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: