By Jess DelBalzo and Bryony Lake
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood depicted a futuristic society in which fertile young women were held captive and used to bear children for sterile, upper-class wives. The scenario sounds extreme, but sadly, it is not as fictional as one might hope. Vulnerable young women fall victim to reproductive exploitation every day, even in our industrialized North American world.
Exploitation commonly occurs when a powerless group of individuals possesses something that other, more powerful individuals covet. It is nearly unavoidable in a capitalist society, where financial success is often achieved at the expense of innocent men, women, and children.
The exploitation of women, specifically, is not a foreign concept to most of us. For decades, human rights activists have rallied against deplorable working conditions, child prostitution, sexual slavery, and other devastating practices that abuse disadvantaged members of society. Why, then, has reproductive exploitation been ignored?
In its most common form, reproductive exploitation is used as a tool of the billion-dollar adoption industry. Well-protected by donations from satisfied adopters, large payments from would-be adopters, and of course the religious and fundamentalist organizations that promote the industry, few people have the opportunity to understand adoption for the business it is.
Advertised as an alternative for infertile couples who desperately want to be “parents,” demand for children (and mothers to birth them) is high. Finding pregnant women who are eager to hand their newborn babies over to strangers is next to impossible, and so adoption workers have taken to using coercive tactics against young, poor, and otherwise vulnerable expectant mothers. These mothers-to-be are told that they are selfish if they express the natural desire to keep their children, told that they will quickly get on with their lives and bear other children when they are older/wealthier/married, told that there is no other option available to them. They are not informed of the devastating effect adoption often has on children, nor are they told of the damage adoption will likely inflict on their own psyches. Adoption workers do not care about the well-being of mothers or children, though they may put on a good act to convince expectant parents that their motives are pure. They care about profits, about the image their business is presenting to powerful, potential customers. And there you have it: reproductive exploitation.
Consider how easily the following quotes about sexual exploitation can be altered to reflect the tactics of the adoption industry:
“Have you ever heard a child say, “When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute?” For children and youth, working the streets is not a choice. Their lack of life experience and naivety about where the road to the street leads precludes their ability to make a conscious, informed choice.”
Now, slightly re-worded:
“Have you ever heard a little girl say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a birthmother?’ For children and youth, surrendering a baby to adoption is not a choice. Their lack of life experience and naivety about the pregnancy/motherhood continuum precludes their ability to make a conscious, informed choice.”
And from http://www.mcf.gov.bc.ca/youth:
“A sexually exploited youth is someone who is under the age of 18, who has been manipulated or forced into prostitution through perceived affection and belonging, and in return receives drugs, narcotics, money, food and/or shelter.”
With a bit of re-wording:
“A reproductively-exploited youth is someone who is under the age of 18, who has been manipulated or forced into surrendering her baby through perceived affection, approval, and promises that the well-being of her baby depends on the baby being turned over to unrelated strangers at birth; and in return receives coverage of medical expenses, shelter, and promises that she can return to pre-pregnant life and will “get over it.'”
Of course, reproductive exploitation is not limited to women under the age of 18. Older women are equally at risk, especially when they are poor, unmarried and/or emotionally vulnerable. Just as older women can be sexually exploited, they too can be taken advantage of for their fertility.
Though reproductive exploitation has yet to be acknowledged in mainstream society, its existence cannot be denied. Millions of women have been exploited for their fertility in the past 50 years, and millions more will fall prey to such exploitation if measures are not taken to protect them.
As a society, we cannot ethically work to prevent sexual exploitation while allowing women to be exploited by another, equally violent industry. Fertile women who do not wish to become pregnant must be granted access to accurate information about sexual issues, pregnancy, and birth control, as well as access to contraceptives. Women who become pregnant either by choice or by chance must be treated with respect regardless of their age, financial situation, or marital status. They must be informed of their rights and given access to all available resources to help them raise their children. They must be armed with information about any decision they make. And above all, they must not be coerced, lied to, or shamed into believing that adoption is their only option. These protections against reproductive exploitation must be made into law.
Now-powerless fertile women will be empowered. Their children will be treated as human beings, rather than as “product” to be sold. The only loser will be the adoption industry – and when you look at it that way, everyone wins.
“In order to drive a car you must be of a certain age, to drink you must be a certain age, to have your own credit card or even your own bank account without parent signatures you must be a certain age, in order to join the army you must be of a certain age – yet government allows very young vulnerable single mothers to sign a legally-binding document handing over their own flesh-and-blood, another human life, to complete strangers.” – Claudia Ganzon, natural mom searching for the daughter she was separated from in 1982.
Copyright 2003 © Jess DelBalzo and Bryony Lake