My last post discussed a recent paper reviewing the empirical research about surrogacy. I think it’s an important paper because empirical research, if properly done, helps us understand how something is actually working the the real world. This allows us to evaluate whether our theoretical critiques are valid, or whether our theoretical concerns are born out in the real world.
The main point of the paper (authored by Professor Karen Busby and Delaney Vun) is that the three main feminist critiques of surrogacy are not, in fact, born out by the empirical research. Or at least not in the US, Canada and the UK, which is where the empirical studies were conducted. According to the paper, surrogacy does not lead to the exploitation of women generally or of women in any particular class/racial group.
Further, women seem to be generally capable of making the decision to become a surrogate and following through on that decision. The vast majority find the the experience of being a surrogate to be satisfying. It does seem that the relationship between the surrogate and the commissioning parents is important here.
Further, while there is certainly an extensive feminist critique about surrogacy as commodification, there is little evidence that the individuals (women and children) actually experience commodification or its effects. This, too, seems to tie in part to the relationship between the parties. This also might be the weakest of the conclusions, as the children involved are young.
I’ve returned to this topic again expand on one point I made yesterday and take it a bit further. It seems clear from the studies (and it makes intuitive sense to me) that the most critical factor in the overall success of surrogacy is the relationship forged between the parties involved. That suggests that the focus of regulation ought to be on ensuring a positive and respectful relationship between the surrogate and the commissioning party or parties.
Law/regulation cannot decree that the relationship must be a good one. But it can shape the conditions in order to encourage the formation of a good relationship. My own skepticism about surrogacy is rooted in a concern that the commissioning parents may reduce the surrogate to little more than a glorified babysitter. This, it seems to me, is highly undesirable.
At the same time, it seems to me that in a world of globalized commerce surrogacy will exist. If surrogacy is illegal in one place people will simply go to another. (India is one prominent center of out-sourced surrogacy.)
The descriptions of outsourced surrogacy strike me as far more troubling than the descriptions of home grown surrogacy. It seems to me far less likely that the surrogate in India will forge a positive relationship with the commissioning couple from a foreign land. Instead, it is far more likely that she is seen as just a hired servant–a handmaid in the worst sense of the world.
So it seems to me increasingly counter-productive to argue for the criminalization of surrogacy. Indeed, the authors of the paper add yet another reason for this view–since surrogacy is illegal in Canada, surrogate mothers are less likely to receive counselling and advice from professional sources. This means they are more vulnerable to exploitation.
We need to think in terms of constructive regulation rather than abolition of surrogacy. Insisting that the woman who gives birth is a mother (which is the position I’ve taken in the past) may not be the only way to accomplish this and it may not even be the best way. It’s worth thinking about alternatives.
I also wanted to toss out a question. I know many of my readers link parenthood to genetic connection. From this perspective it seems to me that where an embryo is created from the genetic material of a male/female pair of commissioning parents and is then transferred into surrogate, the parents of the child are the commissioning parents. But at least some of the same readers have also expressed concerns about commodification and the ART industry, of which surrogacy is clearly a part. I’m wondering how those concerns fit in here.