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: