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Surrogacy and robots won’t solve the baby bust

Ukrainian-born surrogate babies in a makeshift nursery on the outskirts of Kyiv. Credit: Getty

July 31, 2023 - 5:15pm

Economically speaking, the large-scale consequences of the global fertility crash are widely discussed. But what will the cultural impact be? Two reports from last week foreshadow some of the dystopian oncoming responses to the baby bust.

Left-wing news site The Grayzone reports on the outsourcing of gestation, notably via the still-booming surrogacy industry in war-torn Ukraine — which represents a quarter of global commercial surrogacy. In this economy, human infants all too frequently seem like a commodity to be extracted and sold, aided by international wealth disparities. 

The most profitable “reproductive services” company operating in Ukraine, Switzerland-based BioTexCom, states baldly that “we are looking for women in the former Soviet republics because, logically, [the women] have to be from poorer places than our clients.” The result objectifies both mothers and babies: BioTexCom has been implicated in numerous reports of surrogate abuse and other human rights abuses, including abandoned babies. 

And if the beginning of life is thus increasingly subject to the logic of the market rather than of love, so too is its end. “Nadine”, a humanoid “social robot”, is elsewhere being touted as a solution to the growing shortage of care and companionship for the elderly. In Singapore, which at 1.05 babies per woman has one of the world’s lowest total fertility rates, “Nadine” has been seen “working” as a bingo caller at a nursing home. 

Some might argue that, surely, a robot “companion” is a better end-of-life option than the kind of isolation made notorious by (also low-fertility) Japan’s booming “lonely death” clean-up industry. Even so, I can’t imagine how cold a comfort interacting with “Nadine” would be for a lonely old person bereft of visitors or even much paid-for human care. Yet our shrinking willingness to reproduce — not to mention the industrialisation of childbirth on behalf of wealthy, low-fertility baby-buyers — is tied to the increasingly inhuman nature of elderly care. All share a common underlying theme: our collective refusal to see or value anything outside the market.

Feminists have long pointed to the unacknowledged foundation of altruistic care upon which the measurable economy rests, and which that economy also renders second-class and largely invisible. But particularly since the second wave, the dominant feminist consensus has tacitly accepted this marginalisation of care. And yet our collective decision to treat care both as infra dig and as an unacknowledged resource to be leveraged for “value creation” effectively transforms that capacity. No longer a core enabling condition for life together, our capacity to love becomes a non-renewable resource, to be extracted and turned into “real” value in the measurable economy.

As a result, like topsoil and functioning ecosystems, altruistic love is now increasingly scarce. Collapsing fertility is a sign that this scarcity now threatens our survival as a species just as urgently as ecosystem collapse due to more material forms of scarcity.

In the world of ecology, “ecomodernists” propose tech fixes for our exploitative relation to the natural world, such as piling people in tower-blocks and feeding us on high-protein mould grown in vats. Phenomena such as commercial surrogacy and robotic nursing-home “workers” represent a similar mindset, applied to the increasingly palpable scarcity of altruistic care that’s now fraying our social fabric and threatening our continuity as a species. 

Such tech-optimists reassure themselves that the surrogacy boom and robot carers will solve the increasingly obvious challenges posed by population collapse and driven by our yawning care deficit. They are wrong. The affective labour needed for loving care will always exceed the money available to “compensate” the worker. And this means that an inevitable byproduct of shifting care to the waged economy will be still further kinds of cruelty. Not just exploited, injured, objectified women, and maternal deprivation baked into the experience of birth to a surrogate. And at the other end of life, bingo robots at best, care home abuse or a lonely death otherwise — or a new culture of death for the weak, sick, poor and elderly.

Strip-mining the physical landscape leaves scenes of devastation behind. The same goes for strip-mining altruism. There is no tech fix for the growing litany of miseries now emerging from a culture built on ignoring, and exploiting, the human capacity for love.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Mike Downing
Mike Downing
11 months ago

I agree about the transformation of everything into a business widget model via neo-liberalism but this is also the endgame of the me culture and narcissism that runs up from the 60’s. Everything that had previously been assumed to give life real meaning, albeit with a lot of effort and compromise involved, was jettisoned as we chased after more and more solipsistic, questionable sources of ‘self-actualization’ and an ever more elusive and mythical happiness in the life with no limits. At the end of the longest binge in the history of the planet, we are now left surveying the wreckage and looking for our next boost.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
11 months ago

I agree about the transformation of everything into a business widget model via neo-liberalism but this is also the endgame of the me culture and narcissism that runs up from the 60’s. Everything that had previously been assumed to give life real meaning, albeit with a lot of effort and compromise involved, was jettisoned as we chased after more and more solipsistic, questionable sources of ‘self-actualization’ and an ever more elusive and mythical happiness in the life with no limits. At the end of the longest binge in the history of the planet, we are now left surveying the wreckage and looking for our next boost.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 months ago

Yet our shrinking willingness to reproduce — not to mention the industrialisation of childbirth on behalf of wealthy, low-fertility baby-buyers — is tied to the increasingly inhuman nature of elderly care. All share a common underlying theme: our collective refusal to see or value anything outside the market.
I’d say the common theme is our collective refusal to undertake any commitment that reduces our scope for the pursuit of our own individualistic pastimes and pleasures.

Simon South
Simon South
11 months ago

You are so right, but there is also the economic consumerist brainwashing post WWII, convincing us all that happiness can only be found when we are in debt up to our eyes “living the consumerist (American) dream”. There is an old adage ” be careful what you wish for”. The west has been teaching us all to put money and spending ahead of all things, keeping so many people as economical slaves and unable to afford children or see the joy and pleasure of a family – as you say in your reply focusing on individual pleasure and not committing to the joy and effort of creating and nurturing future generations.

Simon South
Simon South
11 months ago

You are so right, but there is also the economic consumerist brainwashing post WWII, convincing us all that happiness can only be found when we are in debt up to our eyes “living the consumerist (American) dream”. There is an old adage ” be careful what you wish for”. The west has been teaching us all to put money and spending ahead of all things, keeping so many people as economical slaves and unable to afford children or see the joy and pleasure of a family – as you say in your reply focusing on individual pleasure and not committing to the joy and effort of creating and nurturing future generations.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 months ago

Yet our shrinking willingness to reproduce — not to mention the industrialisation of childbirth on behalf of wealthy, low-fertility baby-buyers — is tied to the increasingly inhuman nature of elderly care. All share a common underlying theme: our collective refusal to see or value anything outside the market.
I’d say the common theme is our collective refusal to undertake any commitment that reduces our scope for the pursuit of our own individualistic pastimes and pleasures.

marjan m
marjan m
11 months ago

When we think we can consume, select, change, discard every aspect of our existence at will, we are indeed missing the point of life. Family, faith, parenthood and marriage are institutions that teach us that lesson, that teach us about fragility, perseverance, transformation and hope. It may be a consequence of increased choice be that economical or culturally. Humans tend to cope better with scarcity then with plenty. But that does not mean it is impossible and I think it is a mistake to cultivate poverty or degrowth or cancel capitalism and free markets. We are facing depopulation on an enormous scale. Much more than we can imagine. Recent estimates predict a world population of 6billion by 2100. That means that in 75 years for every 4 people there will only be 3 left – and a lot of them will be old. We are at a strange point, where we really have stopped valuing families and children (except as a “parental right”). I don’t think our current value-system (or absence thereof) will last. We might see quite a change over the coming decades. A move to more traditional values. I don’t think we will throw it all overboard in the end, but we are living currently living in borderline times, resulting in a lot of unnecessary suffering. That is a shame.

marjan m
marjan m
11 months ago

When we think we can consume, select, change, discard every aspect of our existence at will, we are indeed missing the point of life. Family, faith, parenthood and marriage are institutions that teach us that lesson, that teach us about fragility, perseverance, transformation and hope. It may be a consequence of increased choice be that economical or culturally. Humans tend to cope better with scarcity then with plenty. But that does not mean it is impossible and I think it is a mistake to cultivate poverty or degrowth or cancel capitalism and free markets. We are facing depopulation on an enormous scale. Much more than we can imagine. Recent estimates predict a world population of 6billion by 2100. That means that in 75 years for every 4 people there will only be 3 left – and a lot of them will be old. We are at a strange point, where we really have stopped valuing families and children (except as a “parental right”). I don’t think our current value-system (or absence thereof) will last. We might see quite a change over the coming decades. A move to more traditional values. I don’t think we will throw it all overboard in the end, but we are living currently living in borderline times, resulting in a lot of unnecessary suffering. That is a shame.

Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago

Haven’t we reached peak tech-utopianism yet? It seems to me that the tech-tower-of-babel has to be teetering at this point. If we had good sense our own eminent deaths should make us realize that we can’t ever build it high enough to storm the throne room of heaven and take it all for ourselves. That’s really what they’re all ultimately reaching for.
Like all marketing ploys, all of it is always over-sold and under-delivered. Something tells me that the best they’re going to be able to deliver, if I behave and I’m useful, is a pod, a Metaverse visor, and all I can eat bug-slurry. And I’ll be happy miserable. 

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve White
Xaven Taner
Xaven Taner
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Let the tower fall. Build back from out of ruins. Rejecting the “obstetric motif”, that holds the new world will be born from the conditions of the present is essential. This hangover from German Idealism – inverted by Marx – has gone on long enough. Apocalypticism and messianism are the true wellsprings of Western culture, which we must reembrace.

Xaven Taner
Xaven Taner
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Let the tower fall. Build back from out of ruins. Rejecting the “obstetric motif”, that holds the new world will be born from the conditions of the present is essential. This hangover from German Idealism – inverted by Marx – has gone on long enough. Apocalypticism and messianism are the true wellsprings of Western culture, which we must reembrace.

Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago

Haven’t we reached peak tech-utopianism yet? It seems to me that the tech-tower-of-babel has to be teetering at this point. If we had good sense our own eminent deaths should make us realize that we can’t ever build it high enough to storm the throne room of heaven and take it all for ourselves. That’s really what they’re all ultimately reaching for.
Like all marketing ploys, all of it is always over-sold and under-delivered. Something tells me that the best they’re going to be able to deliver, if I behave and I’m useful, is a pod, a Metaverse visor, and all I can eat bug-slurry. And I’ll be happy miserable. 

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve White
Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
11 months ago

Painfully accurate. It also explains in part why we are running faster and harder to stand still. If less and less is done for its own sake, it is less efficient and more expensive. Paying others to rear your children becomes more expensive the more people do this, Soon you need to pay more to get good carers and teachers, and then other people to administer the salaries and inspect them and civil servants to collect the taxes and so


Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
11 months ago

Painfully accurate. It also explains in part why we are running faster and harder to stand still. If less and less is done for its own sake, it is less efficient and more expensive. Paying others to rear your children becomes more expensive the more people do this, Soon you need to pay more to get good carers and teachers, and then other people to administer the salaries and inspect them and civil servants to collect the taxes and so


Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper
11 months ago

I pass a kiddie kennels -aka child care- most days where toddlers are put all day, every day and compare this to what my wife and I were able to do for our children – we had low paid work – and I think these kiddie kennel children will be putting their parents when old into care as soon as possible. It’s tragic. Of course a good nursery 2 or 3 mornings a week for a toddler is great, but all day, every day? I suspect without a religious faith the necessary vision and commitment is going to be difficult for us to care as we should. Having children is a privilege.

Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper
11 months ago

I pass a kiddie kennels -aka child care- most days where toddlers are put all day, every day and compare this to what my wife and I were able to do for our children – we had low paid work – and I think these kiddie kennel children will be putting their parents when old into care as soon as possible. It’s tragic. Of course a good nursery 2 or 3 mornings a week for a toddler is great, but all day, every day? I suspect without a religious faith the necessary vision and commitment is going to be difficult for us to care as we should. Having children is a privilege.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
11 months ago

Boy, talk about absolute nonsense. “Care” in terms of service is just that — a service or profession. Women have marginalized and outsourced themselves by commodifying their talents and denying their innateness. Now, they dare not even define themselves and they are still blaming and complaining. Procreation was a burden, pregnancy an illness, motherhood a prison. Now we are outsourcing humanity. Time to wake up, grow up and stop thumb sucking in the corner of victimhood. We are doomed of we don’t return to accepting our humanity with all its faults, foibles and capacities. I don’t plan to join you in your lemming go along and die.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
11 months ago

Boy, talk about absolute nonsense. “Care” in terms of service is just that — a service or profession. Women have marginalized and outsourced themselves by commodifying their talents and denying their innateness. Now, they dare not even define themselves and they are still blaming and complaining. Procreation was a burden, pregnancy an illness, motherhood a prison. Now we are outsourcing humanity. Time to wake up, grow up and stop thumb sucking in the corner of victimhood. We are doomed of we don’t return to accepting our humanity with all its faults, foibles and capacities. I don’t plan to join you in your lemming go along and die.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
11 months ago

Just one more face of Western societies committing suicide.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
11 months ago

Just one more face of Western societies committing suicide.