Hollywood actress Jamie Chung recently drew media attention when she revealed that she and her husband made use of a surrogate to give birth to their twin boys, now aged 7 months old, because she feared being “easily forgotten” by the cut-throat entertainment industry in which she works. Chung revealed she was “terrified of becoming pregnant.”
“I was terrified of putting my life on hold for two-plus years. In my industry, it feels like you are easily forgotten if you don’t work within the next month of your last job. Things are so quickly paced in what we do.”
“People probably think, ‘Oh, she’s so vain. She didn’t want to get pregnant,’ and it’s much more complicated than that. For me, personally, and I will leave it at this – it’s like, I worked my ass off my entire life to get where I am. I don’t want to lose opportunities. I don’t want to be resentful.”
Chung’s announcement has prompted public discussion, not about the merits of surrogacy itself, but instead about the ethics of choosing surrogacy as a lifestyle choice, as opposed to choosing it because of natural or “social” infertility.
As journalist Vera Alves observed:
“Jamie Chung voiced what is a very real concern for many women during child-bearing years, highlighting a difficult decision many women are forced to make. She could choose to delegate the pregnancy and birth to a different womb, and so she did. Of course, that act raises many valid, important questions around the privilege of choosing to outsource the pregnancy and labour and the impact on women who cannot choose the same option. But what we cannot do is pretend that Jamie Chung’s concerns over what a pregnancy would do to her career are not very real.”
In discussing the issue, many commentators have tried to steer away from passing judgment on both Chung’s decision and the issue of surrogacy itself; even so, one sympathetic commentator couldn’t help but remark that “[e]ven several days after I read her interview, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it myself”, noting that whilst surrogacy has become more acceptable, “...the idea of decoupling women from pregnancy is still radical.”
It is true that the issue remains highly contentious, despite the continued positive publicity surrogacy continues to receive in the media as a result of its promotion by high profile celebrities.
This is because the practice of surrogacy raises serious ethical questions about paying women (normally economically vulnerable women) to rent their wombs and carry another couple’s babies, the associated health risks for surrogate mothers, as well as the health and psychological risks to children born of surrogates. It remains a controversial issue because the rights of children commissioned through surrogacy are often overlooked. Yet, children have a right not to be bought and sold as objects, or commodified, to satisfy the desires of adults who can afford to pay for it.
Even the most sympathetic commentators have remarked:
“One doesn’t have to be that unsympathetic to feel a twinge of moral unease about surrogacy. Bearing a child is distinct from other work. If a surrogate experiences complications, her health and future fertility could be diminished or even destroyed. What other job requires an employee to give a client that much control over her body?”
Chung argues that as a woman, she had to make a choice between having children and pursuing her career. We might rail against the “system that forces [Chung] to feel like she had to make that choice in the first place” but the fact remains that she, unlike most women, had the luxury of choosing both; motherhood without pregnancy.
This perhaps brings us to the central point of this debate: what feminist and lawyer Erika Bachiochi refers to as the structuring of our society around “the wombless, unencumbered male”. Bachiochi argues that women continue to be disadvantaged in society because we pretend that sex differences between women and men do not exist. When we force women to become “like men” (i.e. biologically unencumbered) as a condition of full participation in public life, we endorse an essentially anti-woman premise that prevents us fully supporting women by recognising their unique ability to bear human life.
A society that celebrated and supported the differences between women and men, and valued the contribution that women can make, might not require women like Chung to sacrifice her career prospects to embrace pregnancy and motherhood.
“Rather than structure society around the wombless, unencumbered male, ought not society be structured around those who, in addition to being able to do all that men can do, can also bear new human life?”
“What about a culture where women's childbearing capacity is recognized not as an impediment to our social status and certainly not as the be-all and end-all of women's capacities as it once was, but as that which calls upon all persons in society to show a bit of gratitude?”
It is a shame that someone with Chung’s profile and resources felt her best option was to choose a risky and controversial pathway to having her own family.
We will not make progress for women whilst the epitome of career success remains the “wombless, unencumbered male”. Not only is this an impossible standard for women, it sells women short and once again entrenches an approach that feminists have long railed against; valuing maleness over femaleness and devaluing the unique contribution that women bring.