A Philosopher's Blog

The Ethics of Surrogacy

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 13, 2008

The April 7, 2008 issue of Newsweek has an interesting article on surrogacy. Naturally enough, this got me thinking about the ethics of the matter. Surrogacy, in this context, is when a woman bears a child for someone else. In the past, the typical surrogacy occurred when a wife could not bear children for her husband. The husband would then impregnate another women who would bear the child. The most famous example of this occurs in the bible when Hagar serves as a surrogate for Abraham’s wife Sarah. Sticking with the biblical theme, this sort of surrogacy could also be seen as adultery.

Technological advances have enabled a woman to bear the child of another without going through the “usual” process of impregnation. This typically involves in vitro fertilization (IVF). In some cases, the surrogate mother provided the egg, but this is now rarely done-due to the famous Baby M case. In the Baby M case, Mary Beth Whitehead was the biological mother of the baby (having provided both the egg and the womb) and decided she wanted to keep the child. Because of the legal and ethical mess of that situation, most surrogacy contracts forbid the woman who will bear the child from donating the egg.

Not surprisingly, there are many moral concerns regarding surrogacy.

Those who embrace “traditional” values often see surrogacy as morally problematic because it seems to run contrary to the traditional view of the family. To be specific, it strikes some as wrong for a mother to give birth to a child for another and then hand the child over. This, some would say, damages the traditional bond between mothers and children.

The usual counter to this is that surrogacy, if properly done, is actually a pro-family action. This is because it allows people to have children and hence a family. Another counter is that this same line of thought would seem to entail that adoption is morally wrong.

Some feminists oppose surrogacy on the grounds that it transforms a woman into a commodity-a baby machine in service to those with the money to rent a woman. Some feminists thinkers compare this to a form of prostitution and those with Marxist leanings also bring in the class aspect as well (the rich exploiting the poor).

This is a reasonable concern and it would be an evil thing if women were forced to serve as breeding machines. However, the typical surrogacy situation does not seem to be morally problematic in this way. The women choose to be surrogates, they are paid well and most of them seem to be very positive about the experience. As such, while the feminist concerns are well worth keeping in mind, they do not seem to have much force in regards to a normal surrogacy situation.

There are also those who criticize surrogacy in terms of class. The process of IVF and surrogacy can be very expensive and hence is an option only for those who are wealthy. The women who choose to be surrogates are typically in the lower income range (though not always) and there is a growing trend in the use of surrogate mothers in countries like India (where surrogacy is cheaper). This raises a concern that this is yet another case in which the wealthy are exploiting those who are in financial need.

This is a reasonable concern and one that is worth keeping a close eye on-especially as surrogacy spreads to the Third World. However, the usual situation does not seem to be one of exploitation. Those who seek out surrogates seem to do so mostly because they cannot have children (as opposed to, as some have suggested, just a desire to avoid the rigors of pregnancy). Those who are surrogates are obviously motivated in part by the money, but so far the usual situation is that the surrogate is seeking extra income as a supplement as opposed to desperately selling themselves for cash. Further, many of the surrogates seem to be motivated by a desire to help others in need.

As noted above, those who are critical of surrogacy do have legitimate concerns. Currently, most surrogacy occurs in the United States (it is illegal many other places) and hence the surrogates are well protected by American law. However, as surrogacy starts to spread to the Third World, it would be wise to keep a close watch on how it develops. Women are already horribly exploited around the world and the last thing they need is yet another way to be exploited.

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10 Responses

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  1. Rayven, 2x gestational surrogate said, on April 13, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Nice post.

    A few comments:

    Traditional surrogacy, where the surrogate donates the egg, is still very common, especially for couples who cannot afford expensive IVF treatments.

    Most surrogates (most, not all) are in the upper-middle class income range (in other words, we don’t need the money at all), and many have annual household incomes that match those of the intended parents who need them. Many surrogates reduce, sometimes even eliminate their fees in order to help parents who are not wealthy.

    And this whole outsourcing to India thing is very concerning, as those women are essentially being offered a lottery winning to become a surrogate (in their currency). I feel that they have less choice about it due to that “windfall” factor, and could be easily exploited.

  2. julieshapiro said, on April 14, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    I, too, have been thinking about surrogacy,on my own blog (also at wordpress–julieshapiro.wordpress.com) Probably because I am a law professor I tend to think in terms of what the law encourages/promotes. So, for example, the problem with “traditional surrogacy” is that the woman who gives birth to a child she is genetically related to is legally a parent of the child. That said, she cannot be forced to abide by any agreement to give up the child (that would amount to baby-selling). By contrast, the law in some states constructs a gestational surrogate as “not a parent” who can therefore be forced to keep her end of the bargain.

    Despite the fact that many women act as surrogates for a mix of reasons, including those we might label altruism or compassion, I’m afraid surrogacy in the US is largely shaped by large commercial surrogacy centers. While surrogacy centers may also be driven by a combination of motives, there’s little question that one of them is the profit motive. It seems to me introducing that into the calculus is a bit problematic.

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  7. Grace Lewin said, on October 31, 2016 at 7:07 am

    It´s important to have a clear comprehension about surrogacy. It’s a well-known fact that in such countries as Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, America gestational surrogacy is allowed. A lot of people wonder if it’s moral to give birth and give child to foreigners. In addition to receive financial compensation for such deal. If you consider surrogacy to be immoral and inhuman maybe it’s only because you have never faced with infertility problem. And it is certainly good. Surrogacy is the only way to become biological parents for infertile couples who cannot conceive a child in a natural way. And there is nothing reprehensible in this situation. After all, we have nothing against a donor kidney for ill patient, prosthesis instead of amputated leg .The question is not in the desire to keep a figure 90/60/90, and not a whim, caused by the presence of multi-million accounts. Infertility is a global problem that visits every fifth family, according to the world statistics.So, to my mind women who give birth are worthy of respect and proud.

  8. Jennifer MacAlister said, on December 15, 2016 at 10:01 am

    For me it`s difficult to understand why so many women prefer to hide their children. I faced infertility like many of them. My daughter was born with the help of IVF technologies. Of course, we also had a lot of complications and failures. Finally I gave birth to healthy and beautiful child. Why should I conceal her? And especially from relatives. On the contrary I want to share my happiness with them. My parents experienced a sort of psychosocial distress like I am. They encouraged me on each stage of my attempts. I`m grateful for their help. And how can I forbid my dear mom and dad to see my daughter, to spend time with her. They had the opportunity to see their granddaughter whenever they want. I overcame a lot of difficulties and wants to be sure that the baby will be okay. I can`t imagine the final of my story without their support.


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