Once again there is a story in the NYT about surrogacy. This one is about how people who have used surrogacy talk to their children about the children’s conception and birth. There’s many things I’d like to say about this one, though if I’m not sure they will all fit together into some grand point.
First off, the story includes some statistics I find astonishing. It reports that according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine–the relevant medical special organization–there were between 400 and 600 birth a year resulting from gestational surrogacy. (This is surrogacy where the woman who gives birth is not genetically related to the child. Instead, the egg comes either from one of the intending parents or a donor.) Now that is a tiny number. If you poke around the web or this blog you can find some data on the number of live births in the US per year. From this study it looks to me to be around 4 million births per year.
Now these numbers are disputed even within the article and I will accept that they are low. (I will note, though, that I am a bit skeptical of the statistics reported by someone whose income is dependent on the business of promoting surrogacy arrangements. They might have an interest in erring on the high side.)
But still, even if there are many more births, say ten times as many, that’s around 5000 births which is far less than 1% of all births. (Indeed, it is closer to .1%) In short, surrogacy remains a rare phenomenon. This really shouldn’t be surprising. Surely the cost of commercial surrogacy, which is very conservatively estimated at $30,000 in the article, is prohibitive to many.
Yet surrogacy gets vastly more attention in the press than mere numbers would suggest are warranted. This is doubtless driven by several factors: It’s novel and so more interesting than stories about more conventional ways in which people become parents (say, adoption). Famous people use it. There’s something sort of tittilating about it and so it likely sells papers and magazines. And there is a commercial industry that is doubtless working to place many of these stories.
For whatever reason or reasons, people seem to be paying attention to surrogacy, or at least they are frequently invited by the media to pay attention to it. And this may give surrogacy an outsized impact in shaping how we all think about who is a parent and why that is so.
That said, it’s interesting to consider the different ways people grapple with explaining surrogacy to their children. At the outset I’d note there seems to me to be no question that the people doing the grappling here are parents to their chidlren. It seems fortunate to me that none of them are confronting legal uncertainty akin to that encountered by lesbian mothers in Utah, say. But I do not mean to suggest that they should. As things have played out in the lives of these familes, the parents ought to be recognized as legal (or perhaps I should say “real?”) parents.
Part of the problem they confront is the unusualness of the birth/conception stories they have to tell their children. The common tropes (here identified with the stork) won’t do. And so like adoptive parents or lesbian parents or single mothers these parents need to think more consciously about what they will say, when they will say it, and how they will say it.
A critical problem for all of the families is clearly talking about the surrogate–the woman who was pregnant and gave birth. Being pregnant (or from the a common child’s point of view, being in Mommy’s tummy) is the focus of a good deal of attention in many family discussions of conception/birth. But these children were in someone else’s tummy.
Of course, the same is true for adoptive children. But surrogacy is understood to be quite different from adoption. In particular, and I’ve discussed this at some length in the past (check the surrogacy tags), the surrogate is not typically identified as a mother while the woman who gives birth and then allows her child to be adopted is identified as a mother. It’s the need to find some other descriptor that “mother” for the surrogate that creates the real challenge, I think.
I’m realizing there’s quite a bit more to say here, so I will stop for now with the hope of picking it back up tomorrow.