‘Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He was describing his frustration with white “moderates” who gave lip service to his civil-rights cause but couldn’t bring themselves to join. “Lukewarm acceptance,” King wrote, “is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
It is frustrating, too, when our shallow understandings allow unjust campaigns to flourish. Now is a time in America when radical cultural campaigns are driven by appeals to equality and social justice, hope and change, freedom and women’s health. Beware when you hear these words and phrases in political campaigns or during marches on Washington.
At the march commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington, one Georgetown professor declared: “We have a dream, we need a team to join the women whose bodies are burdened by antiquated science and out-of-step politicians.”
The line was pregnant with ironies, including one surrounding a new law the nation’s capital is debating. While D.C. is not known to be a bastion of clear thinking and lawmaking, it is currently a model on the topic of surrogacy, prohibiting the commercialization of wombs in a country where many states have made a mess of human dignity.
“Surrogacy takes something as natural as a pregnant woman nurturing her unborn child and turns it into an unnatural contractual, commercialized endeavor,” Jennifer Lahl, a nurse who serves as president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, said in testimony this June before the District of Columbia’s city council. “It opens the door for all sorts of exploitation.”
That’s not quite the way the current Washingtonian magazine puts it, however. The Beltway glossy features “Meet the Baby Carriers,” which might as well be an advertisement for the Surrogacy Parenting Agreement Act of 2013 now before the council. The propaganda pushing the liberalization of surrogacy laws makes use of the real and painful experiences of married couples struggling with infertility. But if we look at the question honestly — and that’s an urgent challenge, a big if — we can rise out of a lukewarm acceptance that is allowing disorder to flourish and instead reject outright the exploitation of women a commodification of motherhood that is the reality of surrogacy.
As with other contentious issues that divide us, our embrace of third-party reproductive arrangements relies on scientific advances that deny natural arrangements that have served civilization well. To embrace surrogacy necessarily requires the denial of a mother’s intimate bonding with her child in the womb.
The Washingtonian agitprop appeared during the week that also saw the awful Miley Cyrus–Robin Thicke Video Music Awards performance. This pathetic display in the name of entertainment became an excuse for media outlets to endlessly reuse B-roll of a 20-year-old demeaning herself in flesh-colored rubber underwear, as a prop in a song that has been described as “rapey.” Miley Cyrus’s is a sad story of innocence robbed in a culture where Disney girls gone wild are becoming a national pastime.
There was much less media interest in the 38-year-old man who insults our intelligence by insisting that his hit song, “Blurred Lines” — addressed to “the hottest **tch in this place,” and in which he endlessly repeats, “You know you want it” — is “great art” and even a “feminist movement in itself.”
The Cyrus–Thicke performance was a cartoon version of the immiseration we tolerate on a whole host of issues. The United States has become the international home for the third-party reproductive exploitation of women desperate to make money — women who are never told of the risks to their health, of the physical and emotional turmoil surrogacy will introduce to their lives.
Women deserve so much better than the multifaceted lies we are told today. As Americans say we seek to maximize choices, at the same time the celebration of women as having unique natural gifts worthy of protection and desperately needed by the world is increasingly foreign. So we make light of the maternal bond, if we don’t deny it altogether, in the name of what has been determined to be progress. The advocates of surrogacy benefit from people of goodwill looking away, not focusing on the details. Women, children, and men become casualties in yet another unnecessary misery.
A worthy dream today is intolerance not just of renting wombs, but of all forms of the poisonous dehumanization of women, which pits a radical but disturbingly mainstream understanding of a woman’s worth against her very nature. Such intolerance may open a cultural and political Pandora’s Box. But it may still be the healthiest of proposals.
In 1956, Dr. King imagined what St. Paul might say to 20th-century Americans. His St. Paul writes: “You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.”
In his Birmingham Jail letter, King wrote: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” There’s a degradation afoot. And it cries at the very least for a sisterhood of good sense and an exaltation of the good gifts for which women are natural stewards.