The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Should Sex Work be Criminalized?

Shouldn't a woman (or a man) be allowed to use her body any way she wants, and if she generates income, so much the better?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at InterfaithUnderstanding.org.

In most of the country, it's not legal for women to rent their body for sexual use (i.e., prostitution), but in many states, not including Michigan, it is legal to rent their wombs (i.e., gestational surrogacy)?  Shouldn't a woman (or a man) be allowed to use her body any way she wants, and if she generates income, so much the better?

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

This is a subject that I’ve thought about a good deal. I haven’t landed on a final answer yet, but I see the logic of the argument put forth here. Women engage is sexual activity with men outside of the confines of marriage for multiple reasons. We as a society have essentially given them agency over their own bodies for every one of them with the exception of financial compensation. Of course, so much of prostitution that is practiced today is very destructive to women, as they are often under the control of pimps, who have no regard for them other than as property to be exploited.

And what about sexual surrogacy? While it still remains controversial, and its practice in a sort of legal limbo, when it is stripped of its possibility therapeutic value, it boils down to a sexual experience in exchange for money.

While Hinduism, like most religions, does encourage sexual activity to be exclusive to a married couple, it also has inherent in it a sort of flexibility that is offered to devotees who don’t quite measure up to the highest standards without excommunication or divine punishment. 

All this said, I am open to a legal answer that considers what might be best for both individuals and the greater society.

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

The Catholic Church’s response to this question lies in the importance of the relationship between a husband and wife. I have described in previous columns the sexual relationship between a couple who have committed themselves as being a form of prayer because when two people are at the height of passion, they are the closest to God that a human being may be on earth. Therefore, the marital relationship is for the union of the man and woman and the procreation of life.

The Catholic Church supports ‘research aimed at reducing human sterility on the condition that it be at the service of the human person’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 571). Further, the Church teaches that ‘children are a gift, not something to be owned’ (ibid., 572).

I am aware the Catholic Church’s position is opposite of the cultural understanding that the woman has control of her own body. Because human beings are in the image and likeness of God, they reflect the divine. Women are no less in the image of God than men. Human bodies and what they may produce are not commodities but temples of God. Might the premise of the question deny the latter and promote the former?

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

In 2014 there were 468 laws being proposed to regulate women’s bodies, there were zero laws regulating men’s bodies. Most of the legislators writing and proposing these laws are older white men. Most of these laws are around reproductive rights. Unitarian Universalists firmly believe in a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. That each woman has the right to decide for herself all reproductive healthcare decisions.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

You seem to be asking if prostitution should be legalized. Apparently all states of our union say no, it should not. Even in Nevada, prostitution is legal only in certain counties. Sadly, legal proscription has not eliminated ‘the world’s oldest profession,’ even in cities where there is a strong Christian presence, such as Grand Rapids. The enforcement of such laws is sporadic, and often corrupt. Punishment for this crime often is meted out only to the women, not the men who demand their services. In the New Testament, however, it is not the whores but the whoremongers, those who patronize them, who are shut out of the kingdom of heaven (Revelation 22:15).

But ‘gestational surrogacy’ cannot be compared to prostitution. The practice involves much more than a woman ‘renting her womb.’ The surrogate mother assumes all of the burden and risk of carrying a child to term. Those who think it’s easy to bear a child obviously haven’t done it. It is an act of compassion toward those who cannot conceive or bear children themselves. As a legal practice, it can be regulated, standards can be imposed, and safeguards put in place for all concerned.  It should also be noted that surrogacy comes with a high emotional and psychological cost. Nine months is long time to live with such a momentous choice.

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

Biblically, prostitution is forbidden, but many references and stories exist in both Christian and  Jewish scriptures. With the exception of a few areas in Nevada, in the United States, prostitution is illegal for both the giver and receiver of payment. Why? Is it because unregulated prostitution can spread disease? Negatively impact the stability of marriage and families? Or are laws against prostitution (unsuccessful) attempts to legislate morality?  

I can theologically accept the practice of gestational surrogacy. It can be a gift of the self. It is both compassionate and altruistic. These are virtues to be celebrated, in particular when, for example,  one carries a child for a sister or other family member. The challenge is in writing laws or applying existing  laws to  gestational surrogacy.  What is a womb worth? Who decides? Is payment for ‘renting a womb’ taxable? Who ‘owns’ the womb or the child who gestated within? If gestational surrogacy is legal however, are we on a slippery slope forced gestational surrogacy? Manipulation through gestational surrogacy? The dystopia of “A Handmaid’s Tale” comes to mind.  

Yes, perhaps women and men should have freedom to use their bodies as they choose unless their decisions have a known, significant, and negative impact on the community in which they live. No man, or woman, is an island. Legally and spiritually, we are communal people and our behaviors matter to the whole. 

My response:

Post-Biblical Judaism believes that the ideal sexual relationship is within marriage, but at the same time we are aware that the Bible speaks about non-marital sexuality and prostitution without condemnation (cultic or idolatrous sexuality is another matter). I don’t think promiscuous sexuality is good for individuals or society, but I also do not believe that consensual non-marital sexuality, even if money is exchanged, ought to be a criminal matter. Coerced sex, including sex slavery, is another matter entirely, but the guilty party ought to be the one coercing, not the one being forced to engage in sexual acts.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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