This August, a sensational story broke. An Australian couple, David and Wendy Farnell, contracted with a Thai woman to be a surrogate for their children. However, the Farnells took only one of the twins back home, a healthy girl. Left behind was the son they no longer wanted, Gammy, who was born with Down syndrome. Attempting to defend himself to a shocked world, Mr. Farnell said, “No parent wants a son with a disability.”
John Stonestreet offered a great BreakPoint commentary on the case, focusing on the malevolent consistency of a consumerist culture. We can have everything else “our way right away,” so why not children, too?
But I have a sense that most people don’t really grasp the profound social and moral implications of surrogacy. One reason is that we rarely hear about surrogacy apart from fantastic stories in the media, which are far removed from our everyday lives. Another is that we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and many celebrities have embraced surrogacy. These celebrities then become fabulous guests on far-too-influential talk shows.
Attorney Jason Adkins, who runs the Minnesota Catholic Conference and has battled surrogacy legislation in his state, told me, “You only hear from the surrogates who think it’s a great experience. You don’t hear from those who recognize its exploitative nature.”
I spent the summer talking with surrogacy experts and wrote about the subject for Citizen. The deeply exploitative nature of surrogacy was one of my most surprising findings, but there are other important considerations Christians need to understand about this little-known practice that is part of an effort to reshape the family in the 21st century.
1. Surrogacy is not benevolent, but exploitative
The popular surrogacy narrative is that of a childless couple getting altruistic help from a loving woman who just wants to give life to a family in need. This does occur, but the more common scenario is that of very wealthy people taking advantage of low-income women in need. Often, these low-income women are military wives.
Adkins puts it this way: “People that need money are being exploited by people of financial means. They’re being used to incubate a baby for them and then turn over the product when the product is ready to be delivered. You know, money has changed hands and a product has been delivered.”
Many of those I spoke with likened surrogacy to sex trafficking and prostitution. If there is hope for changing public perception about surrogacy, it will come by hammering home the point that women are not for rent and children are not for sale. What makes this particularly difficult for our culture is a slavish worship of the idea of choice.
“Choice,” however, is a poisonous concept with regard to surrogacy, says Kathleen Sloan, a pro-choice feminist who sits on the National Organization of Women board of directors. Sloan told me that many of the drugs used to hyper-stimulate a woman’s ovaries to produce eggs or to prepare her uterus for implanted embryos aren’t approved by the FDA for these uses. Further, no long-term studies have been conducted on the health risks to women being subjected to these drugs. Informed choice in surrogacy is a phantom.
2. Christians need a more robust life ethic.
Despite the clear commoditization of life inherent in surrogacy, there is significant division in the pro-life movement. In Louisiana, bills legalizing surrogacy have come to the governor’s desk for the past two years. Each time, they were sponsored and supported by pro-life legislators, opposed by other pro-life leaders, and vetoed by a pro-life governor. Why is this house divided?
Jennifer Lahl is the president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture and producer of the film “Breeders: A Subclass of Women?” She sees many Christians taking the stance that if technology allows otherwise childless couples to have children, it’s a good thing. However, for her, many folks aren’t asking the right questions. It’s not “Is all life sacred?” so much as “Is this in the best interest of the child?” To make her point, she refers to the more than 750,000 embryonic humans currently trapped in deep freeze.
Lahl believes the Bible is fairly clear in rejecting the idea of surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technology (ART):
“[The biblical sexual ethic] necessarily violates any of this third-party stuff—egg and sperm from other people and wombs from other people. Children are a gift and a blessing, not an entitlement and a right. I tell people often that these technologies are very much not pro-life. Why do we make so many embryos in the laboratory? One is because we lose a lot along the way. People say, ‘Well, you know, women naturally miscarry anyway.’ I say, ‘Yeah, but that’s something that just naturally happens. It’s not in our hands.’”
These divisions in the pro-life movement reveal a life ethic in need of refreshing. Gene Mills runs the Louisiana Family Forum and urged Gov. Jindal’s veto of the surrogacy bills there. He believes that our current approach may not be enough to stand against the powerful interests promoting ART. “There needs to be serious work on it. I believe the technology has overrun some of the foundations in terms of our understanding [of these matters],” he told me.
Adkins feels that we need more creative thinking when addressing these newer threats and points to John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” to guide all Christians, not just Catholics, on these matters. “Theology of the Body,” says Adkins, connects “the Biblical narrative with our experiences today and helps people understand God’s creation and his plan for us.”
3. Surrogacy is part of redefining the family.
We have already entered a brave new world of family. At the time of this writing a lesbian couple is suing a sperm bank for wrongfully giving them a mixed-race baby. In her article about this, Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute does not blame the lesbians but the “Sexual Revolutionary Elites for promoting their inhuman and impossible ideology that made these women feel entitled to the commodity they paid for.”
None of the people I spoke with felt that the LGBT movement was the main driver of surrogacy at this point, although all of them sensed that it was growing. Professor Michael Hanby, who teaches at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, however, crafted a rather chilling argument describing the necessity of ART to same-sex marriage. In order to appear like other families, same-sex couples need children, which must involve a third party due to biological constraints. His article is worth reading in full.
Also of grave concern are the legal ramifications of legalizing surrogacy relationships, particularly those allowing payments to mothers. Traditionally, the law has been extremely zealous in protecting the mother-child bond. Rather than protecting this relationship, surrogacy laws will create a legal framework for easily severing this bond, thereby creating state-sanctioned marketplaces for the procurement of children. Surrogacy is, after all, the intentional untethering of children from their biological parents.
Given the increasing overreach of the regulatory state and liberal philosophies that have already begun to view children as belonging to the state, do we really want to go down a path where we legally dismantle children’s right to be raised by their biological parents? It may seem a small and insignificant step now, but the potential for abuse is horrendous.
5. There is hope.
Much of the world has already recognized surrogacy as an exploitative practice. Many countries have banned it or limited it. In the United States, we have a patchwork of laws that vary from state to state. Surrogacy interests seem to be pushing legislation as quietly as they can at the state level. Perhaps they fear the national conversation that might happen if they push for federal recognition. Perhaps they fear bringing any of this to light.
This is where we can make a difference. Creating awareness and powerfully rearticulating our pro-life convictions seems to be the best antidote to this brave new world of designer babies. If Europe can ban the practice, so can we. We just need to show up and witness.
For More Information:
“State-by-State Surrogacy Summary,” The Center for Bioethics and Culture, August 2012.
Image copyright Serge Bertasius Photography via FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Daniel Weiss is the founder and president of The Brushfires Foundation, a nonprofit ministry working to ignite a Christian vision of sexuality, relationships, and the human person.