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Female Sexuality and Surrogacy

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In this essay, I will be exploring Satz’s egalitarian argument for why we should limit markets in female reproductive labour. I will argue that Satz’s thesis is compelling, with regards to the assertion that contract pregnancy promotes the control of women’s bodies and behaviour. I will also argue that contract pregnancy exploits certain women with intersecting identities, specifically within the sphere of international surrogacy arrangements. Although I agree with Satz’s argument that contract pregnancy is counter to women’s liberation, I do not think surrogacy should be illegal. In a utopia, surrogacy would not face the limitations discussed, however, we do not live in said utopia. For now, we must place restrictions on the market to decrease the risk of exploitation. We must also examine cases of international surrogacy with particular scrutiny, to ensure women with intersecting identities are not used to satisfy the positive rights of largely white, wealthy couples, from the west.

There are two types of surrogacy arrangement. In gestational surrogacy the surrogate is artificially inseminated with the embryo of the contracting couple. The surrogate shares no genetic material with the child (Surrogacy UK, 2017). Contrastingly, in traditional surrogacy, the surrogate mother’s eggs are used, thus, she is genetically tied to the child she carries (ibid). Furthermore, a surrogate can be altruistic, wherein she is not paid for her work, but her expenses are covered by the contracting parents. This form of surrogacy is legal in the UK. Alternatively, commercial surrogacy involves both payment of expenses and a wage for the surrogate’s service. This form of surrogacy is illegal in the UK, however it is legal in the US and countries such as India and Ukraine (Sensible Surrogacy, 2018). Therefore, within the market of contract pregnancy lies a multitude of other factors which may affect our attitudes towards it. Due to the largely controversial nature of the market, there are a number of arguments for the moral impermissibility of the market. I will firstly explore some essentialist arguments for the impermissibility of the market, before arguing that Satz’s egalitarian argument is more compelling.

Subsequently, Satz’s asymmetry thesis, argues that there is a certain asymmetry between the reproductive market and other forms of labour (Satz, 2010). There is something instinctively different about the selling of women’s wombs, to other forms of labour. Essentialist arguments claim the reproductive market is inappropriately valued. Essentialist arguments claim women’s wombs are treated as a ‘mere commodity’, and that the market reflects attitudes that women’s reproductive labour has no non-instrumental value (Brennan & Jaworski, 2015: 1058). Satz cites Pateman, who argues a woman’s ability to reproduce is integral to her sense of identity and personhood. Pateman focuses on the contracting of women’s bodies in prostitution, and concludes that our sexuality should ‘not be treated as an alienable commodity’ (Satz, 2010: 120). However, Satz argues we cannot place weight on this argument considering the existence of other forms of work in which people sell things which are also integral to their personhood. For example, Satz argues a Rabbi sells their services, but would consider their religion an integral part of who they are (ibid). In addition, this argument could also be applied to sperm donors. A sperm donor is selling a by-product of his sexuality, however, this is largely an uncontroversial market, whilst surrogacy is contentious.

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Subsequently, essentialists also argue that surrogacy is a means of disrespecting the female body and its capacities. Some argue that the process of surrogacy is more invasive and restrictive than other forms of work. However, refuting this, Satz argues athletes are restricted in what they eat and how much sleep they get (Satz, 2010). Thus, contract pregnancy is not unique in its invasive and restrictive nature. Further support for Satz comes from Nussbaum, whose argument for the impermissibility of prostitution can be applied to contract pregnancy. Nussbaum compares a ‘colonoscopy artist’ and a prostitute, claiming the artist ‘permits an aperture of her body to be penetrated by another person’s activity’ and ‘runs some bodily risk’ (Nussbaum, 1998: 706). Although this is an imaginary occupation, we can visualise occupations similar to this, such as volunteers for medical trials (ibid). It is also hard to imagine a world in which this labour would be deemed immoral. It may be viewed as an undesirable occupation, and thus may be heavily regulated, but it would not be deeply disputed. Further to this, Brennan and Jaworski (2015) claim essentialist arguments to contract pregnancy rely on semiotics. Essentialist arguments assert that even in the absence of exploitation and so on, surrogacy is always wrong. We give negative meaning to women’s sexuality and reproductive capacities. However, this only leads us to constrain our options and live narrowly (ibid). To depart from essentialist arguments, relying on the claim that the market is inherently disrespectful or abuses integrity, we are left to ‘revise our interpretive schemas whenever the cost of holding that schema are significant’ (ibid: 1077). By subjecting our semiotics to a cost-benefit analysis, our views on surrogacy can change. Surrogacy provides childless parents with their positive right to have a child, and so making this market illegal on essentialists grounds is immoral.

Subsequently, although Satz does not argue that these markets should be made illegal, she makes a compelling argument for why it might be harmful to women. Satz argues that we should not defend the asymmetry thesis on internal or essentialist grounds, but on external grounds. The essentialist arguments rejected above do no more than perpetuate gender stereotypes further. The supposition that surrogacy is degrading or demeaning, or demeans the importance of sexuality for our personhood, is only consolidated with appeal to existing cultural values (Satz, 2010). Placing such importance on female bodies only reflects ‘society’s attempts to control women and their sexuality’ (ibid: 121). Subsequently, Satz’s egalitarian argument blames the perpetuation of gender hierarchies and the control of women for the harmful nature of contract pregnancy. Satz argues there is a ‘female ghetto’ present in almost all societies, in which women are constrained to roles such as secretarial work and childcare (ibid: 128). Although this is changing, with more women pursuing the fields of science and law, contract pregnancy arguably keeps women from escaping female stereotyping. To argue this, Satz first looks at the control over a woman’s body during pregnancy, and the restrictions placed on her. A woman’s behaviour is monitored and controlled for 9 months, and after birth her product is taken from her. Although other forms of labour, such as military service, require the same commitment, there is not the same stigma attached to military work. In addition, women’s gestational work is seen as equal to the work of males in the formation of a child. Momentary ejaculation and carrying a child for 9 months should not be equated. Thus, surrogates are viewed as ‘incubators of men’s seeds’ (ibid: 131). The control over women’s bodies and importance placed on her womb, only serve to create an image of women as ‘baby-machines’ (ibid: 130). The contracting of women’s wombs is occurring in ‘a society that historically has subordinated women’s interests to those of men’ (ibid:128). Satz argues under suitable restrictions and in the right environments, surrogacy could simply mean that a woman’s reproductive power can provide a childless couple with what they desire most. However, the conditions under which this could happen must be stringent. This is also where I believe international surrogacy arrangements and the exploitation of poorer women is of significance.

Furthermore, Panitch argues there is an asymmetry between surrogacy in the western world and in India. A commercial surrogate in the west is usually a high school graduate, has freedom to pursue other interests, and is paid £25,000 to £50,000 for her work. (Panitch, 2012). In India, a surrogate is usually undereducated, has a family to provide for, and is kept in a compound in which all behaviour is strictly monitored (ibid). Perhaps more illuminating is that Indian surrogates are paid anywhere from £1,500 to £5,000 for their service (ibid, 2012). It is clear to see that the gender hierarchy is more complex than that between men and women, but within this is a hierarchy between women themselves. Panitch argues ‘global surrogacy serves to satisfy the positive reproductive rights of infertile first-world women’ (ibid: 274). The intersecting identities of Indian surrogates, with their black and minority ethnic (BAME) identity, and working class status, means these women are being exploited through contract pregnancy arrangements. Panitch argues when global surrogacy takes place, ‘wrongfully, albeit mutually advantageous exploitation occurs’ (ibid: 284). Panitch expands on Satz’s egalitarian argument through asserting that not only is gender tied up in issues of surrogacy, but also issues of race and class. Rather than perpetuating a patriarchy, contract pregnancy fuels the kyriarchy we live in. In order for surrogacy to no longer be a threat to the flourishing of women, we must firstly ensure equal opportunity for men and women. We must also further the counter-attack on gender, racial and classist stereotypes. Allowing the positive reproductive rights of women seems to ‘commit (some class of) women to a form of indentured servitude’ (ibid: 285). The negative rights of the surrogates must be protected above all.

To conclude, it is not ipso facto that contract pregnancy is morally wrong. Satz’s argument claims that it is the perpetuation of gender stereotypes and the patriarchy which means we should limit the market. Panitch takes the argument further and illuminates the existing kyriarchy we face, and the discrimination between women in the world of contract pregnancy. However, the spheres of prostitution, pornography and arranged marriages also perpetuate the same stereotypes. Rather than making the market illegal on the grounds of stereotyping, we must focus on minimising the risk of exploitation. Only once we give the same respect to women from developing countries to those from western societies, can we begin to change the language surrounding female sexuality and surrogacy.

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Female Sexuality and Surrogacy. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2023, from
“Female Sexuality and Surrogacy.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
Female Sexuality and Surrogacy. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 9 Dec. 2023].
Female Sexuality and Surrogacy [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Dec 9]. Available from:
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