The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An actor’s use of a surrogate raises radical-feminist questions

Sherry Cola and Jamie Chung attend Disney And Pixar's “Lightyear” premiere at El Capitan Theatre on June 8 in Los Angeles. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
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It’s rare for a contemporary television star to sound like a radical second-wave feminist. But that’s what came to mind when “Dexter: New Blood” actress Jamie Chung explained why she and her husband had decided to have a surrogate carry and give birth to their twins.

“I was terrified of becoming pregnant. I was terrified of putting my life on hold for two-plus years,” Chung told Today Parents. “I don’t want to lose opportunities. I don’t want to be resentful.”

Chung, 39, acknowledged that people might assume she was “vain” and that “there’s a little bit of shame” attached to that decision.

The reactions Chung anticipated aren’t unreasonable, considering surrogacy essentially offloads the discomforts and incapacities of pregnancy onto another woman. Yet there’s something galvanizing about hearing a woman bluntly rage against the limits of biology and the costs it imposes on half the population.

Chung’s honesty is rare, though she isn’t the first actor to use professional ambition as justification.

In 2019, actress and presenter Sunny Leone used the language of empowerment when she told the lifestyle site Masala!: “I chose surrogacy and I chose adoption because I wanted to keep going and I wanted to keep working."

I don’t know if Chung has read Shulamith Firestone, the radical feminist author of “The Dialectic of Sex,” who saw technology as a potential tool of liberation. But Chung’s acknowledgment of how hard she has worked, how highly she values her career and how time out of the workforce would gnaw at her, echoes Firestone’s 1970 broadside.

“Women were the slave class that maintained the species,” Firestone wrote, “to free the other half for the business of the world — admittedly often its drudge aspects, but certainly all its creative aspects as well.”

When “The Dialectic of Sex” was published, the world’s first sperm banks, in Iowa and Japan, were just six years old. The birth of Louise Brown, the first person conceived via in vitro fertilization, was eight years away. Firestone believed that “artificial reproduction,” which she imagined involving an “artificial placenta,” was imminent.

That technological revolution didn’t advance as far, or as fast, as Firestone expected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2 percent of American children born in 2019 were conceived through IVF, which can be used to impregnate gestational surrogates. But the placenta Firestone wrote about is still not a reality. Teams at the University of Michigan and SDJ Barcelona Children’s Hospital — Hospital Clinic are working on prototypes. But their aim, as Firestone predicted, is to help premature babies survive, not to replace the womb.

For people who can’t — or don’t want to — carry a pregnancy to term, using another woman’s body is the only option. If Firestone were alive today, she might acidly condemn surrogacy as an example of a “servant class” liberating a few more privileged women from “the tyranny of reproduction.”

One doesn’t have to be that unsympathetic to feel a twinge of moral unease about surrogacy. Bearing a child is distinct from other work. If a surrogate experiences complications, her health and future fertility could be diminished or even destroyed. What other job requires an employee to give a client that much control over her body?

The stakes can get even more queasy-making when it comes to surrogate bargain-hunting in countries where fees are lower than is typical in the United States. Recently, the plight of surrogates and babies endangered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where surrogacy has become a big business, revealed just how common this is.

Even as surrogacy has become more acceptable, the idea of decoupling women from pregnancy is still radical.

In her day, Firestone confessed herself surprised to discover that various methods of reproductive assistance polled well with a broad cross-section of Americans. But, she observed, “the hitch was that they would consider them only where they reinforced and furthered present values of family life and reproduction. … It was not the ‘test tube’ baby itself that was thought unnatural … but the new value system” suggesting that women ought not be constrained by pregnancy and birth.

Jamie Chung is proof of how uncomfortable it is to confront the unfairness of biological reality head-on.

Women have struggled in a cynically libertarian system that claims they might “have it all,” while doing little to support them in childbearing and child rearing. No wonder some rebel against that expectation or try to buy their way into a shortcut. And no wonder others react strongly to the prospect of offloading pregnancy, seeing reproductive capitalism as just another form of exploitation.

You don’t have to like Chung’s decision or her motivations. Even several days after I read her interview, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it myself. Fifty years after Firestone dreamed that women might be freed from the prison of biology, we’re still judging women who try to bust themselves out — rather than the systems that constrain them.

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