August 17, 2020

Stelarc — a performance artist currently inhabiting the body of a 74-year-old Cypriot-Australian man — believes that the “human body, as we now know it, is obsolete.”

His work plays with the boundary between man and machine. In one piece, he gave members of the public control over his limbs via electronic muscle stimulators. In another, he designed a system that enables a physical body to animate a virtual body as it moves through cyberspace. In 2007, Stelarc had a cell-cultivated ear surgically attached to his left arm, with the hope of one day attaching a wireless listening device and allowing others to listen in, hearing as Stelarc hears. He dreams of a world in which we are no longer limited by our animal forms: “life would no longer commence with birth and end with death! Life would become a digital experience.”

Reading a recent piece in The New York Times titled ‘The Fight for Fertility Equality’, it seems that a new movement of pro-surrogacy campaigners are thinking along distinctly Stelarcian lines:

Still in its infancy, this movement envisions a future when the ability to create a family is no longer determined by one’s wealth, sexuality, gender or biology… They argue that people — gay, straight, single, married, male, female — are not infertile because their bodies refuse to cooperate with baby making.

Ron Poole-Dayan, the founder and executive director of an organisation called Men Having Babies, sees his movement’s objectives as simply the next logical step in the fight for equality, following on from the successful campaign to legalise gay marriage in America. He argues that the barriers gay men face in having children are social, rather than physical, and that assumptions to the contrary are bitterly “hetero-centric.”

Poole-Dayan and other fertility equality campaigners insist not only that commercial surrogacy should be fully legalised, but also that medical insurance companies should cover the costs. Some employers already offer so-called ‘fertility benefits’, paying for egg freezing, IVF, and surrogacy — a perk that is increasingly common in the tech sector. Fertility equality campaigners would like to see this extended, thereby allowing anyone, no matter their income, sex, sexual orientation, or relationship status, to have a child that is genetically related to them.

The word ‘woman’ does not appear once in The New York Times piece. Nor does the word ‘mother’. There is a brief mention of feminists pushing back against the expansion of the surrogacy industry, including famous figures like Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Chesler, the latter protesting against the anti-materialism of it: “Some people want to do away with reality, but biology is real, biology exists — and biology is what will get you pregnant.”

When I interviewed Chesler last year, she spoke about her efforts to resist the campaign to legalise commercial surrogacy in New York State, a campaign that Governor Andrew Cuomo later titled ‘Love Makes a Family’. Since then, Cuomo has succeeded in pushing through his proposed reforms, meaning that commercial surrogacy will become legal in New York State in February 2021. The feminist resistance has, for now, failed.

It’s often forgotten that most people who seek out surrogacy services are not gay men, but rather heterosexual couples. A minority are infertile as a result of illness or disability, but a much larger proportion are unable to conceive as a result of the woman’s age. As delayed childbearing has become more common in the modern world, so has age-related infertility. The proportion of 20-year-old women who will not have a live birth when trying to conceive is about 2-3%; for 40-year-old women, the figure is more like a third; for 45-year-olds, almost 90%. Gay men are not the only people whose “bodies refuse to cooperate with baby making” — older women are in the same situation, albeit as a result of the passage of time, rather than their biological sex.

It feels almost unkind to point out that age is so closely related to fertility, given that finger wagging comments about the ‘biological clock’ can feel so pointed and so personal for women entering their mid-thirties. But, as the journal Gynecological Endocrinology bluntly puts it, women “are falsely reassured by popular beliefs that advances in new reproductive technologies can compensate for the age-related decline in fertility, but science cannot beat the biological clock.” Phyllis Chesler has it right here: “biology is real, biology exists.”

Perhaps we’d rather it didn’t. There are trans-humanists like Stelarc determined to leave behind these meaty, restrictive bodies of ours and step into a new cyborg future. Maybe one day they’ll achieve their ambitions and it will be possible to grow babies outside of the human body, halt the ageing process, or even conquer death by uploading our minds to the internet.

But we’re not there yet. Stelarc’s most stunning achievement to date is transplanting an ear onto his arm. But the ear doesn’t actually work: it can’t hear a thing, since it does not have the necessary connection to the brain. It’s a flashy, attention-grabbing piece of art, not a true transformation of the human form.

The truth is that, in the here and now, babies still need mothers, whether or not we refer to them by that word. And those mothers are startlingly absent from the discourse on surrogacy. In the early days of the industry, all surrogacy arrangements were of the so-called ‘traditional’ variety – the woman was paid to be inseminated by the commissioning father’s sperm. She gave birth to a child who had not only grown inside her body, but was also genetically related to her. She was, in every possible way, that child’s mother. The payment she received was in compensation for relinquishing all custody rights.

That system resulted in a lot of lawsuits. As Julie Bindel has written recently for UnHerd, surrogate mothers often suffer terribly when parted from the babies, and a woman who has taken part in ‘traditional’ surrogacy can more easily make a legal appeal on the basis of her genetic connection to the child. Nowadays, ‘gestational’ surrogacy arrangements bypass that problem by using an egg extracted from a different woman. Hence the surrogate mother becomes, supposedly, nothing more than a vessel.

In this way, the surrogacy industry has attempted to gradually erode the link between the two people at the centre of the drama: the mother and child. The industry’s vocabulary has been part of that effort, as over the decades the word ‘mother’ has gradually been dropped from the end of the term ‘surrogate mother’, removing this woman and her precious body from sight.

The people who seek out surrogacy services are desperately straining at the natural limits placed on us as human beings. The vast majority want to defy their age or their sex, and they want that act of defiance to be enabled by others: by the state, medical insurers, and – above all – the women who act as surrogate mothers.

The surrogacy industry — an ever-growing network of lawyers, doctors, and other middlemen — sells to them the idea that anything is possible, as long as you’re prepared to pay. And the political ideology of liberal individualism tells them that their freedom is to be prioritised above everything else. Given this, why on earth wouldn’t they demand the ‘right’ to have a child? It is, as Ron Poole-Dayan, high priest of the church of liberalism, so succinctly puts it “about society extending equality to its final and logical conclusion.”

But the existence of the fertility equality movement highlights the problems inherent to a liberal doctrine that promises self-fulfilment while neglecting the ways in which we are interdependent: bound to one another as members of society, rather than free-floating individuals. These campaigners are determined to pursue a form of freedom that shrugs off the constraints imposed by material reality. But there is no way (yet) of growing babies in bottles. Their project is an individualist one, but it is not something that they as individuals can accomplish on their own. So, to get what they want, they have to demand that other people give it to them.

And those other people are then made invisible. Fertility equality campaigners ask us to forget the existence of the woman who — despite all the sophisticated technology used for conception and implantation — does the same thing that any mother does, and has done for a billion years. A low tech, still mysterious task that no one else can perform, however much they might want to. Because, as the women used by the surrogacy industry know only too well, “biology is real, biology exists.” However much we insist otherwise.