Jenny Uebbing | October 20, 2019
The gift of life at any cost
I met a girlfriend for drinks last month and we got to talking about infertility during a lull in the conversation. Knowing what I do for a living, she raised her glass ever so slightly and asked me, can you explain what the Church teaches about surrogacy? Because friends of ours are struggling and it’s so sad and if I weren’t already pregnant myself I’d volunteer to carry a baby for them, they’ve been trying so long.
I took a big sip myself and smiled at her; that’s beautiful. Of course you want to help your friends.
And then I did my best to explain why that kind of help cannot be and will never be okay.
Infertility is a brutally heavy cross, and it’s easy enough to explain the rules when you’re not sitting in the bathroom, gutted over another negative pregnancy test, another cycle of no. But also easy and becoming all the more so as science and technology speed along to lose sight of the fact that the entire industry which has sprung up around the problem of childlessness deals not in products, but in people.
It’s a beautiful gesture to be so generous as to be willing to share one’s own body with another family in order to bring their dream of parenthood to fruition but it is a misguided generosity rooted in flawed philosophy. And the flaw is more than semantics, it’s a particularly dangerous manifestation of materialistic relativism applied to the most basic of human economies: the family.
Family members are not merely interchangeable parts in an intimate cast of characters. A child created in a petri dish from one man’s sperm, his wife’s ovum, and implanted into another woman’s uterus is not being afforded the same beginning as a child conceived in the sacred intimacy of his parent’s marital embrace. But how archaic! I’m sure someone is sputtering over a mouthful of coffee right now. How many children are conceived in the backs of cars, in alleyways, in one night stands and in teenaged wombs every day?
Many, indeed. And when a child is conceived in this sort of relational poverty, it is a deprivation to that child. A child who is no less worthy, no less equal in dignity, but who has been denied something that is by nature and design his or her birthright: a mother and a father, committed to one another and to the fruit of their love: that baby.
Do babies come into this world every day without parents who love each other, who are committed to each other, who even know one other? Of course they do. And that is a poverty to that child, who has the inalienable right to both a mother and a father, but who is all too often denied that right in our broken, sinful world.
The gift of adoption is a beautiful vehicle for restoration, and is the most perfect image of God’s relationship to us. It is a restoration of the natural order, the orphan being reunited with a father and a mother, the child who has need of love and the parents who have an abundance of love to give, being joined together in a covenant of love.
Many would make the case that surrogacy is even more natural than another family raising a child with no biological ties to them, that it’s the next best thing to doing parenthood the old fashioned way. But where adoption restores a lack and fills a void, surrogacy and all other manifestations of IVF very often results in intentionally created orphans. Children called into being in a laboratory, the product of their parents’ desires, yes, but at what cost?
It is extremely rare for a successful IVF procedure to involve only one embryo. Typically there are multiple children conceived in the lab, and then selectively implanted one or two at a time in the prepared uterus. Some embryos are discarded based upon perceived quality. Others are left behind to languish indefinitely in the freezer, their fates determined by their parent’s financial ability and the successful gestation of their elder siblings.
These orphans of technology are human beings like you and me, indefinitely suspended in the very earliest stages of development. Created orphans, functionally speaking. While adoption attempts to repair and restore what was lost or ruptured, IVF disassembles by design, even if not by intention.
Not all IVF involves surrogacy, of course, but all surrogacy involves IVF. Unless, of course, a la The Handmaid’s Tale, a couple is willing to go so far as to loan the healthy party out for a transactional sexual encounter with the donor of either sperm or egg. This is perhaps the clearest evidence that something is off with surrogacy, as most people wince at the Old Testament accounts of childbearing by proxy, hiring out the production of a desired heir to a slave or servant with a healthy reproductive system.
While a modern-day surrogate or carrier mightn’t be technically indentured to the couple desiring the baby, her body is still being commoditized by the infertile couple, both she and the baby reduced to means to an end.
However willingly any woman enters into a surrogate relationship, there is something deeply unjust with carrying a baby for the express purpose of giving him away.
The child who grows under her heart, even if their biological ties are limited to the umbilical cord that sustains him and the blood that pumps from his surrogate mother’s heart, carrying his nutrients and oxygen, is eternally and profoundly a part of the woman who will give birth to him.
Will the adoption be open? Will the child be told he has two mothers, or will his origins be obscured or minimized? Will he be made to feel that he shouldn’t feel connected to the woman who gave birth to him, that he should understand that his parents wanted him so badly that they’d go to any lengths to create him.
And if that child does grow up feeling conflicted or uneasy about her origins, will she be allowed to grieve the circumstances surrounding her conception?
Society has paid little attention to these smallest victims of the infertility industry, largely ignoring or denying their experience as anything potentially negative or confusing. We’ve spent so much time (and so much money) in pursuit of can we that little if any thought has been given to should we.
Should we create children at any cost, because a man and a woman or two men or any other configuration of paying adults want them to exist?
And when we do create these children, are we prepared to meet them in their pain, entering into the ambiguity they may feel when thinking of their parents, answering their questions honestly and with candor: you’re here because I wanted you at all costs. And no, I didn’t count the cost to you.