The Handmaid’s Tale: The Ethics of Surrogacy

This post follows this one.

The driving force behind the fictional theocracy of Gilead is surrogacy. Young, fertile handmaids are forced to bear children for other couples desperate for a family of “their own” to fulfill the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Most handmaids are unable to fully consent to this practice considering the elements of oppression at play.

The ethical concerns of surrogacy don’t stop at the border of Gilead. In it’s many forms, surrogacy has been known to offer children to infertile heterosexual and LGBTQ+ couples, often crossing international borders. Perhaps you’ve stumbled upon emotional photos like this or this. Or maybe you heard about Kim Kardashian’s surrogate pregnancies?

Advocating for Surrogacy

A quick google search will reveal enough positive experiences to exhaust a box of kleenex. Here are some reasons some couples may be interested:

  • Surrogacy may be the only opportunity for those reluctant to become pregnant or infertile or ill heterosexual couples or LGBTQ+ couples to have a genetically related family.
  • Some argue surrogacy is no different than adoption, wet-nursing, or alternative reproductive methods like in vitro fertilization.
  • Surrogacy is suggested to be even better than adoption since it creates a genetic bond between at least one parent.
  • Participants in altruistic surrogacy have personal relationships and may not choose to include a formal contract or compensation. (For example, a woman may enjoy pregnancy and choose to donate her body/time/energy to support the reproductive hopes of friends.)

Challenging the Practice

The opposite of altruistic surrogacy is commercial surrogacy. This approach includes a contract and compensation, and therefore a customer. This presents several concerns for all parties involved.

Sincere Consent

It doesn’t matter if the surrogate mother is a personal friend or hired service, the relationship between all “parents” involved is a complicated one. The request of the couple is intimate and not only physically invasive, but may also be emotionally invasive, for the surrogate. This relationship may be subject to coercion due to emotional ties to the child (or idea of a child) developed by either party at any stage. Personal guilt, finances, issues of self-esteem, or other psychological or physical variables may be used to manipulate the other party.

Reproductive Tourism

Similar to the concern listed above, surrogacy that incorporates international borders also highlights the complexity of sincere, informed consent. Those seeking to be parents may be sincere in their hope but sourcing the right (perhaps immediately available, most affordable, etc.) surrogate may pose challenges. Surrogates who have not had access to adequate education or financial resources are vulnerable to what some researchers dub as neocolonialism. What type of pre/post natal healthcare will the surrogate be provided? What is an appropriate rate of compensation? Will the surrogate have an advocate during and after the pregnancy? How do we prevent poor women from being exploited?

Commercialized Reproduction

Exploitation is a real concern, especially in light of commercialized reproduction practices. Feminist Andrea Dworkin likens modern surrogacy to prostitution, saying it allows women to “sell reproductive capacities the same way old-time prostitutes sold sexual ones but without the stigma of whoring because there is no penile intrusion.” It can be argued that surrogacy, like prostitution, is not immoral since it can involve compensation and does not necessarily require a strong emotional bond.

From another angle, when reproductive services are bought and sold, the child produced becomes a commodity. Both the women who give birth and the child she delivers can be commercialized and depersonalized. Children could easily be seen as a product, something to be satisfied or dissatisfied with.

Tangled Parental Relationships

Surrogacy poses a challenge to parental roles and kinship. Ethicists may argue adoption is a response to unfortunate circumstances. On the other hand, surrogacy is the intentional disruption in family ties. There are many ways surrogacy is practiced. The child produced by a surrogate using third party egg and sperm, later cared for by parents genetically unrelated could have as many as five different “parents.” The definition of parenthood becomes fluid. The child’s identity may also be challenged as they grow older. Who am I? Will I ever know my true parents? Is it possible I could become romantically interested in my genetic sibling without knowing?

The characters in Atwood’s novel are not bound by personal relationships or contracts but by reproductive slavery. Yet, the book does shine an interesting light on what it means to be a mother. Which woman is the true surrogate? How do the ancient and modern translators of the Bible interrupt our understanding of the text, specifically Genesis 30:1-3? What relationship does surrogacy have with colonialism?

If you are a child born from surrogacy or you have participated in surrogacy in some form, what have your experiences been like?

I do not endorse everything these authors have written but I did find these sources interesting and helpful on the topic of surrogacy:

The Handmaid’s Tale: Traditional Gender Roles

(If you’re not familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, either the TV series on Hulu or the 1984 novel by Margaret Atwood, here’s a five minute summary on YouTube. The TV series alters and adds a few details but remains true to the general themes and events of Atwood’s original book.)

In both the book and the Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale presents layers of challenging social, political, and theological issues. There’s lots of ground to cover but here I want to focus our attention on the use of traditional gender roles and the normalization of sexual violence in Gilead.

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photo: startle.com

Gilead is Not Mere Fiction

As a theocracy, Gilead justifies it’s societal use of strict, traditional gender roles by scripture. Yes, this emerging nation is radical in some ways, but Atwood crafted her novel from events and concepts already present in society or history.

The creation of Gilead was a religious and political reaction to the perceived decrease in traditional values (increase in pornography and prostitution), and other social/political/environmental tensions. Sound familiar? You may be able to name several examples of similar reactionary movements in world history. I’m thinking of one example in particular, the defense of conservative values in the 1970s-1990s in the U.S.

Gilead creates a hierarchy based on gender, but also for different women, which you can read more about here. Two distinct, integral roles, defined “biblically” by creative interpretation of Genesis 30:1-3, are the wives and handmaids.

  • Commander’s wives, the counterpart of Rachel, are considered the ideal picture of femininity: respectful (submissive) of their place under men’s power, often soft-spoken and gentile, and ready to assume motherhood through the rape of the Handmaid by her husband.
  • Handmaids, the counterpart of Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, are fertile, enslaved women forced with the task of child-bearing through a monthly ritual of non-consensual intercourse. Handmaids lose any identity or agency of their own and assume the names of their Commander. (The name Offred comes from “of Fred.”)

The roles for women in Gilead stem from examples found in a literal reading (and justification of) Genesis 30. The scriptures have been used like this to condone horrors such as the Crusades, the silence or secondary nature of women, slavery, colonization, homophobia, and nationalism, among other tragedies.

What will the scriptures be used for next?

Sexism in Gilead’s Traditional Gender Roles

If we were to observe Gilead’s traditionally male-led households and government, how do men use the power they have? All women are secondary to men in Gilead through both hostile and benevolent sexism. A majority, if not all, of women’s agency is lost in the radical submission to men. Consent does not exist.

Image result for handmaids tale photos
photo: cw.com

Here I’ve listed a few examples of traditional gender expectations in Gilead with an evangelical comparison:

  • Men hold ultimate influence over others: Commanders and other men dominate the household, government, and security forces. Major decisions are made by men.
    • John Piper and others warn repeatedly against the influence of women over men in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
    • “God begins a husband relationship with us. He provides wisdom where we lack it. He is our protector. He fulfills our deepest desire… Yet as I submit to God, so must I submit to… my husband.” (Mom’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1996, p. 154, 745)
  • Identity is tied to the man: Handmaids are forced to surrender their old identities (names, families, vocations, often sexual orientations, etc.) and given the names of the men who regularly use (rape) them to procreate.
    • Not necessarily evangelical but women are expected to assume the name of their husband when they are married.
    • Deuteronomy 22:28-29 appears to encourage the marriage between a rapist and the survivor.
  • Women have no right to sexual agency or pleasure: Commanders and their wives do not appear to have sex with each other; Handmaids are to perform “their duty.” High ranking men have access to underground prostitutes. (The very thing that initiated the creation of Gilead.)
    • “…a man is able to attribute a spiritual meaning to sexual union, indeed a metaphysical experience. The woman’s story is entirely different… Her spiritual surrender is directed far more precisely at the person of her husband, perhaps at the hoped-for child. (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 710)
    • [Author describes initiation of sex between spouses by detailing a position a wife should assume.] “The husband finds this voluntary act of cooperation very exciting…” (LaHaye, The Act of Marriage, 1976, p. 102)
  • Cruel mistreatment of women: A Commander punishes his own wife by cutting off one of her fingers for merely suggesting the idea that women learn to read the Bible. Others are given permission to physically beat, burn, electrocute, mutilate, or kill those who are disobedient, most of whom are women.
    • “As heads of household wielding God-give authority, husbands are responsible to discipline, in order to protect their wives who “can’t — by [their] own power — change [their] lives.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 842)

Do any of these demonstrations of male power sound familiar? These are examples of hostile and benevolent sexism that promote rape culture and normalize sexual violence against women.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a reminder that not everything described as “biblical” is truly in agreement with the larger narrative of the Gospel.

Granted, this is not the only example we have of traditional gender roles in history, literature, or television. There are all kinds of experiences and theologies that inform this practice, some more healthy than others. Even so, research cannot ignore the numerous challenges associated between traditional gender norms and sexual violence.

Read more:

A New Study on Sexual Violence & Chanel Miller

(This post contains research and discussion centered on nonconsensual sex. Please read with caution and care for yourself.)

Today new research studying the impacts of forced sexual initiation was published. Read it for yourself, or at least the summary, here. Here are a few key points that stuck out to me.

  • “6.5% of respondents reported experiencing forced sexual initiation, equivalent to 3,351,733 women in this age group nationwide…” “Initiation” means a sexual debut or the first time someone has had sex. This study was focused on female survivors between 18 and 44 years old, even still it is important to remember data surrounding sexual violence may not be accurate. Experts estimate 3 out of 4 victims do not report.
  • “Age at forced sexual initiation averaged 15.6 years…The mean age of the partner/assailant at first sexual encounter was 6 years older for women with forced vs voluntary sexual initiation.” Please note the age difference between the rape victim and the assailant. It is alarming. This suggests a significant power dynamic, in social and legal status and perhaps also size and strength. RAINN reports that most perpetrators of sexual violence walk free.
  • When compared to those with voluntary sexual initiation, survivors of rape experience long term health consequences at a higher rate, such as unwanted first pregnancies, abortions, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and challenges with ovulation or menstruation.
  • In a brief conclusion the authors write, “These findings highlight the possible need for public health measures and sociocultural changes to prevent sexual violence, particularly forced sexual initiation.

I find this information both upsetting and deeply saddening. The data centers on only first-time sexual encounters that were forced — sexual debuts initiated by rape. Allow that to sink in. This study was completed just before the #MeToo movement was given a broader attention in October of 2017. This means the public conversation defining consent and sexual abuse had not quite picked up momentum and many victims had not reported or perhaps understood their experiences as rape. There are most likely many, many more victims than the 3.4 million already estimate in this study.

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photo: ny times

Also just before the most recent #MeToo movement, “Emily Doe,” or Chanel Miller, was fighting for recognition and justice after being assaulted and raped by Brock Turner. While in court, Turner received sympathy and a lenient sentence while Miller was left the damaging, long-term consequences of Turner’s violent actions against her.

Her story is important because it puts a name to the numbers and changed California’s law regarding minimum sentencing for sexual assault.

It also highlights the societal assumptions about sexual violence and perpetrators. Do we even recognize rape (or nonconsensual sex) when we see it? If they don’t remember the assault, is it still punishable? Do the consequences or impacts of jail time outweigh the impacts of rape? What if the perpetrator is a really great swimmer? How would the sentence differ if the perpetrator were not white? Who gets to define consent?

“Someday, you can pay me back for my ambulance ride and therapy. But you cannot give me back my sleepless nights. The way I have broken down sobbing uncontrollably if I’m watching a movie and a woman is harmed, to say it lightly, this experience has expanded my empathy for other victims. I have lost weight from stress, when people would comment I told them I’ve been running a lot lately. There are times I did not want to be touched. I have to relearn that I am not fragile, I am capable, I am wholesome, not just livid and weak.”

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”

“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.”

Chanel Miller, Victim Witness Statement

Read her full victim witness statement here. It is moving, informative, and very well written. Miller details what she remembers as well as the medical and legal process that followed. It is well worth your time. Her book comes out later this month.

So how do we address the proposed “public health measures” and “sociocultural changes”?

These are only a few broad strokes. The solution to this requires multicultural, interfaith and bi-partisan collaboration and community engagement. There are no easy answers or formulas but there is hope. I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can make our homes, churches, and communities safe from violence.

Read more:

An Invitation to Doubt

The peak of my conservative, evangelical education included several weeks at a Christian apologetics summer camp while in high school and later as a freshman in college. Those weeks included hiking in Colorado, eating my weight in delicious frozen custard, and learning the conservative evangelical script for hot-button political issues. As the years went on and I lived a little more life, I ran into what some call a “crisis of faith” and was forced to again reconsider what I’d been taught, directly and implicitly, not only in summer camp but in Sunday school and my private Christian education thus far. The script wasn’t helping.

Admitting “I don’t know” can put you in hot water, especially in some evangelical circles. Knowing this, I quietly practiced those 3.5 words as I explored the rest of my college experience, got married, and worked a “real” job. Even as I entered my first few seminary classes I was desperate to cling onto some of that script I’d learned. I assumed that to admit uncertainty was to be either uneducated or too progressive, I might as well become an atheist!

“Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”

Flannery O’Connor

Turns out, I wasn’t alone. I found others who expressed concern or confusion over what was commonly accepted in the church. I was relieved and hopeful, but also sad. A faith crisis (or the act of doubting or deconstructing spiritual beliefs) is not usually linear. My faith has both peacefully and horrifically evolved over my brief lifetime with new questions, different experiences, and new perspectives. It’s been a cycle of death, lament, and new life.

Death and resurrection shape the Christian faith, literally and metaphorically. Doubt is a piece of this cycle. Are we not called to resist the urge to conform, be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” and die to ourselves? Isn’t doubt necessary for death and transformation to occur? Perhaps like me, you had/have some idols that need to die, that you need to doubt.

Maybe white Jesus isn’t real.

Maybe Christian nationalism isn’t patriotic.

Maybe God isn’t male.

Maybe Christianity isn’t monolithic.

Maybe science and faith can work together.

Maybe the Bible isn’t clear.

I’m learning to hold the answers loosely and ask a few more questions with holy curiosity, as some might call it. “Always write your theology in pencil!” a beloved professor used to say. Even the most elaborate pencil marks can be edited or erased to make room for better theology and better practices. And because of my doubt, and the willingness to erase some “certainties,” my faith continues to grow deeper.

In my experience, faith isn’t certainty and doubt isn’t apostasy. Faith is the risk of finding joy, beauty and contentment while living in the midst of unanswered questions. Faith is vulnerable and messy, colorful and dynamic, not always chiseled in stone or black and white.

“…because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties.”

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

A note to the church.

I’ve let go of plenty of unhealthy beliefs (with more to go, I’m sure) and held on to some important ones. Perhaps these things are different than what you’ve held on to. That’s ok. And while I don’t feel like we should romanticize doubt or prolong it unnecessarily, I do think the evangelical church can do better by avoiding the all-or-nothing, black or white, in or out, us and them approach to Christian spirituality.

The church is not for those who are certain or sinless. The church is (or should be) a gathering of sin-sick people, even those with questions and disbelief, searching for wholeness and hope. Is there room in your pews for those experiencing seasons of wilderness? or lament? or silence?

“To a healthy faith doubt is a healthy challenge.”

Os Guinness, In Two Minds

We need to stop being so surprised by doubt. Jesus did not come for those who “have it all together” but instead came to offer healing and rest to those with heavy weights on their hearts, minds, and bodies. If we’re honest, these weights find us again and again in life in different ways. Suffering, pain, doubt, and grief are a reality in this world. Do our congregations, sermons, worship and outreach practices, and theology reflect this?

To those who are unsure.

If you are challenged by what you read in the Bible or what you’ve been taught in your faith community allow me to invite you to ask your hardest questions. You are not alone.

I recognize your church or family may not be a safe place to express your dissatisfaction or pain but please search for supportive spaces that are. (There are many, many online communities!) If we can learn anything from the Psalms, Job, or even Jesus’ disciples in the Bible, God is not afraid of our questions.

Read a bit more:

Crafting a Mission Statement for Marriage

On the topic of marriage, one of the more meaningful topics Aaron and I have recently discussed was a mission statement. It’s come up at a perfect time, too. We’ve been challenged in recent months to be more mindful in our relationship, vocation, and patterns of rest. A mission statement, although kind of corny upon my first impression, (can we find another name!?) has offered renewed focus as we enter our fourth year of married life.

Similar to developing a rule of life, a mission statement considers several categories. Aaron and I opted to keep it simple and chose to include spirituality, the physical body, the heart, and the mind. (We also included a statement that introduced the categories we chose.) You might prefer more general or specific areas. Just like the rule of life, this should relate to your particular context.

photo: steven schultz

This activity may stir up easy and not-so easy conversations. These are important but if you find yourself continually down the rabbit trail, focus on the ultimate goals for the relationship. What’s the big picture? How would you like to be remembered? This statement can be helpful by showing you where you’d like to go as a couple, even if your present circumstances aren’t what you’d like them to be.

Here’s a few questions to get you started:

  • What makes you come alive, as an individual/couple?
  • What factors strengthen the relationship?
  • Where do you want to grow together?
  • Where would you like to be in 20 years? 40 years?
  • Who would you like to be known as?

Below you’ll find the current state of our mission statement with a few descriptions. We expect it to adjust as we grow together and potentially expand our family. I hope that you’ll be encouraged and inspired to write one for your own relationship.

We aim to humbly honor the complete imago dei found in each person, in spirit, body, heart, and mind – reflecting the Trinity, which has no hierarchy. (In this introductory statement it was important for us to recognize each other as whole, individual reflections of God. We do not believe the act of marriage “completes” us, nor do we believe hierarchy, especially gender-based, is appropriate in our marriage.

We aim to engage with scripture, as well as offer up holy questions and creativity, to grow closer to the Creator and in our worship and witness to God’s eternal faithfulness. (We believe embracing uncertainty and mystery, as well as divine creativity and curiosity, is important to our faith and study of the Bible. It is also important to us that we refer to God with gender-neutral language whenever possible.)

We aim to holistically care for and share our bodies with love, respect, and wonder. With proper nourishment and rest we hope to be sources of generous hospitality for one another and others. (Although we have very different methods of achieving physical health, we both believe our bodies are extremely important to not only our individual wellbeing and also communal wellbeing in marriage and society. We recognize the human body is impressionable and powerful – something that requires deep respect and care. Physical spaces are important too, and significantly impact all other areas of life, thus our hope of generous hospitality either in presence or place.)

We aim to listen to one another empathetically, speak to the other with gentleness, and strengthen each other with truth and patience. (We could list the fruit of the spirit in this category but we’ll save that for another day. Both Aaron and I feel our emotions pretty deeply, and I’m stubborn as hell, so this is something we’re actively working on.)

We aim to pursue wisdom through thoughtful study of scripture and our world, in history and present day. We encourage the exploration of art, ideas, and stories to sharpen our minds (and imagination), direct our energy, and increase compassion for others. (Thoughtfulness and intellect are God-given gifts that we believe should be encouraged and continually developed in marriage. We hope to be lifelong learners.)

I only include the italicized descriptions for the purpose of this post, otherwise this statement isn’t too long. Your statement can be playful and concise, or detailed and romantic – as long as it reflects your mutual vision for marriage.

I created a reminder for us to hang somewhere in our home. (Still figuring out the perfect spot.) If you’re up for sharing, I’d love to see or hear about yours!