If you happened to have been down at Harbourfront in Toronto the last Thursday in May, you would have noticed an interesting event taking place in the Brigantine Room  a panel discussion on “Surrogate Motherhood.”

Moderator Jeffrey Wilson, family layer and author of Children and the Law, introduced the topic and then invited each panelist to express his or her views.  Interesting points were raised, most markedly the concerns of Margrit Eichler, a sociology professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, that surrogate motherhood really involved the commercialization of human beings – buying and selling babies!  How are we going to control this? She asks.  What will happen if surrogacy gets out of control and falls into the hands of money-hungry opportunists?

“Surrogacy involves a fundamental redefinition of parenthood.  It clearly redefines what it means to be a mother,” remarked Mrs. Eichler.  It is obvious even in our language – the male who donates sperm is termed the “father,” yet the woman who carries, and gives birth to the child, is termed the “surrogate” mother.  Why is the genetic link between father and child so emphasized, and the genetic link between mother and child so downplayed?  “Surrogacy has an enormous potential for women criticism and woman bashing,”  commented Dr. Caplan, a Toronto psychologist present in the audience.

Professor Eichler was joined by panelist Doris Anderson, high-profile feminist columnist in recommending that the only way to come to some conclusion about surrogacy, and the entire issue of reproductive techniques currently being used, would be to order a Royal Commission.

True and false

Present-day surrogacy consists of two possible surrogates – the true surrogate requiring embryo transplant, and the false surrogate who bears and gives up her own child.  Although surrogacy does date back to Biblical times, it generally involved slaves as surrogates, and the modern technological advancements were not a consideration.

Because so little time has elapsed since the first documented case of surrogacy in Canada )1978), it is impossible to know the long term effects.  What will be the effects on the surrogate, the siblings, the infertile wife, society at large, and the child, who will eventually learn that he or she is the product of a commercial sale.

Noel Keane, a U.S. attorney and Director of the Infertility Centre of New York, is responsible for some 30 “surrogate” children now residing in Canada.  It was Mr. Keane who arranged the contract in the landmark case of “Baby M.”

Mr. Keane stated that of the 163 cases in which he has personally been involved, only 3 have failed!  He didn’t elaborate on what he considers a “failure.”

Philip Epstein, a Toronto lawyer, first became involved with “surrogate” motherhood contracting in 1982.  He mentioned instances in which surrogate, with whom he was directly working, had attempted suicide, been involved in extensive psychotherapy at a later date, or whose husbands had rejected the child.

Awkward questions

During the question and answer period, the subject of congenital disabilities came up, not once, but several times.  The question was posed:  “What will happen if a child (in utero) is found to have congenital disabilities – are we going to abort them?”  This very important question was never fully answered by the panel, who seemed quite adept at curtailing its response.

What about the surrogate herself?  How will she be able to cope with handing over her own flesh and blood knowing full well that it is part and parcel of a commercial transaction?

Donna Regan, the “surrogate” mother on the panel, stated that surrogate is “not something that most women can do.  I knew, emotionally, that I could do it.”

Demeaning effect

Perhaps Mrs. Regan is presently comfortable with her status as “surrogate mother,” but her feelings could change with the passing of time.  And, while the surrogate does undergo some form of psychological testing prior to her being impregnated, to quote Dr. Caplan once more, “psychological evaluation is notoriously ineffective in predicting future feelings.”

While reading through the article, you no doubt noticed that money was not mentioned once.  The issue of who is paid how much, and for what, is not the major point of concern here.  What is important, is that we become aware of all the possible implications of surrogacy, and realize, that apart from offering childless couples an immediate solution to their infertility, there is much to be considered.

As one woman most poignantly put it, “surrogacy has a very demeaning effect on women – I do not want to see “womb for rent” in the newspaper – I abhor it.”

Surrogacy must not be viewed in the same light as adoption.  Adoption is a matter of a couple taking someone’s else’s child and raising it as their own, there are no biological complications as in surrogacy.

The child’s ability to understand the circumstances of his or her conception will inevitably lead to some “surrogate” children developing emotional problems.  As one psychiatrist wrote about Baby M, “The child will understand that the bottom line – which cannot be erased or rewritten – is that the natural mother, her own mother, sold her.  What is the fair price of this merchandise?…”

“The pain of adoption is not very public,” remarked one woman in the audience.  “I suffered many years not knowing who my real parents were.”

The panelists seemed reluctant to address the kind of concerns raised by this woman’s question.  Both Eichler and Anderson based their objections to surrogacy from the point of view of exploitation of women.  None of the panelists were willing to stick their necks out and state categorically that surrogate motherhood should be rejected outright and that parenting involves more than a couple’s desire to have a child.