Karen, a friend who watches over the Facebook page for a film Jennifer Lahl and I made, “Anonymous Father’s Day,” recently posted a HuffPost Personal article titled, “I Chose To Be A Surrogate Mother. I Didn’t Know It Would Break My Heart.”
The author, Lindsay, became a surrogate mother in her early 20s, without ever having children of her own. Her first pregnancy was a surrogate pregnancy. It was a traditional rather than gestational surrogacy, meaning she used her own egg rather than a donor egg. She did another surrogate pregnancy, giving birth for the second time 15 months later, before having a child that she kept “as a single mom by choice.”
A number of ethical issues are glaringly evident in her case, some of which the author freely acknowledges. For example, she admits that in becoming a surrogate mother without having given birth previously she was “throw[ing] convention to the wayside,” and that in doing a second surrogacy so soon after the first, “Any therapist would tell you I was recreating trauma to gain some semblance of control over the situation the second time around.”
Of course, surrogacy advocates will argue that current “best practices” in surrogacy require a woman applying to be a surrogate mother to have already had a successful pregnancy and delivery, and that gestational surrogacy, where the egg that is used is not the egg of the surrogate mother, should be done instead of the traditional surrogacy. But, as we will see, neither of these so-called best practices address the ethical issues raised by surrogacy.
Indeed, using an egg that is unrelated to the surrogate mother actually introduces more problems. The resulting child is further separated from his or her biological ties and with that from his or her medical history. In addition, studies show that women pregnant with donor eggs have a more than three-fold risk of developing pregnancy-induced hypertension and pre-eclampsia.
I want to take a step back from the detail of this surrogacy case and think about the larger ethical picture on display here. In doing this, I’m not trying to read this woman’s mind. I’m simply trying to understand what she’s saying in her article.
Perhaps most obviously, there’s a bit of consequentialism or utilitarianism on display. Lindsay’s line of thinking seems to go something like this: I see that these couples, for whatever reason (one is same-sex, the other we’re not told), cannot have children on their own. I can (probably) have a child for them. I believe this will make them happy. I believe this will make me happy. Increasing happiness is good.
We might ask, however, what about the rights of the child — called Natalie in the article — to know her mother, to be held, cared for, breastfed by her mother, to know her biological kin, to know her family medical history? And what about Lindsay’s rights: her right to hold the baby she carried for nine months, to exercise the gifts of mothering in caring for Natalie?
Of course, this is one of the largest problems with ethics today: How do we compare and decide between the happiness (utility) that results from bringing Natalie into the world and handing her over to her dads one the one hand, and the rights of the baby and mother on the other hand? How much utility outweighs the rights of another? How many rights does it take to overcome the happiness of taking home a baby?
The fact is, there’s no way to decide. Utility and rights are simply not comparable in this way. Happiness cannot be calculated or quantified, nor can rights. The concept and assertion of human rights in the 20th century is, without a doubt, a great achievement of humanity. It has led to great gains for many people around the world. But that does not mean that the concept of rights is unlimited.
The comparison between rights and utility (or consequences or happiness) is why so many of today’s ethical debates are an endless back and forth. It’s what breeds so many protests. The “winner” is the side that gains the most attention, that wins the most people to its view, that is able to grasp the power to make the other side give in.
A better approach would involve, at least, stopping to consider how or whether surrogacy serves our shared human future. The tag line of organization for which I work, The Center for Bioethics and Culture, is “For our shared human future.” We mean that medicine, biomedical research, and biotechnological advancement must all be ultimately in service of the whole of humanity, present and future.
Asking how or whether surrogate motherhood serves our shared human future raises questions of what it means to be human and what human relationships are for. What kind of people do we want to be? What meaning is there to procreation, to childhood, to parenthood? How does surrogacy support and nurture human relationships? How does it enhance childhood?
My suggestion is that what Lindsay is demonstrating, albeit unintentionally, is that there is something deeply flawed about surrogacy, right at the level of human relationship. She writes, “As the newly minted dads drove home from the hospital with baby in tow, I drove to my own home with empty arms and a broken heart.” And how do we think Natalie felt at that same moment? Think about that.
The truth is, surrogacy does not serve human relationship; surrogacy severs human relationship. That damages our shared human future. What kind of ethics justifies this? A kind of ethics that is primarily concerned with making myself happy. In more technical language, philosophers would say it is an ethics of maximizing preference satisfaction.
In her own words, Lindsay says she became a surrogate because, “After watching a news segment on surrogacy one evening, I turned to my partner at the time and said, ‘I want to do that.’” Maximizing preference satisfaction. Making myself happy.
Dr. Farr Curlin, recipient of the 2018 Paul Ramsey Award for Excellence in Bioethics, talked about our current moral climate in his acceptance speech. He said:
We reflexively affirm the idea that the most important thing for each individual is to live out their authentic self-development by making the choices that they feel is right for them. This idea is felt deeply in our culture — You be you; no one can tell you who to be.
In other words, my moral choices express what I want and, ultimately, who I am. It’s an ethics of, “I want to do that.” When those moral choices are to make use of or to be a part of third-party reproduction (egg donation, sperm donation, surrogacy), what’s left in the wake are harms, hurts, and even brokenness. Simply watch our films. Or read the discussions on our Anonymous Father’s Day page or our #StopSurrogacyNow page.
There is another way, but it means that we look beyond our wants, that we take into account much larger considerations about human life, human relationship, and our shared human future. Today, that means being deeply, deeply countercultural.