An indulgence of adult desires

Nothing like the Christmas season to remind us how selfish and adult-centred we should be.

No, you’re right. That doesn’t sound very good.

I have been struggling for a while now to come up with a good logical reason why I dislike stories about surrogate motherhood like this one (requires free registration to the New York Times website). In “Her Body, My Baby,” New York City writer/socialite Alex Kuczynski tells the often heart-wrenching story of how she went from wanting a baby to having a baby. It’s a journey most people go through reasonably straightforwardly but in her case it involved no end of medical complications, ultimately resolved by cutting-edge science, tens of thousands of dollars, and a spare womb inside a 43-year-old Pennsylvania substitute schoolteacher.

You should read the article for yourself, when you’re in the mood and have a good cup of coffee handy. It is very long but also very detailed, and remarkably honest for a woman famous for having written a book about plastic surgery.

I should state at the outset that I sympathize with Ms. Kuczynski’s desire to be a mother and with the pain her own inability to carry a child to term therefore caused her. I also wish to keep an open mind about the surrogate mother, Cathy, and her expressed desire to be “needed in a profound, unique way.” I admit I don’t get it (pregnancy and childbirth for the pure altruistic fun of it?), but I accept it as presented. And most importantly, I do not want to imply that Max, Ms. Kuczynski’s son, did not deserve to live. His conduct is blameless. And he’s here now, so let’s leave him out of the story. But it is possible to approve of an end and still disapprove of the means.

The question here is, why does surrogate motherhood make many of us recoil? Even so-called “gestational surrogacy,” where the surrogate mother did not contribute her egg to the equation, which is the sort Ms. Kuczynski had. In this kind of assisted pregnancy the child that emerges from the surrogate mother is the biological offspring of the parents who will raise him. He has no genetic connection to his “host mother”. The woman who carries him and nurtures him in utero and goes through the pain of childbirth for him must give him up – for, after all, he is not hers.

There’s something very wrong about that. The question is, what?

Yes, the objective is to produce a child, which is good. Yes, all people involved participate voluntarily, which is good. Yes, the surrogate mother, who agreed to the arrangement, is well looked after medically and is compensated financially for her services. It does not sound like exploitation. But it is.

When the prospective parents look for a suitable candidate, they look at her reproductive history, her health, her family situation, and all manner of personal details. Even if you agree to put yourself on the rent-a-womb block, the fact remains that selecting a candidate based on her breeding record is, at the very least, crass objectifying. I’m re-reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin these days, and I can’t help seeing images of potential buyers examining the “merchandise” by looking into its mouth. Yes, its.

“Whoa, honey! Check out the size of that uterus!”

Not very dignified.

Sometimes I envy religious folks. They seem to have such a clearer view of what’s right and what’s not. For instance, the Vatican just released Dignitas Personae, a set of guidelines for the modern bio-ethics age. It reasserts that “any form of surrogate motherhood” is “illicit”.

The reasons are outlined in an earlier document, Donum Vitae:

“Surrogate motherhood represents an objective failure to meet the obligations of maternal love, of conjugal fidelity and of responsible motherhood; it offends the dignity and the right of the child to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents; it sets up, to the detriment of families, a division between the physical, psychological and moral elements which constitute those families.”

Basically, the Church appears to think that the only morally licit way to produce children is via the conjugal act between man and wife. Who knew the crusty old moralists were so keen on the fun part?

It’s all fine and good to be against offending the dignity of a child. And certainly one can object, with current techniques, to how assisted reproduction treats the other children: the discarded “superfluous” embryos, those left behind in the Petri dishes, the ones frozen and never thawed, and the ones conceived with donor gametes who will never know their genetic history. It’s also quite fine to promote conjugal fidelity and happy, fruitful marriages. But surrogacy doesn’t have to involve unfaithfulness or unhappiness. And it’s not quite enough to explain my reaction against surrogate motherhood.

No. What bothers me most about it is that it is part of a wider culture that promotes and aggressively encourages anything that lets adults indulge their every whim and fancy. On any given day, countless women go for an abortion while countless others go through invasive assisted reproductive techniques while other women wait to have their uterus chosen to carry someone else’s precious embryo or their ovaries plucked so they can sell their eggs. The only moral standard here is that whatever I want is right, and must be mine. It is not possible to build a coherently decent society on such a basis.

Methinks it’s also not a very grown-up way to behave.

Brigitte Pellerin is a writer and broadcaster based in Ottawa.

Photo Credit: karindalziel via Flickr


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