"Is Women's Labor a Commodity?" by Elizabeth S. Anderson


In "Is Women's Labor a Commodity?," Elizabeth S. Anderson argues that commercial surrogate motherhood is morally wrong because it treats both women and children as commodities to be produced and sold, which is an inappropriate valuation of persons. Anderson begins by assuming that slavery is wrong because it devalues persons worthy of respect and instead treats them as commodities to be bought and sold and valued only for their usefulness. She argues that this may be the appropriate way to produce and distribute things or items, but is wrong when applied to persons who merit respect independently of their usefulness to others. Next Anderson goes on to explain why she finds commercial surrogate motherhood to treat both surrogate mother and child as commodities. In the case of the child, Anderson says that in the case of commercial surrogacy the surrogate mother exchanges the child for money which amounts to selling the child. And in Anderson's words, "To sell a child is to treat it as a mere commodity... as if it were of value only for its usefulness to others... [and it] fails to value the child in the way he or she should be valued..." (331). In the same way, Anderson finds that the surrogate mothers are also valued as commodities because the pregnant women is not "treated in a manner that fully respects her own perspective on her pregnancy" as is the case under typical circumstances. Instead, how the woman is treated is based upon economic forces and viewed as an "incubation machine" rather than a person (331). Anderson concludes that due to the commoditization of the surrogate mother and child, commercial surrogate motherhood is morally wrong and, furthermore, should be made illegal.

To put it bluntly, I disagreed with almost every aspect of Anderson's argument. To start off, I think that the author came to the table already biased against the issue. For instance, she describes the practice of commercial surrogate motherhood as being a contract involving three parties: "the intended father, the broker, and the surrogate mother" (334). Yet this is usually not the case because with the intended father is often an intended mother. I think Anderson's may have left out this important member in order to make it seem as though the surrogacy contract is a power struggle between two men (if the broker is also a man) and a woman in need of money. However, this is more speculation about the author's possible hidden intentions to garner sympathy on part of the reader than a solid case against the argument itself.

An important problem with Anderson's argument is commercial surrogate motherhood (from now on CSM), is the comparison to commoditization in the same way that slaves are devalued as persons. There is a huge difference between slavery and CSM because slaves do not get the choice to be a slave and neither do they get compensated for their efforts. Surrogate mothers do, however, have the choice to be SMs, the choice to back out of the process when the seriousness of the agreements are put forth by lawyers, the social workers, the prospective parents, and common sense, and they have the choice to be compensated for their efforts or to do so for only the costs involved. The SMs are not forced into the agreements nor are they "manipulated," as Anderson maintains, since they are made aware of the circumstances before freely agreeing to them or choosing to decline to go through with the process. Anderson says that "To respect a person is to treat her in accordance with principles she rationally accepts- principles consistent with the protection of her autonomy and her rational interests" (337). I maintain that SMs (minus ones with mental or emotional incapacities who ought be screened out) have rational interest for choosing to become surrogate mothers because they otherwise would not choose to become one. To think otherwise is to deny a SMs ability at rational thought or ability to weigh factors of self-interest, in other words, to deny the very concept of personhood that Anderson argues SMs should have. I think that this article devalues women by assuming that they don't have the mental capacity to choose what is right for themselves and to do as they wish with their own bodies, including taking on emotional and physical risks for financial/emotional/altruistic incentives.

Another issue I have is with Anderson's assumption that even the SMs and the children are bought and sold as commodities, that they necessarily lose rights in the process and are devalued as persons. She says "... widespread acceptance of commercial surrogacy... would change the way children are valued by people... from being loved by their parents and respected by others, to being sometimes used as objects of commercial profit making" (336). Pets are bought and sold on a regular basis, yet they maintain some basic rights and are no less loved by good owners than if they pet had come to them freely. In the same way, the children born from SMs will be loved and cared for by qualified potential parents. The only reason most parents would consider this arduous and expensive route to have their child is because for some medical reason they failed to get pregnant themselves. Even if the parents had questionable or selfish motives for choosing to have the child, this is no different a situation than if they had had the ability to get pregnant themselves. Once the child is with his or her parents, the same rules and laws apply as with all children: the child must be reasonably be cared for and not neglected or the parents risk having the child removed from their care. Furthermore, the SM is not truly "selling" the baby to the potential parents, but giving the child to them with money as an incentive to deal with the intensive process. This is the same as in the case of plasma donations, where the donor is also compensated. The money provides an incentive for SMs or plasma donors to choose to go ahead with the process, without which there would likely not be enough to meet demand.

I think the strongest point of Anderson's argument is that because pregnancy is an intensely intimate situation it is possible for the SM to develop gestational ties or bonds with the baby and thus may wish to void the agreement with the potential parents and keep the infant. I agree that this situation is definitely problematic since it is natural for a mother to be emotionally bonded to her offspring and taking the child away, even if the SM agreed to it, seems potentially wrong or at least unnatural. However, I do agree with contracts and as the SM is made aware of the situation and of possible emotional ties ahead of time, I do feel that she should keep to the contract or pay for all of the costs that went into the arrangement. I think it is an incredibly difficult situation, but at the same time there are other intense situations where an individual makes a serious choice that they must live with. For instance, kidney donation too is a highly emotional, physically intense process that may reduce life expectancy. But even though the seriousness is the same as with CSM, there are no backsies with kidney donation. Plus, this whole issue may well be a relatively non-issue because according to a 2002 study by the Family and Child Psychology Research Centre SMs rarely have difficulty relinquishing rights to a surrogate child (see below for citation). This study was conducted 12 years after Anderson wrote her article, so she may be forgiven for lacking this information, but even if there were some cases in which the SM developed emotional ties, this would first support the argument for stronger screening methods for SMs who can handle the extreme situation and for better training of emotional detachment methods rather than immediate illegality of CSM. To further oppose Anderson's assumptions about the horribleness of CSM, the same study also found that the intended mothers showed greater warmth to the child than mothers conceiving naturally. Another study found that there was no negative impact on the SM own children and another found that that SMs felt empowered after going through the process rather than traumatized as Anderson assumed (see below for citations).

I think for me personally, my slight aversion to SM is that there are already so many unwanted children in the world, that it seems that instead of going through the challenging process of CSM the want-to-be parents should adopt. Of course adoption too is a lengthy, emotional, and expensive process so it is not saving the prospective parents anything on that regard. But it is not the parents fault that they cannot conceive a genetically related child naturally, so if it was fair to make them adopt rather than create new life, then it would only be fair that all parents be forced to adopt rather than procreate. This, of course, would be crazy and impossible, and it is evolutionarily understandable that people have a natural desire to care for their own genetically related children. Those who are willing to adopt are doing a commendable service. But perhaps if the adoption process were streamlined and less expensive, more families would choose to expand via adoption rather than through a surrogate.

Elizabeth S. Anderson, "Is Women's Labor a Commodity" in What's Wrong: Applied Ethicists and Their Critics, ed. David Boonin and Graham Oddie (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 333-340.

MacCallum F, Lycett E, Murray C, Jadva V, Golombok S (June 2003). "Surrogacy: the experience of commissioning couples". Hum. Reprod. 18 (6): 1334-42

British Fertility Society Press Release, Surrogacy does not have a negative effect on the surrogate's own children, Study:Children of surrogate mothers: an investigation into their experiences and psychological health], Susan Imrie, Vasanti Jadva, Susan Golombok, Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK retrieved 1/17/2012

Teman, Elly (2010). "Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self". Berkeley: University of California Press.


It seems to me that the extent to which the SM is commodified, if at all, will depend on the nature of the contractual agreement with the intended parents. She, of course, is reasonably expected to take due care with respect to actions/behavior that put the pregnancy at risk. Given the financial and emotional investment on the part of the intended parents, however, there is a risk that their (however well-intentioned) stipulations will sometimes conflict with the SM's autonomy interests and/or the child's best interests. With respect to the latter, e.g., do you think that the child has a right to a relationship with the woman who carried and birthed him/her (even in cases where the SM is not an egg donor)? Should such an option be one that a SM cannot contractually forfeit? If we are not to regard the SM as a "womb for hire", then it seems to me that the answer to both is "yes".

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by puch0022 published on December 17, 2012 12:39 AM.

"The Land Ethic" by Aldo Leopold was the previous entry in this blog.

"Commodification and Commercial Surrogacy" by Richard J. Arneson is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.