On Wednesday morning, the internet learned that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are planning to have a third child with the help of a surrogate. Other reports have claimed that this surrogate might already be pregnant with their child. The few hours between these two announcements provided plenty of time for Twitter to start exploding with opinions about the family's decision to use a surrogate — and not everyone thought it was a great idea. In fact, many thought Kardashian West was hiring a surrogate as a way to preserve her famous figure.
For her part, Kardashian West is clear about why she has chosen to use a surrogate: during her last pregnancy with son Saint, she struggled with placenta accreta, a condition where the placenta embeds itself in the uterus, and doctors have cautioned her against carrying another pregnancy to term. But regardless of her reasons for using a surrogate, this is clearly a decision that many people are taking personally. Perhaps it is for the same reason why we judge women who choose not to have kids, or why male politicians feel an imperative to propose laws infringing on female bodies — because we, as a society, still feel the need to seek control over women's bodies.
Kardashian is not the first celebrity to use a surrogate: Ricky Martin became a father to twin boys almost nine years ago via gestational surrogacy, and he plans to do so again, this time choosing to have girls. When Martin had kids, no one raised an eyebrow — but he is a gay man, and when women opt for surrogacy, they are often subject to extreme scrutiny. When Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick announced that they were expanding their family via surrogacy eight years ago, many questioned the details of their arrangement due to Parker's advanced maternal age. Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban had their second child together via surrogacy five years ago, and this year Kidman announced that she would like another child. News reports emphasized the fact that she is 49 years old, implying that she’s simply too old to even about motherhood (never mind the fact that older fathers are never scrutinized in the same way).
Even in 2017, we live in a society that values the ability of a woman to conceive and carry her baby to term above all else.
Such critiques do not exist in a vacuum. They are a product of a society that sees fertility and motherhood as the ultimate female achievement. When any woman strays from the conventional path to parenthood — whether it's by having a child too young, too old, via surrogate, or not at all — our culture reacts with extreme discomfort. The Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes the value our culture places on female fertility, with stars like Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes enacting, in beautiful backlit scenes, a society that values the ability of a woman to conceive above all else.
Surrogacy is particularly subject to scrutiny: Jennifer Lahl, Executive Director of the California-based Center for Bioethics and Culture, has claimed that surrogacy cases are often fraught with abuse, creating a class of "breeders" à la Handmaid's Tale, while the Minnesota Catholic Conference, long an advocate of surrogacy restriction, considers the practice immoral and likens it to “renting a womb.” (These claims are in opposition to such groups as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which has stated that surrogates in supervised arrangements “face no increased risks to either their physical or mental health.”)
Why are these organizations so invested in the implications of surrogacy? Perhaps because, as much as humans have developed the technology to influence so many other parts of our lives, the ability to host another human inside your body — a power that only female bodies possess — remains the most mind-boggling of human feats — and large, male-driven organizations like the Catholic church still feel the need to control them.
Maybe Kim's honesty can be seen by the public not as an opportunity to criticize one woman’s choices, but rather as an opportunity to open the discussion about the fact that people become parents in many different ways.
In the case of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, it is difficult to make the claim that their surrogate is suffering abuse by being exploited financially, since the couple has reportedly made an arrangement that will cost close to $113,000. But why should their decision be the business of the public at all? True, Kim Kardashian has been very open about her reasons for looking into surrogacy, discussing her own difficulties with childbirth both on Keeping Up with the Kardashians and on her blog, where she wrote that she suffered from placenta accreta in her last pregnancy.
But maybe this honesty can be seen by the public not as an opportunity to criticize one woman’s choices, but rather as an opportunity to open the discussion about the fact that people become parents in many different ways. Until society recognizes that women's reproductive choices are theirs alone, it may be difficult for some to accept that a woman is not obligated to carry her baby herself if she chooses to become a parent — and that it might be for reasons other than vanity.