuals who could not have their own children.

Current law in New York state allows altruistic surrogacy. If you want to be a surrogate for your sister or your best friend, you can do that. But once you move to a commercial transaction, it is not selfless. There’s a demand for commercial surrogacy because the present altruistic option is not meeting current demand.

 

Cohen, who identifies as gay, said that when he wanted to have a child through commercial surrogacy, he had to travel to California. How does it work in the Golden State? 

Supporters of commercial surrogacy see California as a “surrogacy-friendly” state. But we have had surrogacy cases in California where things went very wrong [see coverage here, here and here].

In two cases, the woman was pregnant with triplets, and each had already signed a contract that said she would abort the children (or reduce the pregnancy) if the intended parents wanted that. But when asked to have an abortion, she refused and was told she was in breach of contract and there would be consequences.

 

These cases have made headlines. Where does that leave the children when they are old enough to know how they were conceived?

We talk a lot about the “best interests of the child.” Well, the best interests of the child is not to be pulled into a surrogacy arrangement that plays out in the New York Daily News.

We are also seeing health problems with children created through reproductive technology. Research shows they are at higher risks for pediatric cancers and obesity, which comes with higher risks of health complications.

 

Supporters of commercial surrogacy, like Cohen, contend that the woman remains in total control of her body and the practice is not exploitive.

How can women be in total control of their bodies and not be able to change their minds? Typically, gay men use eggs from one woman and the womb of another. Neither woman has any legal rights over the child.

 

Steinem’s opposition to the commercial-surrogacy bill made headlines. But feminists in Europe generally do not support the practice.

Most of Europe has never allowed surrogacy, altruistic or commercial. Documents that frame European laws look at this as reproductive trafficking and violence against women. They also see a commercial contract as an undignified way to bring a child into the world.

Commercial surrogacy in the Global South has also become an issue because women and children have been harmed.

 

Why is America different? We like free markets and less governmental intervention. We are more likely to let technology have its way and only let the government step in when a critical mass of information forces a change in our views.

Surrogate mothers and their babies have died in America, but everyone also knows someone who can’t have children. The marketing and messaging is powerful.

 

Is there reason to hope that Americans will rethink their tolerance of this practice?

I was encouraged to see Steinem go public. It shows we can build a coalition, and it was a big step for someone who has not spent much time on this issue. I hope it will give more people boldness.

Overall, this is a state issue. U.S. presidents have not shown any interest in securing federal law to address commercial surrogacy. Looking ahead, we still need to do much more to make the case for why we should oppose all forms of surrogacy.