You can tell a number of stories about why this happened. Defending the legal logic of abortion rights — my body, my choice — pushed feminism in a libertarian direction. The benefits of in vitro fertilization made a lively trade in eggs and embryos seem desirable or at least inevitable. . . .The old radicalism of the left has all but disappeared in America. This is partly for the perfectly sensible reason that with state socialism exposed as boring, bureaucratic, and potentially tyrannous, nobody has come up with an alternative to mixed-market capitalism as a way of organizing society. But the idea that certain things ought to be protected from the marketplace because commercialism would taint them is all but dead. Environmentalists have mostly embraced having billionaires buy sensitive environmental areas to protect them, something that would have horrified earlier generations of activists. Feminists have given up thinking that feminism ought to offer an alternative view of what matters in life, and instead fight to make corporations pay women as much as men. The real energy on the left comes from yet more radical ideas about freedom – the freedom to cast aside the billion-year-old straightjacket of sex and remake our bodies to suit our inner selves, and now perhaps the freedom to disregard borders and live wherever our children will best thrive.
But perhaps the simplest way to describe what happened with the surrogacy debate is that American feminists gradually went along with the logic of capitalism rather than resisting it. This is a particularly useful description because it’s happened so consistently across the last few decades: Whenever there’s a dispute within feminism about a particular social change or technological possibility, you should bet on the side that takes a more consumerist view of human flourishing, a more market-oriented view of what it means to defend the rights and happiness of women.
I am ambivalent about surrogate motherhood as about so much else. Having children – pregnancy, birth, holding babies, raising toddlers – was by far the most powerful and beautiful experience of my life. The very idea that it should be curtailed so that people can better get ahead with their careers irks me, and the prospect of the police showing up to take a newborn infant from its mother because she signed a contract with the genetic parents disgusts me. (Yes, that has happened.) But I know that not everyone is as lucky in health, romance, economics and so on as I have been, and as always I am loathe to tell other people what they cannot do.
Since in America only a few religious cranks would be willing to jail people for practices like surrogate motherhood, it will continue. Within the broader society the values of the marketplace will dominate more and more. Freedom is the only battlecry that resonates. Any hope there is for the sacred must be created and nourished by us, alone, in our families, in small groups. Freedom also leaves us free to disregard its possibilities and throw ourselves into soul-spaces where nature, necessity, obligation and love override all else.