Once in a while an unexpected event shines a revealing light on aspects of international relations we generally neglect or would rather not think about. The surrogacy saga that has seemingly transfixed the nation tells us something important about the relationships that exist between people on various parts of the planet. It also tells us something about our values and priorities.
It is not hard to see why the media has worked itself up into a lather about this particular story. Babies are good value at any time, of course – witness the obsession with prince George – but when they are abandoned by seemingly heartless parents with apparently questionable personal histories, the angles are endless.
The idea that one of ‘us’ has been left behind in foreign parts is another compelling and unsettling part of the story. Human interest doesn’t get much more absorbing than this.
But if we step back from the immediate media frenzy, some bigger issues come into view which are – or ought to be – central to this case. At the very least, the emergence of ‘surrogacy services’ gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘the division of labour’.
When it’s happening across national borders it also serves to highlight the very different roles and possibilities that are open to people, simply on the basis of where they live.
It’s not just the fact that this looks like people in the wealthy western world exploiting their impoverished neighbours that raises troubling moral questions, however. Perhaps we should be used to the idea that no aspect of human existence is immune from commodification and the pervasive influence of market forces.
They don’t call prostitution – sorry, sex work – the oldest profession for no reason, after all. But surrogacy seems to be raising – or should it be lowering? – the bar even further.
The most positive spin that can be put on this niche market is that the resultant offspring are at least wanted, to judge by the prices charged by baby brokers at least. The sad reality is that many millions arrive on the planet unwanted, unplanned and most emphatically unloved. One of the major things we have a superabundance of, in fact, is babies.
One of the most striking contradictions highlighted by this story is that many in the western world continue invest in expensive reproductive technologies and practices at precisely the same time that 10 million children die each year in the developing world before their fifth birthdays. The most common cause is easily – and cheaply – treatable diarrhoea.
Meanwhile, the IVF industry in Australia turns over A$500 million a year and rising.
You don’t have to be Charles Darwin to realise that urges don’t get much more elemental than reproductive ones. Weighing into a debate about demography and its implications is consequently asking for trouble. And yet there’s something troubling morally and practically about the way the human race increases at times; indeed, especially at this time in history, which we are learning to call the Anthropocene.
The new language reflects a new reality: there are now so many of us on the planet that we are influencing natural processes and literally reshaping the earth. The ‘good’ news is that much of the population growth is happening amongst the world’s most impoverished people who will leave only the most minimal trace of their individual passing – unlike us.
The challenge, perhaps, is to develop some collective sense of purpose and fate that mirrors the reality of our species’ place and impact on the planet.
One expression of this could be to use some of the money that’s spent on exotic reproductive practices (and much else) in the rich world to fund health and education programs, especially for women, in some of the poorer parts of the world. Access to cheap and effective birth control looks a much more sustainable, sensible and defensible global priority than more technological breakthroughs in reproductive technology.
The generous response by many Australians to the plight of one child was impressive and well-intentioned no doubt. Putting an individual human face on a complex problem plainly has its merits.
Indeed, the scale of the problem facing far less fortunate and – yes – far more disadvantaged children in remoter parts of the globe is quite overwhelming and potentially disempowering. This is why aid policy remains such an important expression of a country’s priorities.
Many have criticised the Abbott government’s mean-spirited approach to foreign aid and much else – apart from his bizarrely generous, seemingly non-negotiable proposed paid parental leave scheme. Individuals might be forgiven for taking their cue from a government that is preoccupied with family values.
Yet such insularity will be difficult to sustain in a world that keeps on reminding us just how interconnected and interdependent we ultimately are.