Handmaids and Jezebels: New York Must Not Legalize Harm

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Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison once spoke of an enslaved pregnant woman whose master decided to punish her. The slaveowner dug a hole in the ground large enough to place her swollen belly. That way, he could whip her back, her face down swallowing dirt, without jeopardizing his future financial assets.

In that dark historic vein, New York State legislators are now proposing two bills to preserve this legacy of human chattel, defining women as vessels for economic profit.

The first bill is on the fast Albany track, sponsored by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin and Senator Brad Hoylman, to legalize commercial reproductive surrogacy. Under this bill, unfittingly called the “Child-Parent Security Act,” anyone can contract the renting of women’s wombs. Governor Andrew Cuomo is lauding the bill; yet over one hundred New York-based women leaders signed a letter expressing their vehement opposition to the bill. Link to letter: http://catwinternational.org/Content/Images/Article/754/attachment.pdf

The other ill-advised bill proposed by Senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, and Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, also with the support of Senator Hoylman, would fully decriminalize the sex trade, including pimping, brothel owning and sex buying. Together, these elected officials, under the guise of progressive politics, are saluting an acutely regressive status of women, jeopardizing their rights to health, safety, bodily integrity and hindering any collective efforts to reach equality.

New York has vowed to reduce maternal mortality, improve women’s health, combat sexual harassment in the workplace, and take other measures for women’s equal treatment in life. Yet both bills are antithetical to those promises.

First, the commercial reproductive surrogacy bill provides no protection from abuse. Requiring only a 90-day New York residency with no background checks, anyone, including human traffickers, could haul women here from anywhere around the world for embryo implantation.  Under this bill, similar to the enslaved pregnant woman and contrary to established New York law, neither the fetus, nor the baby, belongs to the birth mother. 

Like the romantic fallacies portrayed in Hollywood’s “Pretty Woman” or “The Girlfriend Experience,” commercial surrogacy websites feature Hallmark-type images with names like Growing Generations. Remove those rose-colored glasses, however, and dark realities quickly reveal themselves.

In commercial reproductive surrogacy, for example, two women are often contracted: the egg donor and the surrogate mother carrying the fetus. Heavy dosages of hormones are injected into the egg donor, typically a tuition-strapped college student, to produce ova, at a proportion that can generate four years’ worth of eggs in one month. These women can suffer extreme pain and contract illnesses, such as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can lead to strokes or heart attacks. Other long-term health risks for egg donors, including reproductive cancers and even death, have yet to be researched. A three-time commercial surrogate mother, Brooke Brown, died died to a placental rupture, as did the twins she was bearing.

Regarding the Salazar-Ramos bill, which would protect pimps from accountability, brothels would be turned into businesses and, like any other business, would give New York’s “If You Can See It You Can Be It” girls’ empowerment program an entirely different meaning. New York doesn’t even know how many women have died in the sex trade.

Both commercial surrogacy and prostitution are industry-driven – one by gestational surrogacy companies, and the other by a multibillion-dollar sex trade and its lobby. Both thrive on the vulnerabilities of disenfranchised people, especially women of color. Both turn their profits on growing demand for women’s bodies as commodities, and both kick open a wide door for sex and reproductive trafficking.

Women’s control over their bodies, reproductive systems and sexuality must be rights-driven. In a society where marginalized populations live with limited opportunities, the State must not bless the deceptive argument of “personal choice,” dictated by the power and control of reproductive surrogacy consumers, sex buyers and profiteers in exploitative enterprises.  

The European Parliament and many countries condemn and prohibit commercial reproductive surrogacy because it undermines the human dignity of women. After fatalities and other devastating outcomes stemming from commercial surrogacy tourism, India, Thailand, Nepal and Cambodia have all banned it. Parallel to these efforts that recognize harm, an increasing number of governments worldwide are enacting legislation that recognizes prostitution as systemic violence against women, perpetrated by sex buyers and organized criminal networks. These laws, known as the Equality Model, solely decriminalize the prostituted and offer them services.

New York must recognize that commercial reproductive surrogacy and the sex trade are stitched with that same noxious thread. A quilt where women’s bodies, especially Black and Brown bodies, are sown into history for the profit of others, disdaining the idea that women are human. Don’t we deserve better, New York?P

Taina Bien-Aime is the Executive Director of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), the first and oldest international non-governmental organization dedicated to ending trafficking in women and girls and related forms of commercial sexual exploitation as practices of gender-based violence. CATW has national coalitions in over fifteen countries including thePhilippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Chile, the United States,Canada, Norway, France and Greece.

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