The recent surrogate birth to Federal Labor MP Stephen Conroy and partner has reignited a long-standing debate about the ethics of surrogacy. As with all the new reproductive technologies, there are many moral, social, medical and relational concerns to take into account.
But all too often, if technology and science can do something, we assume it should be done. But of course just because something can be done is not in itself a reason to give it the green light. The complexities and rapidity of change in the new biotechnologies makes it hard for average folk to know how to properly think about them, let alone keep up with what is simply happening.
But given that these new developments deal with such an overwhelmingly important issue – human life – it is imperative that we give concentrated and careful attention as to just what is happening here. Such issues cannot be rushed through, but require informed and multi-layered reflection.
As to the Conroy case, there have already been a number of opinion pieces written, both pro and con. One article which urges caution appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 8, 2006, by Melinda Tankard Reist.
Entitled, “Motherhood deals risk deeper anguish,” she begins by asking an obvious question: “How do you critique Australia’s latest surrogacy case without looking heartless? The ALP senator Stephen Conroy and his wife, Paula Benson, are the happy parents of Isabella, born on Monday night. Of course, no one begrudges her birth.”
But, insists Tankard Reist, serious questions must be addressed. One concerns the “fragmentation of motherhood, with a genetic mother supplying the egg that was fertilised, the gestational mother who carried the baby in her womb and the parental mother who will raise the child. Children born this way can suffer genealogical bewilderment and the confusion of not being raised by their birth mother, of having been conceived to be relinquished.”
Women once again seem to become just manufacturing fodder here, mere parts of the reproductive assembly line. “Surrogacy views women as disposable uteruses, merely containers or public utilities for someone else’s babies. This dismantling of motherhood says there is no essential bond between a woman and the baby she carries under her heart for nine months.”
And many women who have contributed to the surrogacy process have made just such complaints: “Sydney surrogate mother Shona Ryan told a conference: ‘I had to forget I was pregnant. In some ways I felt sorry for this baby that it didn’t receive the same attention [as my others]. I had to deny the pleasures of pregnancy.’ And some mothers can’t bear to part with the child they birth. Mary Beth Whitehead, surrogate mother in the famous Baby M case in the United States, said: ‘Something took over. I think it was just being a mother’. Jane Smith from Sydney said of the son she carried: ‘I couldn’t let him go’.”
Even in processes like adoption there is real grief over the child given up: “We now accept that mothers who have relinquished their child for adoption – once told to forget any attachment to their child – can suffer terrible grief. . . . Yet with surrogacy and other IVF procedures involving donor egg, sperm and womb, we are denying this maternal bond.”
And there are also health risks which should not be overlooked: “ovaries swollen to the size of grapefruit, stroke, organ failure, ovarian cysts and, in the long term, infertility and cancer. Some women have died. Many women are surprised at how intrusive and stressful the process is.”
And there is the whole issue of dehumanisation which is involved. Says Tankard Reist, “In the US commodification of a child has become an art form. A journalist, Bill Wyndham, pretending to be a single, HIV-positive gay man, was told by a surrogacy company he’d make a perfect dad. He was, however, not allowed to adopt a puppy from the dog pound.”
Concludes the author: “The national trend in Australia has been against the legal recognition of surrogate motherhood for a reason. Of course we want Conroy and his family to thrive. But we cannot deny that for many surrogate mothers and their children there is no happy ever after.”
Quite right. My own concerns about surrogacy were penned back in 1995 and can be seen on this website: billmuehlenberg.com/1995/03/02/womb-to-let/
It is of course natural to want children. The question is, how far can we go in using unnatural means to obtain them, before the social, ethical and health costs begin to go up too highly?