Surrogacy, Individual Variation and Autonomy

I’m having a bit of a hard time getting back in the groove, partly because I feel behind and also slightly out of focus.   Today I’m going to try to write through an idea that’s be knocking around my head for a bit. 

In several areas I’ve written about, it seems to me that there is wide variation in human responses.   For example, some women are successful surrogates–they undertake a pregnancy for another person or a couple, turn the baby over to that couple when it is born, and find the whole thing a rewarding experience.   Other women cannot imagine doing this.   (I’m prepared to believe them when they say they’d never be able to.)  Similarly, I accept that some people conceived with sperm from a third party feel a deep need to find and perhaps have a relationship with that third party.   But it also seems quite clear to me that some people do not feel this need.  

Additionally, some women and men provide gametes for other people and have no regrets about having done so.   They may even think of it as an act of compassion or generosity.   But other people would never do this. 

The conclusion I’d reach from all this is that people vary in their attitudes and responses towards assisted reproductive technology.   Some people are comfortable with things that other people could not abide.  And if I put it like this, can it possibly be news?   The question is what should follow from this observation. 

For the moment, I’m going to narrow my focus to surrogacy.   (I’ll come back to the others in a later post.  I think there may be some significant differences I need to think about.) 

It seems to me that my analysis suggests that surrogacy ought to be permitted.   I can see the social utility of the practice.  My main concern has been the well-being of the women who become surrogates.  And if, as seems to be the case, there are women who find being surrogates not merely tolerable but actually rewarding, then it seems to me my concern cannot justify barring the practice.     

There is, however, a remaining risk which merits discussion.   It seems inevitable that from time to time a woman contemplating surrogacy will think she is in one group (those who find surrogacy a positive and rewarding experience) and hence agree to be a surrogate, only to discover she is actually in the second group (those who cannot comply with the requirement of giving up the child when it is born).   If (and really more likely when) this happens, one can be left with a very unfortunate situation.  This is when litigation results.

Obviously if one is going to permit surrogacy, one must try to minimize this risk.   You could certainly eliminate the risk by prohibiting surrogacy.     But while I am concerned about the well-being of the women who may contemplate surrogacy, I also believe in supporting women’s autonomy.   I believe women are competent to make about whether or not to be surrogates.   I would not bar the practice in order to protect women from themselves, as it were. 

What is really required is that women contemplating being surrogates have a fair degree of self-knowledge.  They must know themselves well enough to decide whether they can do what is required.   But I doubt many women undertake surrogacy without some serious consideration.    

They may also need information on which to base their decision.   But I am mindful here of the ways in which those opposed to abortion have sought to transform requirements of consent into opportunities for coercion.   There’s a critical difference between procedures honestly intended to help women understand the obligations they are undertaking and those intended to dissuade women from undertaking them.  

I’m actually surprised to find that I know see allowing surrogacy as one way of asserting women’s autonomy, but I suppose it makes sense.   I tend to believe in human agency.  I don’t believe that women and men are narrowly programmed to act in particular ways at particular times.   I believe in individual variation and in our own abilities to find those variations which most suit each of us.


3 responses to “Surrogacy, Individual Variation and Autonomy

  1. The term “surrogate mother” is a bit of a misnomer isnt it? Webster’s defines a surrogate as “a substitute for” so a “surrogate mother” is “a substitute for” a mother. I’ll think outside my narrow DNA colored box and say that if one starts with the premise (as you typically do) that to be considered a mother one must first act as a mother and undertake the performance of caring for and nurturing a child, it becomes abundantly clear that gestational and traditional surrogates are not substitutes for mothers. The object of both types of surrogacy is for the surrogate is to grow an embryo into a fetus NOT care for and nurture a child.

    I’d also like to bring some much needed clarity to the term surrogate. I like to unload it and strip it of all the genetic and contractual implications, strip it of who paid who and boil it down to pure science because people want to pay or get paid to be on all sides of this thing:

    If a woman’s own fertilized egg gestates in her own womb it means that a surrogate (substitute) body was not involved in the pregnancy or delivery.

    If a woman’s own fertilized egg gestates in the womb of another woman, it means that a surrogate (substitute) body was involved in the pregnancy and delivery.

    The above is just a plain biological fact the substitute part has to do with whether the fertilized egg grows in a body other than the one it came from – a substitute body. I know that women with DE pregnancies don’t like to think of themselves as surrogates for the egg donors because they are paying for the pregnancy experience and intend to raise the child, but in cold hard fact their body is a substitute for the body the egg came out of. Now I’m not going to say I think it makes that woman a surrogate mother – I think it makes her a surrogate for the other woman’s pregnancy. Once the child is born, based on your performance based theory, that woman need only nurture and care for the baby she delivered to be considered its mother. (I don’t know that I agree with that but I can take that position for the moment)

    Now what I find interesting is that traditional surrogates are not substituting their bodies for the body of another person durring pregnancy nor are they offering to substitute themselves for another person in the performance of nurturing and care of a child which according to your theory qualifies one to be a mother. The fertilized egg gestates in the body it came from so there is no substitution for the womb of the body the egg came from and she is not caring for or nurturing a child which would be required to qualify as a mother under your test…..Traditional surrogacy would more aptly be described as a contract procreator, someone paid conceive, gestate and relinquish.

    In my thinking an adoptive mother is truly substitute mother because she is substituting for the woman whose offspring she’s raising. A wet nurse could be considered a substitute mother because she’s substituting for the woman who’s offspring she’s nursing, but the traditional surrogate? Conceiving a baby with a man for money so that he and his wife or partner or just him can raise it without her once born makes a woman a horse of a different color.

    • I see what you are saying and certainly there is the potential that “surrogate mother” is misleading. I think many in the surrogacy community/industry don’t use the term. They might say “gestational carrier” instead of any form of surrogate mother. I think that is because a surrogate mother is a mother of some sort, and many people involved in surrogacy would stand by the assertion that the pregnant woman is not and will not be a mother.

      All of which is to say I think the language is contested and important. I suspect I have used the “surrogate mother” language too freely without delving into all this (at least in my most recent outings) and so I’m glad you raised the question.

      I can see ways in which surrogate mother is the right term. A surrogate mother is substituting for someone else who will become the parent of the child. Put slightly differently, she is pregnant on someone else’s behalf–the someone else being an intending parent.

      I happen to like the inclusion of the word “mother” in the phrase, at least for the moment, because I think the acts of pregnancy and childbirth are acts of mothering. But I’m going to get round to this in my next post so I won’t go on about that here.

      As I’ve written somewhere in the past, I am increasingly reluctant to distinguish between gestational surrogacy and traditional surrogacy. (It’s here:

      I’m sure it is unsurprising that I don’t agree about an adoptive mother being a surrogate. I understand why you say this, I think, but I disagree. Perhaps I would be happier not even saying “adoptive mother”–which might suggest that she is some subspecies of “mother.” Maybe it is better to say “mother by adoption” and then “mother by birth” or “mother by [fill in blank]” to suggest that these are all equally mothers and the difference is how they got to be that way. Just an idle thought–perhaps I’ll spin that one out another time.

  2. I appreciate that you are giving it some thought.

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