A recent BBC News report, ‘Womb for rent: A tale of two mothers’, highlights the fact that the high cost of surrogacy in Europe and the US means that many Western women are outsourcing pregnancy abroad. The BBC World Service follows two women, Carolina and Sonal, as they come to terms with the emotional costs of surrogacy.
Carolina is an Irish woman unable to bear a child as a result of surgery for cancer of the cervix. Sonal is an Indian woman married to a vegetable vendor earning just £21 per month who agrees to carry Carolina’s child in exchange of a payment of £4,200 which will enable her to live more comfortably and provide education for her children.
The case is the tip of a growing iceberg of international surrogacy arrangements. On the surface it seems to be a win/win negotiation – one woman gets a much wanted child and another receives money for her children’s education – but beneath the surface it raises many complex ethical and moral questions.
Surrogacy literally means ‘taking the place of someone else’ and a surrogate mother carries a baby on behalf of another couple (often termed the ‘commissioning couple’) having agreed to surrender the child to them after birth.
Surrogacy is not illegal in the UK but surrogacy arrangements are not enforceable in law either and a child born as a result of surrogacy is legally the child of the surrogate mother, not the commissioning couple, even though one or possibly even both of them may be the baby’s biological parents through egg and/or sperm donation.
It’s an offence in the UK to advertise either that one is looking for, or is willing to be, a surrogate mother and any commercial interest in the arrangement is illegal. ‘Necessary expenses’ only can be reimbursed.
A similar situation operates in Ireland although surrogacy is illegal in other European countries like Germany, France and Italy. However in developing countries like India the laws are much more lax.
Once a surrogate mother has given up a baby to the commissioning couple, that couple then apply for a court ‘parental order’ which makes the child theirs. However if the surrogate mother doesn’t wish to part with the baby then there is effectively nothing the commissioning couple can do about it.
Surrogacy raises many issues from a Christian perspective. First there is the issue of exploitation, especially with international surrogacy arrangements where a rich couple from the West pay a large amount of money to a woman, often living in poverty, who must then endure the risks of carrying a pregnancy in developing world conditions. Then there is the commodification of childbirth. As Christians we believe that children are gifts of God whose welfare must be paramount. They are not commodities who can be bought and sold.
Third there are the complexities of family relationships to consider. There is, on the one hand, the emotional cost of parting with the baby whom you have carried throughout pregnancy and then questions of identity that the child might have later with respect to whom his or her real parents, brothers or sisters, or relatives really are. Not to mention issues of custody and inheritance rights.
Finally there is the question of whether surrogacy somehow breaches the integrity of the marriage bond. God’s plan for marriage is that of an exclusive monogamous, heterosexual, lifelong intimate relationship where children are brought up by parents to whom they are biologically related within families. The baby being carried by the surrogate mother may or may not be biological related to her and may be biologically related only to one of the two members of the commissioning couple.
Surrogacy is very different from adoption in that a child with confused parentage is being deliberately and intentionally created.
The cases of surrogacy described in the Bible also raise big questions for us about the wisdom of surrogacy for society and family relationships. Abraham’s wife Sarah used Hagar as a surrogate mother and Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel used Zilpah and Bilhah respectively.
But in both cases the surrogacy arrangements were embarked upon out of impatience a lack of trust in God’s promises. And there were ramifications for generations to come. The resultant intra-family hostility and conflict should ring loud warning bells for us. It is a sobering thought that, had Abraham been more patient and trusting, Ishmael, and hence Islam, might never have originated!
Having said that, every child born by whatever means is infinitely precious in the sight of God and worthy of love, protection and care.
The elephant in the room of course with the whole issue of surrogacy is perhaps why commissioning couples don’t simply adopt. And this brings us to the wider question of why there are so few babies under a year of age available for adoption in this country. I have recently highlighted that there is one baby adoption in England and Wales for every 2,235 abortions so perhaps our efforts should be directed to restricting abortion thereby making more babies available for adoption. There are also many children with special needs in foster care or in residential care homes who need adoptive parents.
Surrogacy raises many issues and there are solutions to childlessness that don’t involve negotiating its stormy waters.