Roxane: I feel like the fact that housework isn’t paid compares to a form of slavery. Women do a lot of work for free, and we act as if it was just something expected of them, not worthy of recognition.
Vincent: I think that the fact that women do all this work for free is beautiful. It is a mother’s way of showing love for her children.
Roxane: …And men show their love by bringing home money that they made while working, right?
Commercial Surrogacy and Materialist Feminism
Roxane Noel, senior student in philosophy at Université du Québec à Montréal
The above conversation is an actual interaction I had with a man who used to be a friend. The idea that women’s work is a labor of love, as expressed by Vincent, is very common and can be expressed in very obvious ways, like in the dialogue above, or in more covert ways. Anderson’s argument against surrogate motherhood relies on a similar assumption, as I will aim to show here. In particular, she argues against the moral permissibility of commercial surrogacy, where a woman gets paid for bringing a fetus to term and agrees to relinquish the baby to another couple (or individual) after he or she is born. The argument that we will focus on is the degradation argument, which could be summarized as follows:
P1: Degradation occurs when a good is treated in accordance to a lower mode of valuation than the one that is appropriate for that good.
P2: The only appropriate mode of valuation for gestation, which is specifically women’s work, is love (or parental norms, as Anderson puts it).
P3: Commercial surrogacy makes us value gestation in accordance to the norms of the market.
P4: The market norms mode of valuation is inferior to valuation in terms of love.
C1: Therefore, commercial surrogacy degrades gestation (by valuing it in accordance with market norms instead of parental love)
The premise that represents women’s labor as a labor of love is clearly P2. To show why P2 is wrong, we will compare commercial surrogacy to other forms of work in an attempt to show that it is not different in any relevant sense to other forms of work that we consider to be appropriately valued in terms of market norms. Once these potentially distinguishing features have been brushed aside, we will examine the remaining difference, which is that gestation is a specifically female type of work, and see which role it plays in Anderson’s claim that commercial surrogacy amounts to a type of degradation. It will then become clear that we should reject the claim that commercial surrogacy in particular is degrading women by undervaluing their work. Indeed, I want to advance an opposite claim: viewing women’s gestational labor as falling under the norms of love is degrading and anti-feminist.
Is commercial surrogacy relevantly different from other kinds of work?
One way to ground the idea that the market norms are not appropriate for gestation is to state that it is essentially different from jobs that can be legitimately valued according to market norms. There are different features that could make gestation a particular case. We will examine three of them: the physical harm involved, the intimate nature of the act, and the production of a child that deserves to be loved.
One could argue that gestation is significantly distinct from other forms of labor because of the health risks that are always associated with this activity, such as diabetes, back problems, complications, etc. This is highly unsatisfactory, though, because many jobs that we accept as being subject to market norms carry significant health risks. Consider the case of professional athletes; they suffer numerous injuries and put a lot of strain on their bodies. However, most people see the fact that athletes are getting paid as non problematic. Thus, the fact that gestation is risky in terms of health doesn’t explain why it is not appropriate to treat it in accordance to the market norms.
Another trait that we tend to associate with gestation is the very intimate character of carrying a child in one’s own body. However, many other jobs that fall under the market mode of valuation have an intimate dimension. For example, actors and actresses often have to undergo drastic bodily changes for movie contracts, and they might have to have sex with other actors of actresses for the sake of making the movie. It therefore seems that a job’s relation to intimate aspects of our lives is not enough to render it inappropriate for the market norms.
Finally, the most relevant difference between gestation and other kinds of jobs may be that the aim of gestation is to produce a child, which will need love and nurture. However, it is not clear that we can’t both love an entity and treat it in accordance to the norms of the market. An example would be a dog breeder who loves the puppies he breeds, but still sells them and makes sure they will end up in a loving, caring family. Another example would be the artist who puts all of his heart in a wonderful painting, then sells it. In both cases, the product is loved, but still sold, and it doesn’t seem like there is a conflict between these two dimensions. As long as the surrogate mother makes sure the child she bore ends up in a trustworthy, loving family, she can be seen as fulfilling the parental obligation to love and provide for the child, and transferring it legitimately to someone else.
The Valuation of Women’s Work: The Materialist Feminist Critique
The goal of the previous examples was to show that gestation is not in and of itself a form of labor distinct from the ones that fall under the market mode of valuation. Christine Delphy (1980) offers further support for this idea when she remarks that the same kind of work that was not considered worthy of a salary when executed in the context of marriage (child-rearing, cooking, housework, etc.) can, nowadays, be paid for without controversy. She, along with other materialist feminists, advanced an idea contrary to Anderson’s argument: the fact that women’s labor is not incorporated into the market structure is detrimental to women, because it is a consequence of the appropriation of women. Two mechanisms are involved in this appropriation: the unpaid character of women’s labor, and the characterization of women’s labor as a “labor of love”.
Colette Guillaumin and Christine Delphy are well known for their radical feminist position denouncing the unpaid character of women’s labor, especially housework and child-rearing. Guillaumin (1978) argues that, while men are owners of their own labor power and can exchange it for money through a contract, women have historically been seen as unable to do the same. She makes an analogy with slavery through her concept of sexage: women cannot sell their labor force through a contract because they don’t own it, just as a slave’s labor power belongs to its master. Of course, today, women can sell their own labor force through jobs that were previously open to men only. However, the fact that housework and child-rearing are not seen as requiring payment is still a remnant of the idea that women’s labor is not for them to sell. The same could be said about gestation. Delphy (1980) even argues that society itself, including the whole market exchange system, relies on the exploitation of women’s unpaid labor through the institution of family.
We now need to explain what justifies the unpaid character of women’s labor. Guillaumin (1978) advances the idea that ideological devices play a role in that regard, especially the idea that a woman is naturally inclined to take care of children, thus needing no financial compensation for simply “fulfilling her role”. In the same way, I would point out that we tend to construe child-bearing as some kind of wonderful privilege, the honor of bringing new beings to life. As such, it seems like there is something degrading in seeing this “miraculous” activity as another mundane form of labor. This is the same kind of point that Anderson tries to make when she says that love is the appropriate mode of valuation for gestation, but it seems like the idea underlying that point stems from an ideology designed to exploit women’s labor for free. Historically, as Guillaumin and Delphy both point out, women’s labor construed as a labor of love has served the purpose of making them more compliant regarding the exploitation of their unpaid work. Indeed, why would they complain about not being paid when they are thus fulfilling their very special and privileged role?
In summary, Anderson thinks commercial surrogacy is degrading because it places gestation under the market mode of valuation instead of a higher mode of valuation, namely love. However, it seems that presenting women’s labor as a labor of love is unjustified, since no relevant feature distinguishes gestation from other forms of labor accepted as legitimately belonging to the market exchange system. Moreover, arguing against salary for activities such as gestation contributes to the exploitation of women’s labor, as the materialist feminists point out. Indeed, gestation is a form of physical labor and, as such, a woman should be able to decide to sell it if we recognize her as the sole owner of her labor power. According to Guillaumin, denying her right to do so is accepting that her labor is not hers to sell. Presenting gestation as a labor of love also contributes to the exploitation of women’s labor by encouraging them to do it for free and shaming them if they do not want to do so.
Thus, if we want to be mindful of the exploitation and degradation of women, we ought to allow commercial surrogacy under certain conditions, because it amounts to recognizing a woman’s right to sell her labor power and gain some advantage out of it, instead of giving it up for free. Of course, an unjust system that would exploit the women by coercing them into gestation or by underpaying them, for example, would not be preferable. The point is only that commercial surrogacy is not in itself detrimental to women and that gestation should not be merely construed as a labor of love. Under just conditions, gestation is a type of labor that can legitimately be compensated for with money.
Anderson, Elizabeth S. “Is women’s labor a commodity?.” Philosophy & public affairs (1990): 71-92.
Delphy, Christine. “The main enemy.” Gender Issues 1.1 (1980): 23-40.
Guillaumin, Colette. “Pratique du pouvoir et idée de Nature (1) L’appropriation des femmes.” Questions féministes (1978): 5-30.
Guillaumin, Colette. “Pratique du pouvoir et idée de Nature (2) Le discours de la Nature.” Questions féministes (1978). 5-28
 Anderson 1990, p. 77
 Ibid. p. 79
 Ibid. p.81
 Delphy 1980, p. 30
Strong work, Roxane.
Roxane was a student in CU Boulder’s 2015 summer seminar in philosophy, where we talked about commercial surrogacy:
(At the moment, the above link goes to information on the 2015 seminar. The link might be impermanent though.)
One interesting issue that you mention, and that I’ve been bringing up in my classes on this subject is why we should allow altruistic surrogacy (for free) and also allow commercial surrogacy for high (“adequate”) pay but disallow commercial surrogacy for low (“inadequate”) pay. Brennan and Jaworski argue that if you may do something for free you may do it for money. I suggest that an even more solid inference is that if you may do something for free and may do it for $X, then you may do it for $X-k, for any k between 0 and X.