How should Christians respond to surrogate motherhood?
AMONG the various forms of artificial reproductive technologies surrogate motherhood is arguably the most controversial. A surrogate mother is a woman who carries a child for an infertile couple.
There are basically two forms of surrogacy. In traditional surrogacy, the surrogate is inseminated by the husband’s sperm, generally because the wife for various reasons is unable to carry a child through pregnancy. In this case, the surrogate’s own egg is used, and she will be the genetic mother of the resulting child. The husband would be the genetic father of the child. If the husband’s sperm count is low, sperms from a donor would be used to inseminate the surrogate. In this case, the surrogate’s own egg is used, and she would be the genetic mother of the resulting child. But neither the husband nor the wife would be the genetic parent of the child.
In gestational surrogacy, however, the surrogate mother has no genetic ties to the offspring. Eggs and sperm are extracted from donors, fertilised in vitro and then planted into the uterus of the surrogate. Usually a gestational surrogate is needed when the woman who wishes to have a child is suffering from medical disorders that affect the ovaries such as endometriosis. A gestational carrier is used also when the woman who wishes to have a child is suffering from physiological impediments that are potentially life threatening, such as cardiac disease, brittle disease or if she has a history of ectopic pregnancies.
Gestational surrogacy is an expensive procedure that involves commitment on the part of the surrogate. In both cases, the childless couple pays the surrogate for her “services”.
From the Christian standpoint, commercial surrogacy must be prohibited because it reduces children to objects of barter by putting a price on them. The Christian maintains that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and must therefore be accorded proper respect and dignity. As unique creations of God, children cannot be treated fundamentally as “things” that can be bought or sold.
The objection to commercial surrogacy is therefore in line with objections against slavery, prostitution and human organ trading because all these practices violate human dignity. The Christian objection to commercial surrogacy in this sense resonates with the common wisdom that not everything can be bought and sold for a price. Conventional wisdom also insists that this principle must be maintained even if the commercialisation of these goods may produce good short-term results.
Commercial surrogacy also has the potential to be exploitative as very often the perfect arrangement involves a couple desperate to have a child and a low-income surrogate eager to make some money. Commercial surrogacy would also sometimes involve surrogacy brokers who might minimise cost in order to maximise profit. The exploitative potential of commercial surrogacy is also seen in the fact that it is more attractive to recruit potential surrogate mothers from among the poor, either from the native country or from the third world.
Howard Adelman, a staff psychologist of the Philadelphian agency Surrogate Motherhood Ltd, has pointed out that the surrogate mothers recruited often come from underdeveloped countries where food is a serious problem. Bioethicist Scott Rae describes this problem succinctly in his article entitled, “Brave New Families? The Ethics of the New Reproductive Technologies”: The combination of desperate infertile couples, low income surrogates, and surrogacy brokers with varying degrees of moral scruples raises the prospect that the entire commercial enterprise can be exploitative.
Surrogacy distorts the relationship between the woman and the child that she is carrying. This problem applies to both commercial and altruistic surrogacy, and is one of the most serious objections to the practice from the Christian standpoint. The ideal surrogate is the woman with the ability to give up the child that she is carrying easily, and this means that surrogacy sanctions the detachment of the woman from the child in her womb. This is clearly a distortion of the relationship between the woman and the child she is carrying and is strongly discouraged in a normal pregnancy.
The social ramifications of the distortion that surrogacy introduces by demanding female detachment from the child in utero can be very serious if surrogacy is widely accepted and practised in society.
Both commercial and altruistic surrogacy violate the traditional understanding of motherhood. A mother is traditionally defined as the woman who gives birth to the child. But since science is now able to separate the genetic and gestational aspects of motherhood, there is a now a debate as to whether motherhood should be defined in genetic or gestational terms. But even if the surrogate mother provides both the genetic material and the womb – as is often the case – the surrogacy contract forces the surrogate mother to give up her child, thus violating the basic right of mothers to associate with their children.
Most importantly, surrogacy violates the Christian understanding of marriage and the family because it entails the dissociation of husband and wife by the employment of the services of another person other than the couple to produce a child. For these reasons, The Catechism of the Catholic Church has rightly described such arrangements as “gravely immoral”.
Although infertility is a difficult cross for some couples to carry, it is something that they should in obedience accept. Just as God calls us to different vocations, God also gives us different gifts. To some couples, God has given the wonderful gift of children, to others not. The childless couple must realise that they can also serve God with their lives, perhaps in ways that couples with children could not.
‘Surrogacy distorts the relationship between the woman and the child that she is carrying. This problem applies to both commercial and altruistic surrogacy, and is one of the most serious objections to the practice from the Christian standpoint.’
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.