The April 7, 2008 issue of Newsweek has an interesting article on surrogacy. Naturally enough, this got me thinking about the ethics of the matter. Surrogacy, in this context, is when a woman bears a child for someone else. In the past, the typical surrogacy occurred when a wife could not bear children for her husband. The husband would then impregnate another women who would bear the child. The most famous example of this occurs in the bible when Hagar serves as a surrogate for Abraham’s wife Sarah. Sticking with the biblical theme, this sort of surrogacy could also be seen as adultery.
Technological advances have enabled a woman to bear the child of another without going through the “usual” process of impregnation. This typically involves in vitro fertilization (IVF). In some cases, the surrogate mother provided the egg, but this is now rarely done-due to the famous Baby M case. In the Baby M case, Mary Beth Whitehead was the biological mother of the baby (having provided both the egg and the womb) and decided she wanted to keep the child. Because of the legal and ethical mess of that situation, most surrogacy contracts forbid the woman who will bear the child from donating the egg.
Not surprisingly, there are many moral concerns regarding surrogacy.
Those who embrace “traditional” values often see surrogacy as morally problematic because it seems to run contrary to the traditional view of the family. To be specific, it strikes some as wrong for a mother to give birth to a child for another and then hand the child over. This, some would say, damages the traditional bond between mothers and children.
The usual counter to this is that surrogacy, if properly done, is actually a pro-family action. This is because it allows people to have children and hence a family. Another counter is that this same line of thought would seem to entail that adoption is morally wrong.
Some feminists oppose surrogacy on the grounds that it transforms a woman into a commodity-a baby machine in service to those with the money to rent a woman. Some feminists thinkers compare this to a form of prostitution and those with Marxist leanings also bring in the class aspect as well (the rich exploiting the poor).
This is a reasonable concern and it would be an evil thing if women were forced to serve as breeding machines. However, the typical surrogacy situation does not seem to be morally problematic in this way. The women choose to be surrogates, they are paid well and most of them seem to be very positive about the experience. As such, while the feminist concerns are well worth keeping in mind, they do not seem to have much force in regards to a normal surrogacy situation.
There are also those who criticize surrogacy in terms of class. The process of IVF and surrogacy can be very expensive and hence is an option only for those who are wealthy. The women who choose to be surrogates are typically in the lower income range (though not always) and there is a growing trend in the use of surrogate mothers in countries like India (where surrogacy is cheaper). This raises a concern that this is yet another case in which the wealthy are exploiting those who are in financial need.
This is a reasonable concern and one that is worth keeping a close eye on-especially as surrogacy spreads to the Third World. However, the usual situation does not seem to be one of exploitation. Those who seek out surrogates seem to do so mostly because they cannot have children (as opposed to, as some have suggested, just a desire to avoid the rigors of pregnancy). Those who are surrogates are obviously motivated in part by the money, but so far the usual situation is that the surrogate is seeking extra income as a supplement as opposed to desperately selling themselves for cash. Further, many of the surrogates seem to be motivated by a desire to help others in need.
As noted above, those who are critical of surrogacy do have legitimate concerns. Currently, most surrogacy occurs in the United States (it is illegal many other places) and hence the surrogates are well protected by American law. However, as surrogacy starts to spread to the Third World, it would be wise to keep a close watch on how it develops. Women are already horribly exploited around the world and the last thing they need is yet another way to be exploited.