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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVII, No. 2
Pentecost 2012

The Commodification of Women and Children

by Mary Jo Anderson

The media portrayal of Catholic teaching as a medieval threat to women’s rights is a cruel twisting of the cultural reality. It is commodification — turning people into commodities — that assaults women, children, motherhood, and marriage. Three media events illustrate the way the market packages women and children as objects for consumption.

Bred for the Black Market

Recent news reports surrounding the $180,000 price tag for Ukrainian black-market babies finally shocked even the determinedly secular segments of society. Few remain unmoved by the story of the FBI’s round-up of “baby-brokers.” (UK Daily Mail 8/19/11, and ABC News 8/17/11)

Young, blond, blue-eyed Ukrainian students sold their eggs to brokers sure to fetch a high price for infants with “Nordic” features. Beyond the initial horror of children clinically selected for profiteering and sold as a commodity to the highest bidder, investigators discovered that these babies have dozens of full and half siblings who were sold elsewhere. This opens the possibility that, in 25 years, a young man might unknowingly marry his sister. Despite the cascading consequences of fertility for sale (including human trafficking, sex slavery), it appears to be the blatant commercial trade in newborn babies that unnerved the media.

We are a nation divided: We weep for baby seals taken for their pelts, but are numb to the scalding of human babies with saline solution in utero. We object to the view of seals as nothing more than a renewable fur crop, but do not spare a grimace for the embryos sluiced down the drain in a “fertility lab.” Advocates of “reproductive rights” claim to represent women’s rights, but with scant regard for the actual desolation such “rights” burn into society.

Thus, in one sense, the indignation expressed by the media after the revelations of the FBI’s baby-selling sting gives a bare glimmer of hope. But who gave birth to the babies? Would the fate of the destitute women who offer their bodies as surrogate wombs bring a similar outcry? Typically, poor women lured into “pregnancy outsourcing” offer their bodies for $600-1000, plus medical care.

In India a very healthy young candidate might be paid up to $5000, or as much as she might otherwise make in ten years. To underscore the business nature of the practice, note that those whose claim to seek “sexual justice” for women suggest that “Since surrogacy requires absence from family life as women live in pregnancy dormitories or camps, research on the cost-benefit analysis and impact on Indian family systems is needed,” we read in an article on global surrogacy on RH Reality Check (

In short, there were multiple occasions of commodification of women and children involved in the commercial baby-selling enterprise: the student who sold her eggs (and the young men who provide donor sperm), the embryos discarded in the lab, the destitute surrogate mother, the newborn sold into unknown circumstances, the buyer/mother whose desire for a child fed the production of “inventory.”

Women’s reproductive gift is less about rights than a lucrative market commodity. For couples unable to conceive and who have limited budgets, India’s 500 in virto fertilization (IVF) clinics advertise a booming fertility tourism, estimated to be a $450-million-per-year industry. The trade is expected to top $700 million by 2015. Unscrupulous promoters advertise on the internet: “We’ve got the affordable IVF overseas you heard about, great IVF vacations & low-cost IVF gender selection.”

As fertility technologies increase, so do the ethical quandaries. Scanning the comments on these internet articles, one is struck by the revulsion of many people to accounts of black-market infants. On the other hand, the dozens of web sites soliciting surrogate mothers indicate that surrogacy is — for many of these same people — just another legitimate business arrangement.

The subject is complicated, even polarizing, because many couples, including Catholics, conceived their own children via IVF and/or surrogacy. For these parents, IVF is applauded as a means of family-building. They try not remember that the same “right” to IVF is also the source for the black-market infants. The temptation of couples who have difficulty conceiving deserves our compassion and prayers. The echo of Hannah is heard down the centuries, “And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish” (I Sam 1:10-11).

Yet the accounts of black-market babies provide an opening for Catholics to share the wisdom of the Church’s prohibition against IVF and its teaching on the inviolate sacredness of human life. The challenge is to effectively present the argument against IVF and surrogacy — to see that the growing trade in black-market/gray-market infants is the practical consequence of violating a basic ethic: Humans cannot be owned, bought or sold.

At its core, the idea behind in vitro fertilization is the assumption that there is a right to have a baby. One entry point might be to compare the commodification of babies with slavery. The claim that any person has a right to a child is akin to slave-owners’ claim to a right to ownership over another human being. There have been bizarre wrangles among donors, surrogates, and purchasers over legal rights of ownership once a child is born, as in a celebrated Dutch case that pitted a child’s “legal” parents and surrogate mother against a biological parent ( news/local_news/no-verdict-in-baby-donna-case-42481_38560.html).

Consider this short list of abuses based on the assumption that fertility is a commodity:

• babies conceived then frozen for possible use at a later date

• babies conceived then discarded as medical waste when not implanted

• babies conceived and culled according to genetic desirability (“designer babies”)

• babies conceived so their organs can be harvested for an ill sibling

• women who sell their eggs or rent their bodies to gestate the IVF-conceived child

• legal battles among donors, surrogates, and buyers for the “ownership” of the child

The question posed for our secularized culture is this: How can a human life become the object of commerce, however well-meaning some buyers may be? In the 1800s, American society struggled bitterly over slavery. The task at the time, for people of faith, or simply of good will, was to overturn a lucrative commercial industry and a cultural pattern. Our task today is strikingly similar: Present the true image of human-ownership as an egregious violation of all human rights.

Actress: I Am More Than Physical Objectification

In April, Hollywood actress Ashley Judd swiped back at a paparazzi and press who described her as “puffy.” Judd said, in defense of women, “The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us … our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.”

Miss Judd, 44, stars in a new television series about a mother whose college-aged son has been kidnapped. After the first episode critics had little to say about the series, but plenty to observe about Judd’s weight. Some commenters tuned vicious, calling Judd a “pig” and “cow.”

The actress refused to submit to the usual media terror tactics. While the press speculated that Judd now wore a size 6 rather than size 2 (horrors!), she pointed out that a “hypersexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality … and the general incessant objectification is what this conversation allegedly about my face is really about.”

After taking the celebrity pundits to the woodshed, Judd remarked that what truly mattered was not her physical perfection but “how I feel about myself, my personal integrity, and my relationship with my Creator.”

Constructively, Ashley Judd invited women to stop playing the objectified victim and to “change the conversation” about the true value of a woman, based on contribution to others.

Sugar and Spice — But Evil

Perhaps no aspect of the commodification of women is as visible — and shocking — as the eroticization of little girls. The proliferation of beauty pageants for toddlers was barely slowed after the death of JonBenet Ramsey. She was assaulted and strangled in her home in 1996. At six JonBenet was a veteran of toddler pageants where children, dressed and made-up like 22-year-old Miss Universe contestants, strut and gyrate down a runway for the amusement of adult audiences.

Even years later tabloids carried front-page photos of a made-up, big-hair JonBenet, as if the nation had developed an obsession over the case. The fixation was partly the mystery — who killed JonBenet? — but partly, too, the mirror of horror held up to our culture: How could this happen in America, where we love our children? Is the pageant craze an exploitation of our children? Are we grooming predator victims? Are the parents of tots in these pageants guilty of reckless endangerment? It was a moment when the culture, looking inward, might have made a self-correction.

And yet, today, the deliberate exploitation of little girls has been mainstreamed with television programs like The Learning Channel’s Toddlers & Tiaras. Pre-school-aged girls have been dressed in padded bras and padded panties to imitate Dolly Parton, or dressed as the prostitute played by Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman. No amount of protest under the guise of “it’s just dress up fun” can justify such shocking sexualizing of baby girls.

But is it shocking the viewers? Can it be that it is shocking, not in a horrifying manner, but in a titillating way? We can assume that the program is profitable or it would be pulled. We might assume that advertisers experience no serious censure from the public. What does that say about us? Where is the outrage? Can it be, as James Kincaid wrote for Slate magazine, “Looking at kids is arguably our culture’s central activity, so long as we can successfully objectify the kids, make them strangely doll-like and immune, both fetching and innocent” (

There’s that word: objectify. Objects are soulless. Objects are for commerce and consumption, a possession.

Diane E. Levin, PhD and Jean Kilbourne, EdD are authors of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids (2009, Random House. See: Their research will cause even informed parents to flinch. Beyond a lengthy catalog of advertising assaults on young minds and sexualized fashions for preteens, the authors examine the psychological minefield our children must survive. Physical and emotional damage is incalculable as these children grow into adulthood with crushing depression, self-mutilation, and psychosocial disorders. Eating disorders begin in the elementary grades. Nine-year-olds are seen as potential customers for provocative fashion and violent video games. Is it any wonder that body image issues are haunting younger and younger girls?

Children are not prepared to resist the aggressive sexualized marketing aimed at them. Levin and Kilbourne’s research is echoed by the American Psychological Association’s 2007 report of its Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which found that a girl exposed to hypersexualized media can exhibit disturbances in both cognitive and emotional development. This exposure leads to low self-esteem and a range of socially troubling behavior. In the APA report, sexualization is defined separately from healthy sexuality. It says,

There are several components to sexualization, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality. Sexualization occurs when:

• a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
• a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
• a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
• sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

Yet again the term “objectified” is used to describe what our hypersexualized culture is doing to women and girls:

In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized. These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate… [Examples] include advertisements (e.g., the Skechers “naughty and nice” ad that featured Christina Aguilera dressed as a schoolgirl in pigtails, with her shirt unbuttoned, licking a lollipop), dolls (e.g., Bratz dolls dressed in sexualized clothing such as fishnet stockings, and feather boas), clothing (thongs sized for 7 to 10-year-olds, some printed with slogans such as “wink wink”), and television programs (e.g., a televised fashion show in which adult models in lingerie were presented as young girls). []

Culture is shaped by our civil choices: What we think, say, how we act, what movies we see, people we vote for, the organizations we support, the education we approve for our schools, the clothes we buy and the books we read. In every human interaction we influence — for good or for ill — the direction of our communities.

Blessed John Paul II wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem that women today have an influence and power as never before — this is the influence we are to use to “aid humanity in not falling” (MD 1). If we regard our bodies and our children as persons made in the image of God, then we will not participate in nor permit the commodification of our bodies, our fertility, our children, or our marriages.

The hour is upon us. We must refuse to cooperate with such grave evil — and teach others to do likewise — in order to “aid humanity in not falling.”

Mary Jo Anderson, a member of the Voices editorial board, lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband, Frank. She is a journalist and speaker on politics, religion, and culture, and a frequent guest on “Abundant Life”, an EWTN television program. Her monthly “Global Watch” radio program is heard on EWTN radio affiliates nationwide. She is a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Advisory Council (NAC) 2010-2014, and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011.

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