Most people’s answer to the question in the title of this article would simply be, “In most cases, it’s not.” The typical modern American reaction to a woman bearing either a child conceived by means of in vitro fertilization from two other parents, or receiving the sperm of the father and bearing a child related to her for another couple, suggests that this is all “common sense.” The argument probably would go like this: “As long as the surrogate mother is willing and compensated for her pregnancy, and the parents are fit for child-rearing and have a compelling reason to enlist a surrogate, then I guess not only do I not see the problem — I am edified by this service to help another family.” This common position would be bolstered by countless photographs and stories of the children conceived in surrogacy. Presumably, just like “test-tube babies,” many will turn out to be fine citizens, happy, healthy, and kind.
And so, what could be the problem? Surrogacy has been getting some headlines recently, including a front-page headline story about two Portuguese men who came to the US to have a child through surrogacy.Although the article seems to favor the practice, it does acknowledge some drawbacks, especially abortion. It turns out that if either party gets cold feet, abortion or abandonment seems to present the easiest way out of the deal. Just read of the recent controversies in Thailand here.
But if you grant me that there are stories that support the down side of surrogacy, but also other cases that seemingly show more uplifting endings, I would like to present the case for the Church’s understanding, namely that the child must be conceived in a union of his or her mother and father, without a third party and without methods that separate the marital act from the conception of a child (see CCC 2376-2377).
Catholic teaching offers at least three reasons why surrogacy is not morally feasible, even with otherwise good results. Catholic teaching always affirms that one may not do something that is immoral for the sake of a good end. In our culture, we often look only at the consequences, but our vision is so limited, we can’t possibly see them all, nor are we always good at arranging their importance.
- Commodification of the mother
Of course there are cases where a woman becomes a surrogate purely to help a couple who couldn’t otherwise conceive and bring to term a healthy child. Conversely, there are many cases where a woman needs money and enters into surrogacy for monetary reasons. However, even if a woman is willing to carry the burden, the act of bearing another couple’s child denies the importance of the gestational process of a mother bonding with her child in the womb. It removes the loving act of intercourse from the creation of new life, and forces a parting of the child–who grows “under her heart,” as Kristin Lavransdatter says in Sigrid Undset’s classic novel–from the birth mother for the rest of their lives. Even more complicated would it be if, like the kind of surrogacy arrangement that ended so disastrously between Hagar and Sarah (Gen. 16:1–16; 21:9–21), the two mothers have some on-going connection to one another.
- Commodification of the child
For the child, we can see two basic outcomes as well. There are cases of abandoned or aborted children for a variety of reasons, and there are cases of healthy, thriving children. In both cases, it seems today that the most common source of surrogacy is IVF. This method is also not approved by Catholic moral teaching for the reason mentioned above: in IVF the act of conception is removed from the marital act. Moreover, it makes the child a commodity because the successful embryo is usually selected from a group of embryos on account of certain attractive characteristics that it has; the remaining embryos are either discarded, frozen, or used in research. As a former embryo, that is challenging to think about. Nowadays, toward the goal of ranking the best embryos and eliminating the poor and the lame, steps are taken by both fertility clinics and paying customers. Read the first article cited above (from The New York Times) to see this trend toward keeping only “the pick of the litter.”
No matter the good intentions of those who engage in surrogacy, the process itself industrializes human reproduction. There is a slippery slope argument that could be made, but in this case, the action has already gone too far. The artificial production of a child is an extreme form of consumerism that should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, it should go without saying that, despite the moral problems with surrogacy, children conceived through such means are endowed by God with the dignity of all human persons, and they should be treated as such.
- There is no “right to a child”
Lastly, even though infertility is unimaginably difficult for affected couples, no one is owed the life of another person. The desire to have a child is one of the most basic and beautiful realities there are. But a child is a gift, and nature does not like to be coerced. It is surprising that in this age of returning to nature, especially in the area of food and animals, the general public does not seem to be concerned with the synthetic ways that human beings treat their own bodies and the bodies of their children.
The trials faced by infertile couples are certainly no small thing. However, the moral teaching of the Church offers guidance precisely for those in such difficult situations, not to legislate, but to let truth shine in times of darkness (as recent writing by those who have suffered infertility attests). These couples should be respected and assisted through means that respect their dignity and the dignity of any future children.
Image: Bob Walker, Human cell-line colony being cloned in vitro through use of cloning rings