Talking to the Kids

I consider this a continuation of the last few posts about the darker sides of surrogacy.   (Just as a reminder, I don’t think surrogacy is inherently bad or wrong, but I do think it subject to abuse.  The recent stories illustrate the sorts of abuse I worry about.)

As I read about the Thai case one thing I noticed is that the focus of concern seems to be either Gamay (the infant boy who remains in Thailand) or Pattaramon Chanbua (the surrogate).   There isn’t much concern about the infant girl, who is presumably with the intended parents in Australia.    But the girl is who I want to think about here for a bit.

I suppose I should start by saying that I don’t have universal concerns about the well-being of children born of surrogacy.   I think the evidence gathered thus far shows that they, like children conceived/born other ways, are mostly just fine.   This is important because it means I don’t see the well-being of children as a general objection to all surrogacy.

But this doesn’t mean there’s nothing to think about.   As with adoption and use of third-party gametes, there can be better and worse ways of going about things.  (I mean better and worse from the point of view of the children.)

That said, I have some specific concerns in the Thai case that are noted at the end of that last post.   These relate to the particular facts of the case.  I could say more than I did in the last post about these specific concerns, but in the interests of brevity I think I’ll just stick with that for the moment.  Those specific concerns, however, lead me to a more general issue: honesty.

Some of you may recall that I am somewhat fanatical about the importance of honesty.   I have been deeply influenced in this by Adrienne Rich.   Rich persuaded me that 1) we usually lie to spare ourselves even though we say we do so to spare others and 2) lying is corrosive.  It eats away at the underlying relationship.

Now there have been long discussions about honesty here as it relates to the use of third-party gametes.  I’m not sure I can make any claim that there was anything like complete consensus, but I think it is fair to say that most of us agreed that when parents don’t tell their children they were conceived using third-party gametes they are creating a risk of possibly great harm.   There are countless stories of children discovering only late in life that their genetic parents are not the people they thought they were.  While some of these people produce brilliant documentaries, I don’t think it is generally a good thing.

I think the commitment to honesty carries over to surrogacy.   Given how interested young children are in the process of their gestation (“when I was in mommy’s tummy….”) I don’t see quite how you can get by without either lying to them (telling them they were in the IPs tummy, assuming there is a female IP) or explaining surrogacy.    Of course, “explaining surrogacy” is going to mean different things at different times and is up to the parents.  But it seems to me that if you’re not going to affirmatively lie (which surely violates my honesty principle) then you’re going to be explaining surrogacy, over and over, in ever-greater detail.

I think this is perfectly possible in instances where the intended parents have a good relationship with the surrogate.   I’m sure that people handle this in all sorts of different (positive) ways, some of which include direct engagement between the child and the surrogate.

But what about in cases where the IPs don’t even meet the surrogate?   Where they don’t know anything much about her life and can say nothing about her motives beyond the fact that she needed the money?   What about instances where the surrogate was an impoverished woman half a world away?   How do you explain that to a child, over and over?

Notice that this isn’t a problem peculiar to the Thai case.   It would arise in lots of the globalized surrogacy set ups.   I haven’t seen anyone write about this/talk about this, but I wonder about how to make the a positive and affirming backstory for the child.  And hence, I wonder about what the long-term consequences are.

7 responses to “Talking to the Kids

  1. Good post – in this case – I don’t think it is possible to make the story into something that sounds good without gaping holes and omissions that will be obvious over time.

    I think you (people that do it right) can say that without your wonderful caring surrogate mother who nurtured you for 9 months – we wouldn’t have been able to have you as our child. She read to you, sang this song to you, her name was Sherry, and she’d like to meet you one day if you want to meet her…etc, etc type of story. As long as it is always their story then it becomes their normal…

    Still haven’t taken the time to really dig deep to see how I “think” I’d feel, or my feelings on surrogacy when it is done right – but that would be how I think it could be told.

  2. First, let’s be clear that it’s only heterosexuals who would or can lie about this issue. Gay men who use surrogacy have to be honest and open about it with their kids. So, perhaps, heterosexuals should take a cue from gay men and how they deal with it.

    My experience has only been with gestational surrogacy and I’ve found the kids are much more interested in their egg donor than they are the surrogate. They simply don’t share much interest in the surrogate but are quite interested in the egg donor because there’s a biological connection.

    • True enough about gay men. It’s interesting to me that in a way gay men and lesbians who use ART have paved the way towards openness, not from any specific commitment to honesty but from necessity. Lesbians who are parents have to explain where the sperm came from. Gay men who are parents have to account for both womb and egg. Concealment is not an option. (The provider of gametes can be unknown, of course, but the existence of a third-party provider cannot be hidden.) To put this another way, gay men and lesbians cannot be in the closet on these matters and heterosexual couples can be.

      Further, in most cases heterosexuals had access to the technologies first and the early impulse was (at least with respect to gametes) towards concealment. Time and experience has shown, I think, that this is not the best course. And so now heterosexual couples often follow the path taken by lesbian and gay couples–at least as to gametes.

      The whole issue around secrecy is quite different with surrogacy. In some ways it is much more obvious that you used a surrogate–the female intended parent was pregnant, after all. But I still wonder about how one talks about this, especially in cases where you use an overseas surrogacy arrangement that seems sort of near-exploitation……

    • Tyson I agree. I have been contacted to find women who donated their eggs but not to find gestational surrogates.

      I think that as a kid gets older they might become interested in whether or not that woman was well treated or exploited. The interest in finding their biological mother has many practical implications because with her comes knowing who their maternal relatives are, knowing who to avoid dating, learning critical health information, heritage, all of equal importance to their biological father.

    • I do that the experiences of gay men and lesbians–who as you note have no choice but to be honest and above board–are illuminating. It wouldn’t surprise me if interest in the egg provider is greater than interest in the surrogate. But I wonder if that might change over time? And I also wonder if the difference between a surrogacy story where there is (or at least was) some positive relationship between the surrogate and the parents and the overseas stories where there is virtually no contact might matter. (I’m thinking here of the story parents must (honestly) tell their children about their birth/conception.) Suppose we come to see the position of at least some overseas surrogates as unacceptable. How would a child feel about carrying that origin story? I just wonder–I do not know.

  3. The story Intended Parents share with their Children often depends on where they are located. Most IP’s in the USA that worked with Surrogates in the USA are very open about the topic. In California we have 30 years of law that makes it legal and our laws pass unanimously. Our culture allows everyone to be open and honest about the process.

    Here is the book we have done for Children 2-6 years old and read to our 3 year old at a level she can understand:

    Compare that to places where the Intended Parents and Surrogates are facing jail time because it’s illegal and they are forced underground. There is a stigma against Surrogacy so they don’t share their involvement in the process.

    Those places are placing a scarlet “S” on the children born from Surrogacy which can’t be healthy.

    In countries like France where people are marching against the legal process of Surrogacy the heterosexual couples are often very quite about the fact that they did Surrogacy.

    This leaves the only people talking about Surrogacy publicly as the Gay couples that the public is most against becoming parents which makes it a more controversial subject.

    • It seems there are two separate points here, both of which I’m inclined to agree with. One is somewhat implicit and I’ve noted it before, but I think it is worth repeating: Gay couples who use surrogacy must tell their children something about the surrogate because the absence of a person with womb is obvious to everyone. (In the same way, lesbian couples have to account for the sperm that they use.) Thus, gay parents become (possibly involuntary) trailblazers.

      Two: Social context is critical. Surely those couples who have a choice are less likely to talk about surrogacy publically if it exposes them to opprobrium or potential criminal liability. I think it might be possible to draw this point out a little further. Even in places where people do often talk about surrogacy, different forms of surrogacy may be more or less “acceptable” and hence, more or less disclosed. What I’m thinking is that if you have a surrogacy arrangement that looks to a lot of people like exploitation, you might be less likely to talk about it. I’m thinking here of some of the overseas surrogacy arrangements.

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