A selfless act?
While browsing Instagram, an image jumped out at me. A woman and her husband stand beside the bed of an exhausted mother who has given birth to twins. The woman, identified as the #IP (intending parent) has her hands clasped in prayer or gratitude. Her husband is leaning over looking as exhausted as the new mother.
Posted by a surrogacy agency, the photo features the photographer’s comments. (Yes, the IPs hired a photographer to cover the event.)
The photographer says: “Previous to witnessing this surrogate birth I found myself wondering – isn’t it hard to give up the babies you grew from nine months? Isn’t it hard to recover from birth without the end reward of a sweet baby to care for and love? What about your milk production? And so on. But now I understand. Surrogacy is a selfless act, and the definition of selfless is to be concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own. That’s a beautiful thing to witness.”
A selfless act is the bugle call of surrogacy.
Framing the work of one woman growing children for another as selfless is essential. Because if it’s not altruistic or selfless, then it’s paid work.
But when we discuss the ethics of paying surrogates, we balk.
The Creative Love Agency who posted the image does pay. But it’s like a peppercorn rental: That exhausted woman will get $1000 for clothes and $5000 for the babies, and maybe a few other costs covered.
It’s hard enough carrying a single baby for nine months, let alone twins, but $555 a month must not be enough to break the selfless ceiling. You have to ask why we value this work so low and why we need to frame it as altruism and selflessness.
The reason is simple. Society believes if you were to pay real money for growing a baby that would turn the child into a commodity.
The child is already a commodity. The ethical issue of paying or not paying is a smokescreen.
Because it is the demand for a child that turns it into a commodity. Not the payment of fees.
In economics, they use the equation ‘demand = desire + ability to pay + will to spend’ to quantify if something is a commodity.
The demand for babies is ancient. In Genesis 30:1 Rachel pleads with Jacob, “give me a baby or I will die.” She instructs him to bed her maid. Bilhah is forced to carry two sons for Rachel. After that Bilhah disappears from history, her sex and surrogate work forgotten.
Not much has changed in the idealogy of entitlement,
It’s the same as when they took me from my single mother and placed me with a married couple mid last century. Their infertility and desire for a child created the demand.
That demand saw an entire group of young, single, pregnant women turned into suppliers.
They used the same words the back then too. It was an act of altruism and selflessness to ‘give away’ your child. People still say to me “but your mother gave you away.”
But ask one of those mothers today and you’re likely to hear a different story. How they were shamed, pressured and coerced into providing the cure for infertility.
Now that we have science to create our babies to meet that demand we imagine things are different.
Unless you ask someone like Gracie Crane, a woman conceived from a donor embryo. Interviewed by a newspaper in 2014, Gracie was one of the first donor conceived babies in the UK.
Now, annoyingly, she is no longer a baby. And she is not happy.
Like adopted people in New Zealand, she also has no right to her biological history.
Gracie says “If I cannot be looked after by somebody I am genetically part of then I don’t feel I’m part of a family. Families are like packs, they look alike, but I don’t resemble anybody I know. I brought a friend home from school recently and I’d never told her how I came to be born, so when she saw my parents, I think she was quite shocked. I tried to explain, but it’s not like adoption, so people find it really hard to understand.”
As an adopted person I know precisely how Gracie feels because it is like adoption.
We were both procured to resolve a couple’s infertility.
I am not one to downplay the power of desire for a child. After all, Rachel in Genesis believed she would die without one.
But many things in life are unattainable. Stuff we want but know we do not have an inalienable right to. Except, it seems, children.
In my perfect world, where the needs of children are paramount, here are the questions the photographer should have been asking:
Isn’t it hard to give up the mother you’ve known for nine months? Isn’t it hard to recover from your birth without the reward of your mother’s skin? Her heartbeat, the sound of her voice, the touch of her hands, the safety of her care and love? What about her milk? Your perfect food that changes daily depending on your needs?
In all that gushing about a selfless act, the photographer apparently forgot about the most import people in the room - the ones being born.