The 'right' to have a slave: Hagar and the womb for rent

For days, the supporters of the GPA have been jubilantly spreading the 'news': even God allows a woman to bear children for others, as the biblical account of Sarah -wife of Abraham unable to conceive- and her servant Hagar who lent her womb shows. So today, too, temporary slaves are being claimed: a real ethical and political short-circuit. And an autogoal. Also because the Genesis account should be read in its entirety
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For days on social media, the supporters of the womb for rent, in particular many LGBT+ activists and their supporters, have been reviving the story of the slave girl Hagar and her son Ishmael (Genesis 16 and 21) to support the lawfulness and goodness of their cause. The meaning would be: even God allows a woman to bear a child for others. So: nothing wrong with our claim. In fact, we too are entitled to have female slaves. A logical, political and ethical short-circuit.

They do not know what they are saying. They don't know this story of violence, power, oppression at all. Nor do they know how it ends.


Hagar is a foreigner, an Egyptian slave owned by Sarah, Abraham's wife, memory of the time spent with her husband in the land of the Pharaohs. And like all slaves in the ancient (and modern) world, she is nothing more than an object in the hands of those who own her: in her case a barren woman, the greatest disgrace in the patriarchal world. It will be the ability to beget a male child to the master of both, Abraham, to create a tension between the two women which will continue until Sara receives the grace by God giving birth, now aged, to Isaac.

The code of Hammurabi (18th century B.C.), the harsh and cruel one of the so-called 'law of retaliation', provided for the possibility for an infertile woman to 'have a child' from her lawful spouse by having him impregnate a slave girl who would beget and bear in his place the legitimate heir. The practice involved a unique form of childbirth of highly symbolic value: the pregnant woman gave birth to the baby leaning on her mistress' legs who thus acquired mother's rights. Le similarities with Gpa are impressive, notwithstanding modern procreation techniques that make it possible to conceive without sexual contact. Now as then this mother must disappear, today through complex practices that triple her figure - bearer of the phenotype, gestant, social mother when there is one) and sometimes quadruple it ('donor' of mitochondria); then with this humiliating form of childbirth that reaffirmed the power relations between mistress and slave. All very brutal and in fact very similar to the subcontracting of the burden, risk and pain of pregnancy and childbirth to poor women by some Hollywood divas, the same balance of power between a rich and powerful woman and a poor and weak one.

But Hagar is a proud woman and has no intention of backing down. She was used as a breeding animal and as soon as she realises she is pregnant she knows she has power over the woman who used her body to have the child she is unable to have. No politically correct frosting, no smirking, no pretense. Visceral animosity, envy and mutual contempt are evident, the same ancestral feelings that stir today behind the fiction of glossy covers and the capestro contracts devised by agency lawyers.

Sarah becomes increasingly hard on her slave, who flees into the desert. It will be the angel of God who will address her and remind her of her duties, from which she cannot escape, compensated by the promise of divine benevolence about her and the child she will give birth to and name Ishmael, "God listens'.

Unlike in the case of the modern and 'progressive' Gpa, Agar receives justice and recognition, and not by the men and women of her world but directly by God, the patriarchal and merciless God of the Old Testament. Hagar therefore goes back, she is forced to do so, the world allows her nothing else, she is pregnant by her rightful owner, she would have no way out: the Bible does not recount the humiliating and alienating ways of childbirth, but the child is born and grows, thirteen years pass in which it is the Son par excellence, the designated heir of the Pater Familias. But Sara also cries and asks God for a son, In that cruel world, a woman's role is tied to her ability to procreate, and that proud and resolute servant is the mirror of her failure: God grants her 'grace' and so Isaac is bornand Sara can claim her 'rights' as mistress, Agar must finally disappear, she and that child who is no longer needed must die.

Il "diritto" ad avere una schiava: Agar e l'utero in affitto
Hagar and Ishmael in the desert

Le similarities with the present of GPA are striking: the woman who performs her reproductive service is the problem, and by good or bad she must disappear. If she stayed she would occupy the central role of mother, and this would disrupt the plans of those who saw her only as an oven, as a slave. Like Hagar. Ishmael too, loved and raised as the first-born, is discarded and sent to die in the desert with his mother when he is no longer needed, no longer to exist when he does not meet the expectations of his masters. Today there are no deserts in which to die of thirst, but contracts provide for every possible eventuality: the woman who signs renounces all control over her own body, the principals can decide anything for her and the creature she is carrying, you can force her to have an abortionthe mode of delivery -often a Caesarean section- is decided, you prevent yourself from breastfeeding because this would strengthen the attachment. And the baby boy or girl who comes into the world, if he or she does not correspond to the wishes of the payer, may be legitimately rejected, abandoned in a world (the desert) where one no longer knows what will become of him or her.

It is incomprehensible that those who support and promote the lawfulness of such a trade (self-determined) and time-based slavery, then in theory everyone goes free) would like to see a precedent in the ancient story of Hagar: even in that cruel world, justice was restored. Abandoned in the desert, close to death and desperate, the angel of God takes pity on them and speaks to Hagar reassuring her that a great nation will descend from Ishmael, he points her to a spring of water, allowing salvation.

Even in that brutally patriarchal world without pretence, where God-inspired human laws bend the fates of the last to the desires of those who dominate, that God the Father who is so incomprehensible to our eyes cannot fail to recognise the truth of that mother and son, that inseparable bond, that bond that no human hand can loosen.

Where is God now? Who is there in his place? Who hears the cries of Hagar and Ishmael? This 'correct', inclusive and supportive world of ours is perhaps more brutal and cynical than the world of Hammurabi and Abraham.   

Anna Perenna


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