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How Surrogate Motherhood Contradicts the Nature of Womanhood


The following was a college essay written by Miriam Trujillo. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By: Miriam Trujillo, The Catholic University of America

Surrogate motherhood, if not a very common phenomenon on the reproductive scene, certainly has captured the imagination of many.  Popular stories, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as cases like Mary Beth Whitehead’s fight to keep her surrogate baby, certainly have tinged this particular facet of bioethics with a lurid fascination.  It is a practice that impacts women’s rights and children’s rights.  It spawns opinions of the surrogate women as cold unnatural beings, willing to hand over their children for money, exploited victims in need of rescue, or else heroes, willing to undertake so much suffering in order to give another couple so much joy.  The practice may intimate that some people are willing to buy children, so anxious are they to further their own lineage. 

Surrogacy may leave the custody of children, generated by so many different parents, up to uncertainty.  On the flip side, the practice of surrogacy can be looked upon as an agreement that leaves all parties happy: the surrogate mother well compensated and the intended parents with a family.  All these analyses of surrogate motherhood make compelling points, but they do not try to assess the practice of surrogate motherhood on any deeper level than that of the socio-economic.  The ethical issues delineated above only address surrogacy’s role in a society.  In order to truly understand whether this reproductive practice is an intrinsically problematic one or not, we must probe more deeply.  We must attempt to understand the spiritual nature of the parties involved (in particular that of the surrogate mother) and determine whether or not this practice contradicts the nature of the family or the nature of the woman.

Before attempting to do this, however, it is vital to define surrogate motherhood and understand its different varieties. Firstly, there is the traditional type of surrogacy in which the intended father gives his sperm to be artificially inseminated into the surrogate mother.  She then conceives and bears a child who is genetically related to her but whom she gives up to be adopted by the genetic father and his partner.  As technology advanced, a second type of surrogacy came into play.  In this new scenario, the surrogate mother undergoes an operation in which both sperm and egg (hypothetically from the intended mother) are placed in her womb.  She then carries a child who is not related to her at all and surrenders the baby to his genetic parents.  The former practice has a stronger success rate (Field, 36).

Payment is not always a concrete part of the process.  In many cases when a relative offers to carry a child for her infertile loved one, this is merely a gesture of altruism.  When a woman seeks to carry for strangers, however, this typically veers into the territory of a transition.  The surrogate herself can be either married or single.  In order to qualify as a surrogate mother, however, she must have birthed and kept at least one biological child (Jacobson, 48).  Gestation and birth are thus looked upon as a skill a woman must hone before she may qualify as a surrogate.

Many women become surrogate mothers out of pure love for this “skill.”  Unlike mainstream culture, they do not see pregnancy and birth as an arduous labour, only worthwhile for the child waiting at the other end, but as a joy in and of itself.  In short, surrogate mothers love being pregnant. Heather Jacobson, author of Labor of Love Gestational Surrogacy and the Work of Making Babies describes it this way:

Though I was impressed by Amber’s quick, energetic recovery, after time spent in the field I came to see how normal this was in the world of surrogacy. A refrain I heard many times was first shared with me by Tina Winmer, who had been a surrogate twice (both times with twins) in her mid- and late thirties, when she told me, “I carry very easily. It’s very easy on me. I don’t get sick, I don’t ache. And I recover very easily.” As a group, surrogates are skilled at pregnancy and birth—and they speak about pregnancy and birth as skills. Pregnancy and birth, participants in my study told me, were processes to be enjoyed and savored, a skill set that could be honed and practiced, and an entity in and of itself—not only a process that produces a baby, but an experience to be treasured. is why Amber and many of the other women in my study initially saw themselves as ideal candidates for surrogacy: they possess the necessary skill set and they enjoy using it—more than enjoy it, they told me they love it (Jacobson, 45).

This is a refreshingly positive image of surrogate motherhood compared to that of the heartless woman surrendering her child for money or else the exploited woman in poverty, selling her body in yet another way to survive.  What is more, according to Jacobson’s study, women more often have stronger altruistic motives than money related motives when they embark on a surrogacy (Jacobson, 59).

Cast in this light, surrogate motherhood looks good, even noble.  Yet, this more positive picture may not be enough to dismiss all disquietude one may have concerning surrogate motherhood and the way it takes the dignity of women into question.  Most specifically, is the fact that pregnancy “feels good” sufficient to confirm that a pregnancy interrupted is a good thing?  Even though the technical pregnancy ends at birth, the bond between mother and child created by that pregnancy requires further years of care and nourishment.  Is it possible that pregnancy is so pleasurable precisely to put that bond between mother and child into place?  Are the months of bodily intimacy designed to bleed into years of physical, intellectual, and spiritual proximity?  If pregnancy feels good because it is the beginning of an intimate relationship between family, then the good physical pleasure of pregnancy comes to no purpose in a surrogacy.  The woman who undertakes surrogate motherhood appears to separate the foundational joys of pregnancy from the developmental joys of raising a child.  Thus, a surrogate pregnancy would appear to be an interrupted relationship: A bond that started out as good and pleasurable, but could have yielded so much more good.

While the concept of surrogate motherhood does seem to strike at the wholeness of the mother-child bond, does it similarly strike at the dignity of women, as hinted above?  What is the unique dignity of women?  In a document appropriately entitled “On the Dignity of Women (Mulieris Dignitatem),” John Paul II turns to multiple gospel passages to elucidate this very matter.  His answer, most clearly summed up on page 37, is this: “[T]he dignity of women is measured by the order of love, which is essentially the order of justice and charity” (John Paul II).  A woman is a creature made to be a lover of God.  Her inherent empathy and sensitivity to the conditions of others have primed her to fall more deeply in adoration of her Maker.  In the daily world, this unique kind of love is made manifest in a woman’s vocation, her friendships, her wifehood, and her motherhood.  By that logic, it would appear that surrogate motherhood is harmonious with the dignity of women: she is carrying children, in itself a good thing, for those who cannot.  This does appear to be altruism on multiple levels, as the woman both bears children and serves her neighbor in one act.  Yet, no love can be dignified love if it is disordered.  If, as demonstrated above, a surrogate pregnancy interrupts the vital progression of love between mother and child, then it has already damaged the most precious sort of love that springs from motherhood.  Is this love in the order of charity?  Is it in the order of justice?  On a deep level, this kind of love fails to satisfy the qualifications that John Paul II intended in his definition and, thus seems in conflict with the dignity of the mother herself.

What is more, the perspective of surrogate motherhood as an act of charity is questionable.  In Jacobson’s study, many women voiced the concern that surrogate motherhood is a problematic route to take when there are so many children in crying need of adoption.  Eventually, these women got over their initial concern that surrogate motherhood is suboptimal as they recognized the intended parents’ desire to raise a child of their own lineage.  The need of those un-adopted children, however, is very great.  Their own family life was interrupted.  Surely God is calling someone to love them and to care for them.  Likewise, the pain of those couples unable to conceive is great.  They have a nurturing love placed within their hearts for a reason.  Yet, with no children on whom to bestow their love, that strong purpose seems to be foiled.  God, allowing good to come out of evil in so many other situations once again seems to be suggesting a solution to these sorrows.  In this way, the defects in one situation remedy the sorrows in the other.  Infertile couples who find themselves adopting unwanted children are able to exercise great charity.  They are called to great spiritual development as they selflessly address a real need much greater than the need to continue their own genetic line.  Once again, surrogate motherhood interrupts a God-given plan that would have benefitted many.

It is not harmonious with the nature of womanhood to interrupt a God-given family plan.  Rather, as Pope St. John Paul II puts it, a woman is first entrusted with the human person (John Paul II, 39).  This is a role of unimaginable dignity.  God’s love for the human race is far more intense and specific than his love for any other creature.  He created us in His image and likeness according to Genesis (1:27).  The human race obviously is important enough to God for Him to enact the incredibly personal event of the Passion and Resurrection.  To be first entrusted with something that God already considers so precious is nearly the most ennobling honour God can bestow.  To be the first member of the human family gives every woman a deep cause for joy and bestows a rich responsibility.  Such a role renders her the first safeguard of the family; its safety and its sanctity thrives or falls in her hands.  This much is obvious in the day to day world: absentee mothers tear their homes apart.  On a broader scale, mothers who separate the gestation of children from their rearing (or partake in any other practice that interrupts marital love and childbearing) tear the very concept of a human family apart.  When a woman, the heart of the family, undermines familial nature this deeply she runs the risk of causing scandal.  Such a scandal hurts the women’s children, the society in which they live, their spouses, but most deeply themselves.  As creatures entrusted with love and made for love, a betrayal of committed love harms women deeply.

It seems then that surrogate motherhood is never a morally upright practice in any terms.  The very act of conceiving a baby for the sole purpose of giving it to another (an important distinction) distorts the plan of love and bonding for which God gave women the power to birth.  Doing such a deed for money, is even more morally disturbing.  It is hard not to feel as if the woman is selling the child that grew within her, or at very least, renting her womb.  Both baby and womb are far too precious, destined for a far more dignified existence, to be treated thus.  No woman should feel compelled to undergo this degradation, and no government should put this kind of pressure on a woman.  While it may seem expedient to look at the ethical differences between traditional surrogacy (with the surrogate mother’s egg) and gestational surrogacy (with a foreign egg), both methods result in a baby who could not begin the process of mother love in the womb.  The genetics may differ, the surrogate mother may have a greater claim on a child with her own DNA. Ultimately, however, nobody truly owns the child.  The child should be treated with dignity, regardless of his genetics, and making a business transaction out of him/her does not respect that dignity.

On an individual basis, a surrogate mother may be heartless for giving over her child.  She may feel coerced by poverty.  These factors, however, are extrinsic factors to the act of surrogate gestation.  They constitute their own moral issues, and do not change the fact that surrogate gestation is an intrinsically hurtful act.  Thus, no matter how many variations of surrogate motherhood exist, the act always distorts the dignified role meant for a mother and child.

A woman’s role in a morally grounded society is strong, so much stronger than when we attempt to take morality out of the societal picture. Motherhood is just one expression of the nature of love belonging to a woman, but it is one that lies very close to her essence.  We should treat it as sacrosanct allowing nothing; not financial gain, not a desire for genetic correctness, not even ill-guided pity; to interrupt it.

References:

Field, Martha A. Surrogate Motherhood. Expanded ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Jacobson, Heather. Labor of Love Gestational Surrogacy and the Work of Making Babies New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2016.

John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem, Encyclical, 15 August 1988, <http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1988/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19880815_mulieris-dignitatem.html&gt;.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

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