This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series. For more information, click here.
By Hannah Giunta
Recently, The Guardian has carried a series of articles on the issue of commercial surrogacy. No doubt the recent emphasis stems from high-profile cases in the UK and the U.S., particularly the case of a UK surrogate mother who was ordered to honor her surrogacy agreement with a gay couple after she changed her mind about relinquishing the child (see this article for more details). In her May 9th editorial, Catherine Bennett laments that relational breakdowns in UK informal surrogacy arrangements will only encourage couples to look elsewhere for surrogates, and there are many women in developing countries who are willing to enter into these agreements even when few regulations exist to protect them. Surrogacy brokers can control these vulnerable women and sometimes force them to stay in special housing units where their activities can be monitored continuously until delivery. Keeping the child is socially and financially prohibitive for the women, so the brokers can guarantee the baby is handed over with minimal drama.
Even if richer countries like the UK and U.S. harmonized their laws and permitted commercial surrogacy domestically (like some U.S. states already do), arrangements would still sometimes fall apart, and wealthy couples desperate for a child would be drawn to the assurance provided by surrogacy brokers. Making an admittedly ethically inexact analogy with prostitution, Bennett surmises that there may be things, particularly acts that dehumanize and commodify women’s bodies, that no one should be asked to do, even for money. While I sympathize with Bennett’s desire to protect vulnerable women from exploitation, I worry that trying to simply end surrogacy would serve only to drive it underground. After all, prohibiting prostitution certainly hasn’t ended the practice. On the other hand, regulations without a new framework for the practice would ameliorate some of the exploitation endemic in commercial surrogacy but would fail to fundamentally address just what is so problematic about these ventures. However, there may be a middle way. If we want to address the larger moral issue, we have to ask, “What should give us pause about commercial surrogacy in a world where people can accept money for many forms of physical labor often at egregiously low prices?”
To my mind, the dehumanizing and commodifying part of current surrogacy practices in developing countries is not the use of women’s bodies for what might be a distasteful purpose to some but the surrogate’s wholesale exclusion from the relational aspects of pregnancy and birth. Here I call pregnancy and birth inherently relational because they usually result in the founding of a family unit, whatever the unit might look like. To be sure, families are not always founded intentionally or under the best of circumstances, but I would argue that at some level all pregnancies cement relationships and promote family ties. A new child solidifies the understanding that certain adults are now bound together at least through their relationship with the child. And, there is something special about family ties. We help relatives through troubled times, and we remain loyal to family members even when they annoy or disappoint us. The extent of our connections changes with proximity, but we treat even distant relatives with some respect just because they are in our family. Family members aren’t like contractually obligated service providers, and family life is much messier than any commercial venture. Surrogates in developing countries usually remain unrecognized as even extended family members, and this lack of recognition is presented as a desirable outcome by commissioning couples and surrogacy brokers. Commercial surrogacy arrangements where prospective parents possibly supply the raw ingredients, sign a contract, and return for pick-up with the intention never to see the surrogate again require women to do fundamentally relational work without relational support or respect. Effectively, couples are saying, “You’re good enough to carry our child but not welcome as part of our family.” It’s this attitude that is unacceptable. We should be wary when people want to found a family while excluding a significant member from the picture entirely. Not to mention, surrogacy has an impact not just on the involved adults but sooner or later on the child who is deprived of a potentially significant relationship. The worry about commercial surrogacy then shouldn’t be based solely on the physical labor performed or risks undertaken. It should be informed by the inherently relational nature of pregnancy and birth. With the current vision of international surrogacy as a clean, strings-free way to have a child, we need to change how we look at the process. Only then will regulations truly help.
What might surrogacy look like if there were significant efforts to integrate the surrogate into the larger family unit and thereby restore relational ties? Obviously, every surrogacy arrangement would look different, but minimally, there would have to be avenues for the surrogate to remain in contact with the family after delivery. Provisions would likely look similar to those specified in open adoptions. These changes would impact couples seeking surrogacy arrangements, but family life isn’t exclusively about the needs of any two people. The surrogate’s desires and the child’s needs should factor just as heavily into the discussion. Acknowledging the unique and fundamental role surrogates play in families is the only way to insure their wombs are not merely leased for nine months. If children were like products, then such leasing might be acceptable. But, children are family members who deserve positive relationships with as many other family members as possible, and they share an undeniable relationship with their surrogate. After all, if the surrogate had not carried them for nine months and done real work on their behalf, they wouldn’t exist. Founding a family will always have to be like family life itself—messy but rewarding—and that dichotomy is something that rigid commercial contracts can’t easily accommodate. The only way to right the wrong is to realize that when a couple creates a child with a surrogate they are founding a family—one that includes the surrogate herself.
Bennett, Catherine. “It’s dehumanising to be ‘an oven’ for someone else’s baby.” The Guardian 05/09/2015. Accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/10/surrogate-mothers-rich-westerners-poverty-dehumanising on 5/10/2015.
Campbell, Dennis. “More and more childless Britons head overseas to find surrogate mothers.” The Guardian 3/14/2015. Accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/mar/14/childless-britons-increasingly-surrogate-babies on 5/17/2015.
Gayle, Damien and Press Association. “High court orders surrogate mother to hand baby to gay couple.” The Guardian 5/6/2015. Accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/law/2015/may/06/high-court-orders-surrogate-mother-baby-gay-couple on 5/18/2015.
Hannah Giunta is a sixth year DO-PhD student pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and Bioethics.
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