Last week ABC’s Nightline aired a special on commercial surrogacy, prominently featuring the Center for Bioethics and Culture’s new documentary film, Breeders: A Subclass of Women? The documentary features a number of women who served as surrogates for other couples and now feel as if they were misled or wronged in the process. They’re speaking out to warn other women not to follow in their footsteps.
At a recent screening of Breeders in Minnesota, several former surrogates protested the film (as can be seen in the Nightline segment). They claim that empowered women can make decisions for themselves about whether or not to serve as surrogates and that the state—or any other organization or individual—shouldn’t be able to get in their way. These women fail to mention that they were also the likely beneficiaries of large payouts for their services; in fact they refused to discuss the financial arrangements of their surrogacies on camera.
Surrogacy never concerns just one person’s decision-making capacity. In addition to the women involved, the process also affects the children conceived through this method, and a host of other individuals. As one of the surrogate mothers in Breeders recalls, those most disturbed by her decision to be a surrogate were her own children, who couldn’t understand how their pregnant mother could intend to give away the child she was carrying. “Might, on some future occasion,” these youngsters wondered, “we be given away, too?”
The enterprise of commercial surrogacy has institutionalized a process that makes possible—and legal—the buying and selling of children. This marketplace has few protections to ensure the health and wellbeing of these children, or that of the women who choose to carry them. Furthermore, the entire practice of surrogacy is promoted by big business fertility clinics that offer enticing payouts of $25,000 to $30,000 to lure women into the practice. Such large sums of money can cloud judgment and make it almost impossible for these women to truly offer informed consent.
Some critics believe that “breeders” is too harsh a term to use in describing surrogate mothers. And on that we’re in agreement, though they seem to miss the point. As the experiences of the women in Breeders reveal, the surrogacy process is more often than not fraught with both emotional and physical risk. Surrogate mothers are frequently reduced to “carriers”—a dehumanizing term meant to depersonalize the process.
With such little respect for these women, it’s no wonder that children who come into the world due to such arrangements are more likely to suffer adjustment difficulties and heightened psychological risks, to which Jessica Kern—a surrogacy-conceived child who appears in the film—attests. I’d imagine that if studies were done on the women carrying these children for intended parents, they might reveal many of the same risks.
Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to learn more about this any time soon. As the protestors in Minnesota know very well, there’s too much money available to seduce vulnerable women into participating in the practice, and too little attention being paid to efforts to inform them about the potential harms at stake.
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Christopher White is Director of Research and Education at the Center for Bioethics and Culture.
A full interview with Breeders Director and Producer, Jennifer Lahl, can be found in the Spring 2014 issue of the Human Life Review here.