After the magnitude 7.9 earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25th, international media has provided what is surely a disproportionate number of pieces on the ordeal of foreign citizens during a disaster that has killed 7,500 Nepalis, injured twice as many, and according to the UN, affected 8 million — more than one quarter of Nepal’s population.
Among these human interest stories focused on white families is one that really caught me off guard: “How an Earthquake Highlighted the Plight of Israeli Gays and Their Surrogate Babies” (or for more nuance, read Time‘s “Israel Evacuates Surrogate Babies From Nepal but Leaves the Mothers Behind).” As Time reports, an Israeli Boeing-747 returning from Nepal last week completed the evacuation of 26 babies, all born within the past six weeks to surrogate mothers in Nepal. Some of the babies were with their parents — mostly gay Israeli men denied access to surrogacy at home –and others were cared for by Israeli passengers.
None of the surrogate mothers were allowed to travel.
There is something particularly unnerving about Western men gathering their Nepali-born babies and boarding a foreign aircraft, while the women that birthed those babies are left stranded in a disaster zone. DarkMatter shared this news on their Facebook page with the caption, “so many layers.” I think they are right, and unpacking these layers has left me with more questions than answers, but here are some initial thoughts.
Much of the media coverage of the evacuation has glamorized Israel — and other Western countries — as humanitarian actors. While the relief currently being provided to Nepal is undoubtedly helping many, it is crucial not to confuse such false charity with what Paulo Freire described as true generosity, which fights the systemic injustice that necessitates such charity in the first place.
In many ways, this is an example of pinkwashing, which DarkMatter has covered extensively: in which the state of Israel uses gay rights (everything from Pride celebrations to asylum to evacuating gay fathers) as a distraction from its occupation. As they duly note, “the erasure of race and class violence and suppression of race and class warfare by gay rights is not an Israel-only phenomenon.” This case in Nepal is just another example of the focus on white, Israeli, and other settler queer bodies, while ignoring the ways in which they benefit from race and class privilege.
It also reveals the hypocrisy of Western countries calling poor countries homophobic, backwards, etc. — remember the reason that these Israeli men are going to Nepal is because gay parents are discriminated against at home. While Israel or the United States do not have a monopoly on anti-queer violence, they certainly are not exceptions.
While this increased attention to why discriminatory laws exist preventing gay couples from having surrogate babies is important, that the well-being of the surrogates in Nepal has been largely ignored is really disturbing. It reflects the fact that our media only tends to care when white couples and white babies are hurt. It shows how social justice movements in wealthy countries can be completely detached from their role in perpetuating global inequality. And it reveals, as Israeli social activist Alon-Lee Green writes in Haaretz, that “without much deep or serious thought and almost without noticing, we have allowed capitalism to expand to include the bodies of numerous disadvantaged women.”
Indeed, this case leaves me with just a whole lot of questions about how surrogacy can operate justly in a world that routinely exploits poor women and women of color.
What does it mean for brown women to be commoditized machines to deliver white babies? Western gay men are using women in the Global South largely as gestational surrogates; the eggs come from elsewhere, mostly from women in Europe, Ukraine, or South Africa. It seems nothing less than utterly fucking absurd to me that men are going out of their way to seek a white woman’s eggs to implant into a brown woman’s womb. What does it mean when low-income, brown women’s bodies are desired for bearing the brunt of pregnancy — for exclusively facing potentially fatal health risks — but not seen as desired genetic material? What does it mean for a gay man in the Global North to ask a woman of color in abject poverty, “Will you carry a child for me?” in the same breath as “I don’t want my child to look like you.”
What does it mean for a surrogate mother in India or Nepal to be “cheaper” than a mother in the United States? As Time reports, “[Surrogacy] can cost up to $150,000 in the U.S. and Canada but only $30,000 in Nepal.” When the service in question is a woman’s body itself, by sanctioning these uneven prices with our language, are we suggesting that brown woman bodies are literally “worth” a fraction of the amount? Some people have pointed out that this fraction is still much more than a woman in Nepal or India might be able to make in a year. How then do we look at individual choices and autonomy while recognizing systems that collectively put certain women at risk, limit their financial agency, and rarely do anything to support women long-term?
On that note, what support do surrogates have long-term? Again, there was something particularly eerie and symbolic about Western men gathering their Nepali-born babies and an aircraft forbidding the mothers from leaving a disaster zone. But while a state may only be expected to airlift its own citizens, this tragedy is just a painfully explicit reminder that the responsibility for a surrogate mother’s well-being is often absolved right after delivery — leaving mothers with the medical costs and health risks that often do stem directly from their pregnancy.
All of this just goes to show the need to reimagine transational solidarity, as well as the fact that while surrogacy is an issue on which few reproductive rights and justice groups are currently working, it is one that deserves our close attention. As Helen McDonald writes over at AutoStraddle, “as we fight for reproductive justice, let us also advocate for surrogate safety, so that assisted reproductive technologies are not simply another system that commodifies and exploits Black and Brown people around the world.”
Header image credit: Time