Surrogacy challenges gender equality

Surrogacy challenges gender equality

According to sociologist Ingvill Stuvøy, the debate on surrogacy has added new meanings to the concept of equality.
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The debate on surrogacy has affected our ideas about who can become parents, and how.

“Do we think differently about having children when technology makes previously impossible reproduction possible?” and “What significance do cultural differences and our views on gender equality and parenthood have when more than two people are involved in the creation of a child?”

These are some of the questions the editors of the book Reproduction, gender, and equality in Norway today (Reproduksjon, kjønn og likestilling i dagens Norge) wish to shed light on. Ingvill Stuvøy, sociologist and PhD Candidate at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), has written a book chapter on the phenomenon surrogacy and reproduction in a global landscape.  

New phenomenon

“The debate on surrogacy triggered my interest in this topic. This new phenomenon was directly linked to already familiar challenges related to the body and money. It made me curious,” says Stuvøy.

Ingvill Stuvøy, PhD Candidate at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has studied how equality was added new meanings in the Norwegian debate on surrogacy. (Photo: Elin Iversen/NTNU)

“Surrogacy is ground-breaking in many ways: it challenges our ideas about how children are created, and about the limits of the market. It also crosses national borders.”

Stuvøy is currently writing her PhD thesis on surrogacy, and in connection to her thesis work, she has interviewed Norwegians who have travelled to the U.S., India, and Canada in order to have children through surrogacy.

“I wondered what it was that made Norwegians travel abroad in order to have a child born by a surrogate mother. Despite the fact that it was illegal in Norway, that it was relatively new and unfamiliar, and both debated and criticized in the Norwegian media,” she says.

“For many people having children is a central part of life, and it is argued that everyone should be allowed to make use of every available opportunity to have a child.”

In her newly published book chapter, she analyses other public and political actors’ perceptions of surrogacy.

“The objective was to throw light on how new meanings were added to the phenomenon in the Norwegian debate,” she says.

In this connection, Stuvøy has interviewed previous members of the former Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board and representatives from the special interest organisations National Association for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender People (FRI), The Surrogacy Association, and The Norwegian Infertility Association (Ønskebarn).  In addition, she has read a number of White Papers and articles about surrogacy published between 2010 and 2013, the period when the debate was it its hottest. The debate started when a Norwegian single mother was refused to take her two twin baby boys, born by an Indian surrogate mother, from India to Norway.

See also: Surrogacy: The impossible dream of a free trade baby


“I’ve also examined how the concept of equality has been applied as a means within all sides of the debate, by opponents, sceptics, and advocates for surrogacy.”

She points to the fact that those who have a positive attitude to surrogacy use equality to argue that everyone who wants to have children should have that opportunity regardless of whether they are single, gay, men, or women. Equality is then linked to diversity, anti-discrimination, and acceptance of alternative families.

“For many people having children is a central part of life, and it is argued that everyone should be allowed to make use of every available opportunity to have a child. We live in a time in which there are many possible ways of having children, and many people problematise drawing the line precisely at surrogacy,” says Stuvøy.

“The fact that surrogacy abroad involves money makes many people connect surrogacy to prostitution and purchasing of the female body.”

This argument has won support from a minority of the former Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board and from the National Association for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender People (FRI), who have argued for altruistic surrogacy in Norway.

“Altruistic surrogacy means that the surrogate mother is not paid, but is willing to carry the unborn child due to other reasons than the financial,” says Stuvøy, who explains that this proposition has recently reoccurred as part of the work with the political parties’ party platforms before the next general election in 2017.

In her chapter, Stuvøy draws attention to the fact that the proposition concerning altruistic surrogacy has come up as an alternative to surrogacy abroad, particularly in India, which was at the centre of the debate.

“Some people think that we should allow altruistic surrogacy in Norway, because this enables us to regulate it ourselves, and thus we can avoid the risk of poor women becoming surrogate mothers because they have no other choice.”

Stuvøy is referring to the way those opposed to surrogacy understand it as purchase of children and exploitation of the female body.

“The fact that surrogacy abroad involves money makes many people connect surrogacy to prostitution and purchasing of the female body,” she explains, and illustrates their point with excerpts from an article written in 2010 by the previous Minister of Children, Equality, and Social Inclusion, Audun Lysbakken, in which he wrote the following:  

“Paid surrogacy raises a number of more complicated questions, as one practically pay for a female body for nine months. In my opinion, there are significant ethical and equality political considerations in disfavour of the use of surrogacy.”

Three meanings  

“Equality has at least three different meanings within the Norwegian debate on surrogacy,” Stuvøy concludes.

“Firstly, the concept of equality is used in the sense of diversity and anti-discrimination related to the possibility to have children and start a family. Secondly, it is used in connection to women’s politics and women’s self-determination, and thirdly, it is used in relation to power and inequality on a global scale.”

“Surrogacy creates new parents, such as gay couples who become dads.”

Stuvøy points out that both supporters and opponents of surrogacy use women’s self-determination as an argument. This illustrates how complex this issue is.

“Those opposed to surrogacy claim that poor women don’t have a real choice, whereas the supporters argue for the important principle that women should determine themselves whether they want to be surrogate mothers or not.” 

According to Stuvøy, surrogacy adds new meanings to the concept of equality, since it crosses both social and national borders. She thinks the debate on surrogacy and the way it activates equality issues may contribute to a more general discussion regarding equality and what is should signify and entail in Norway today.  

“In Norway, gender equality has been linked to abortion rights, but also to economic emancipation and women’s access to the labour market. With surrogacy, we’re confronted with a phenomenon with which these historically important battles and ideas reappear, but now with other implications and another context,” says Stuvøy.

According to her, the debate on surrogacy has altered our view on parenthood.

“Surrogacy creates new parents, such as gay couples who become dads. As a result, we might think differently about parenthood now than we did just a few years ago.”  

See also: Kinship in the age of reproductive tourism

The market

One aspect of surrogacy that was emphasised in the surrogacy debate was that it happened on a global market. Stuvøy raises the question about what central ideas such as reproductive rights, reproductive freedom, and reproductive choice mean in a global market context rather than within the Norwegian welfare state.

“There is good reason to reflect upon whether reproductive choice equals financial choice in this context, and on what  consequences this might have,” says Stuvøy.

In this connection, she uses the term reproductive justice, which was first introduced by black feminists in the U.S. The idea is that rather than just focusing on choice and individual rights, we should focus on justice.

“Equality has to be about creating social and economic justice across national borders in order to enable people to make their own choices. This may also be an important guideline in relation to the question of surrogacy,” says Stuvøy.


Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro