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Odds and Ends
On Human Reproduction
Material that didn’t fit in my two previous posts on the subject.
What is Wrong with Gestational Surrogacy?
Gestational surrogacy is the arrangement by which a couple arrange to fertilize the woman's egg with the man's sperm then have the fertilized ovum implanted and gestated in another woman's womb. In the U.S. the practice is regulated by state law, illegal in some states, legal in others, which means in practice legal, since the couple can arrange to do it in a state that permits it.
While it is legal de jure for an American couple to arrange for surrogacy abroad, where it is less expensive — favored destinations recently seem to be Cyprus, the country of Georgia, and, before the Russian invasion, Ukraine — it is made difficult de facto by administrative obstacles put in the way of bringing the resulting infant back to America. In most other countries it is illegal. The U.K. is a partial exception; gestational surrogacy is legal but only if it is altruistic, meaning that the host mother is not paid for the inconvenience and risk of bearing another woman's child.
The obvious question is why anyone would be against an arrangement which makes it possible for a couple to have their own child when they otherwise could not. Even in those cases where the biological mother could bear her own child, why should anyone else object if she can find another woman willing to do it for her on mutually acceptable terms?
There are a number of possible answers, although none that in my view justify the restrictions. One is that the decision to be a host mother is not freely made since it is compelled by poverty. That argument is common in a variety of contexts but I find it hard to make sense of it. Put in its simplest terms, the claim is that if the potential host mother does not accept the offer she will starve to death, hence accepting the offer is not really a free choice, hence she should not be permitted to make it. Which, if the starting point is correct, means that out of our concern for a poor woman we will compel her to starve to death.
The only way I can think of to make the argument logically coherent is by assuming that the reason poor people are poor is that rich people want them to be. If gestational surrogacy is legal rich couples who are unable to produce their own child benefit by the existence of poor people they can hire as host mothers. The same argument can be used against any transaction between rich and poor that benefits both, where the transaction is made possible by one party’s poverty. I find that view implausible, indeed paranoid, but some would disagree.
Both versions of the argument provide a possible explanation for the rule that gestational surrogacy is legal but payment for it is not. The same rule applies to sexual intercourse in many countries: It is legal to do it, illegal to pay or be paid for it. It may also explain the rule in Ukraine that surrogacy is legal for married heterosexual couples where the wife is unable to bear a child but not for ones where the wife merely wishes to transfer the burdens of pregnancy to someone else.1
A second possible explanation for bans on gestational surrogacy, following a line of argument originated in the context of prostitution by professor Margaret Radin of Stanford Law School, is that by permitting a woman to rent out the use of her womb (body) we "commodify" motherhood (sex), cause people to think of it as something to be bought and sold, and so cheapen the human experience. Restated, the claim is that the transaction of buying sex or renting a womb is both an exchange and a statement. The exchange is one that, in Radin's view, should be permitted, since the woman owns her own body and so is entitled to decide how it is employed. But the statement, because of its effect on other people's view of their lives, is one that ought not to be made, hence the transaction may, arguably should, be prohibited.
What is strange about this argument is that it was made by an American law professor. The American constitution, as routinely interpreted by judges and law professors, contains a strong protection for freedom of speech, making it unconstitutional to prohibit an act, such as flag burning, which is also speech. Following out that principle, Radin's argument ought to imply that even if there were good reasons to prohibit surrogacy or prostitution, the fact that both are speech as well as acts ought to protect them. She, along with those who accept her argument, reach precisely the opposite conclusion.
A different argument that might be made against surrogacy is that permitting a couple to produce a child when they otherwise could not means that they will have no need to adopt, hence prohibiting surrogacy benefits children in need of parents. The argument is logically defensible but morally dubious. Surely a legislator willing to forbid a couple from producing their own child in order that they will have to adopt someone else's ought at least to feel obligated to refrain from producing any children of his own until he has adopted at least one.
Finally there comes what I suspect is the real reason. Natural is good. Surrogacy, like IVF before it and many other things as well, is unnatural. Our grandparents didn't do it, our pre-human ancestors didn't do it, so there must be something wrong with it, something wicked, sinful. Icky.
And worse still if done for money.
On the principle of full disclosure, I should mention that my granddaughter Iselle might not have come into existence were it not for surrogacy. A hard argument to rebut
Are Women Different?
Obviously they are, but I am thinking of behavior associated with sex and courtship. The traditional pattern, in our society and many others, was for men to make advances and women to accept or reject them. It was expected that most men would be happy, given the opportunity, to go to bed with almost any reasonably attractive woman, most women would be much more selective. Over my lifetime that has changed; substantial numbers of women, in at least some social circles, have shifted to something more like the male pattern. That raises an obvious pair of questions: Why did the difference exist and why did it, for some, disappear?
The obvious explanation for its existence is prudential: Women get pregnant, men don't. In a world without reliable contraception women adjusted their behavior accordingly, restricting sex to partners who could be expected to help rear any offspring that resulted.
A second possible explanation is that, since men preferred to marry women who had not had sex with other men, women found it prudent to maintain at least the appearance of virginity until they had obtained the necessary commitment. Further, since promiscuous sex was imprudent openly promiscuous sex signaled a lack of sense and/or self-control, making a woman less attractive as wife, employee, or in most other relationships.
A third possible explanation is that the scarce input to reproduction, biologically speaking, is neither eggs nor sperm but womb space, and it belongs to women. That put them in a position to be much pickier about their partners than men had any reason to be. Casual sex with any fertile woman was a reproductive win for a male, since it cost him nothing and might produce offspring. For a female, able to produce only one child every year or two, it made sense to select the father of that child for the best combination of high-quality genes and willingness to help support offspring that she could find. The result was that evolution, selecting for reproductive success, hardwired different patterns of behavior into males and females.
As reliable contraception became available, the prudential incentive for women to refrain from casual sex became weaker. Women, like men, enjoy sex, so some shifted their behavior to be more like that of men. Over time social expectations adjusted; there was no longer a reputational cost to behavior that was no longer imprudent.
That works less well for the second explanation. One reason men preferred to marry virgins was that sex without commitment might signal something, a lack of prudence or a strong taste for sex, that could lead to her future husband spending his resources raising another man’s children. Good contraception both weakened the implication and gave a woman who engaged in adultery a way of avoiding pregnancy.
The third alternative provides no explanation for the change, since human evolution is too slow to produce significant change over so short a period. It requires a different explanation, perhaps ideological pressure towards women throwing off the constraints of traditional sex roles. Weak evidence for that reading is that the new behavior pattern does not seem to have proved entirely satisfactory; I have read a number of articles by women who had followed it and were now unhappy at the results, no similar articles by men lamenting the downsides of male promiscuity.
Stranger in a Strange Land: Fifty Years After
Heinlein’s very popular novel had a significant short-term effect on the culture when it came out but a negligible long-term effect, beyond adding “grok” to the language. Its most radical message was the idea of group marriage of a particular sort. The nests it described were stable high trust families formed with minimal search and courtship. You looked into someone's eyes, recognized him or her as a water brother, and knew you could trust each other forever after. It was a naively romantic picture, possibly workable with the assistance of the protagonist's superpowers, risky in the real world but fitting well into the naively romantic hippy culture of the time. Quite a lot of people tried to implement it; for some it may have worked. When I spoke on a panel at a science fiction convention some years ago, one audience member made it reasonably clear that she had joined a nest, was still in it, and was happy with the result.
Sexual mores changed but not, for most, in that direction. Living in southern California in the eighties, the view that seemed most common among young adults — many of those I associated with would have been people I met through the SCA,2 a subculture that had noticeable overlap with both science fiction fandom and hippiedom — was very different. The ideal pattern was stable monogamy but who could be so lucky? Insofar as it had been replaced it was mostly by the increasing acceptability and practice of casual sex.
There has been some development since Stranger was published, in practice and theory, along the lines of group marriage of a somewhat different sort. Polyamory is more self-conscious and, at least in theory, more structured than what we see in Stranger. Partners are classified as primary or secondary and a good deal of attention paid to what those terms mean and what behavior they imply. The result is in theory closer to the Oneida Commune of the 19th century, on a much smaller scale, than to the nest described in Stranger.3
This fits not only what happened in the real world but what happened in Heinlein's fictional worlds. Consider a more sophisticated version of group marriage, the line marriage in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It is highly organized, with new members brought in at the low age end on a regular pattern of alternating gender. There is extensive search/courtship. And the protagonist offers a plausible explanation of its social role, why the institutions developed and what purposes it served.
Finally, consider Friday, a later novel. The protagonist, surprisingly naive given her profession — secret agent — joins a group marriage, makes a substantial commitment to it and is booted out, her share of the assets stolen, when it is discovered that she is an artificial person, the superior product of genetic engineering. Her much later commitment to a second group marriage follows more careful research.
Diamonds, Advertising, Sex and Marriage
According to a well-known story, diamonds became popular for engagement rings as a result of an advertising campaign by the N.W. Ayer advertising company on behalf of De Beers. "Rings and Promises" by Margaret Brinig offers a more interesting explanation of when and why the giving of an expensive engagement ring became a common custom.
Her explanation starts with the fact that pre-marital sex is not a new invention. It was common in the past for engaged couples to have sex with the understanding that if the woman got pregnant they would get married; evidence from several late 19th century European cities suggests that about a third of brides were pregnant. One risk was that the man, having gotten the sex, would dump his fiancée instead of marrying her. A solution in U.S. law was the tort action for breach of promise to marry. In a society where marriage was the main career open to women and the loss of the reputation for virginity substantially reduced a woman’s marriage prospects, seduction could impose substantial costs and result in a substantial damage payment.
Starting in 1935 in Indiana, the action vanished from state law. Women responded by requiring an expensive ring from their fiancé which forfeited if the he terminated the engagement. Think of it as a performance bond.
Brinig concluded from data on diamond imports that the demand for diamonds started to rise about 1935, four years before the Ayer marketing campaign commonly credited with creating the demand for engagement rings. The same data suggests that the custom began declining once premarital sex became widely accepted and unwanted pregnancy avoidable, largely eliminating the problem it was designed to solve. Since 1980, by her account, engagement rings have never amounted to as much as 20% of all diamond sales.
From which I conclude that the Ayer agency was indeed good at marketing, if not at marketing diamonds at least at marketing itself, spreading a story that gave it credit for a stunning effect that began four years before its supposed cause.
Tinder in the 19th Century
The Rev. Joshua King, called in, and examined.
“You are clergyman of the parish of Bethnal-green?”
“The rector of that parish.”
"Is the manner in which those houses are conducted particularly disorderly?"
“I have reason to believe it is; the Seven Stars and Three Sugar Loaves are a receptacle for suspicious characters, at hours when all other public-houses are closed; and at the Sun, a club significantly termed a cock and hen club, has been, and I believe still is held.”
“In which boys and girls meet?”
“Yes, and get drunk and debauch one another.”
(Report from the committee on the state of the police of the metropolis: with the minutes of evidence, London, 1816.)
Ukraine also did not permit surrogacy by a same sex couple or a would-be single parent, but some other countries do.
The Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical recreation organization I have been active in for a very long time.
The practice sometimes ends up as open marriage, monogamous for purposes of producing and rearing children but with no obligation to sexual exclusivity — an option made possible by reliable contraception.