Although the fuss about Mary Beth Whitehead and her baby “M” has subsided, whenever I think about “surrogate” motherhood two items from the testimony at the Baby M custody-court hearing spring to mind. According to one of the psychiatrists who testified against her, Mary Beth was not an approved mother because she provided the baby with soft cuddly toys to play instead of pots and pans and wooden spoons. Another mark against her was that she coloured her hair. Apparently this showed her lack of maturity!
Mary Beth Whitehead may be forgotten but the surrogacy issue is far from fading away. In February, the National Association of Women and the Law called for federal legislation to make surrogacy contracts legally enforceable. This came shortly before a report from the Law Reform Commission (LRC) announced that at least 118 babies had been born through surrogacy contracts involving Canadians. This figure, the report’s authors noted, represents “a very conservative estimate which probably greatly underestimates the real extent of the phenomenon.”
The surrogacy issue involves so many problems: artificial insemination, exploitation of the biological mothers, buying and selling babies, the psychological effects on the children as they grow up, and the inaccuracy of the term “surrogacy” itself.
Now, a surrogate is a deputy or substitute. So the woman who formally adopts the child is the surrogate; the woman who gives birth to the child is the biological mother. Because most cases involve a payment to the mother, we could call her a “mercenary mother” which certainly covers the financial angle. But many “mercenaries” claim their main motive is compassion for the childless couple who wants a baby biologically related to one of them.
Perhaps an enterprising Interim reader will coin an appropriate term. Whatever you call it, “surrogacy” exploits women – which explains why the feminist groups oppose it. The LRC report confirmed earlier speculation that those who enter into “pre- conception contracts” are usually women from lower social and economic levels. Most have finished only high school, most hold service or blue-collar jobs, some are home-makers. Their husbands (if any) hold blue-collar or low-level management jobs. By contrast, the couples who hire them tend to be professionals, both spouses working. The biological mothers tend to be Roman Catholic or Protestant, the hiring couples most often Jewish, followed by Protestant, then Roman Catholic. The LRC found no Jewish biological mothers.
A few women agree to bear a child for a relative or friend; the rest make financial arrangements through U.S. agencies. The couple pays the mother $10,000 plus legal and medical expenses. To avoid legal complications, some mothers have given birth in Canadian hospitals using the name and medical insurance number of the adoptive mother.
Those are the bald facts. They don’t even begin to show the tangle of emotional effects these contracts have on those intimately involved or on society at large. Adopted children often feel angry at and resentful towards their natural mothers for “abandoning them.” Nor do mothers give up their children for adoption without emotional effects. Giving a baby up for adoption is a real act of love by the natural mother. How would you react if you learned you were the product of a business relationship? How would a child react? Mary Beth Whitehead showed us that “mercenary” mothers sometimes want to keep their newborn babies and suffer greatly when forced to give them up. If the mother is married, how does her husband cope with his wife bearing another man’s child? The usual trappings of adultery may have been sidestepped by using a syringe, but many difficulties remain – to say the least. If the couple has other children, how do they cope with their half brother or sister being sold? Is anyone even asking these questions publicly, let alone finding answers?
Artificial insemination has been rejected as permissible for Roman Catholics by Pope John Paul II. It is scandalous, therefore, to find Catholic women, Catholic couples, entering into these contracts. Two quotes from the Pope’s “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation” will briefly illustrate the matter. First, he says, “the fidelity of the spouses in the unity of marriage involves reciprocal respect of their right to become a father and a mother only through each other.” He continues, “the child has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up within marriage. It is through the secure and recognized relationship to his own parents that the child can discover his own identity and achieve his own proper human development.” Catholics are bound to follow Church teaching, not to treat it as an interesting ethical position or to reject it if infertility or inconvenience interferes.
Buying and Selling
I thought buying and selling human beings went out with slavery. I thought treating women as “breeders” went out with the women’s movement. This new dehumanizing of people only pretends compassion for the childless. It must be ended before it becomes entrenched. Mary Beth Whitehead has written a book to persuade women not to become surrogates. She says, “These girls stand up publicly and say, ‘It’s wonderful. I’m giving the gift of life.’ I have great sympathy for people that are infertile, but a life is not something you can give away.” Or sell.