Rapunzel wasn’t raised by her mother. In the traditional fairy tale, her father was caught in a witch’s garden, stealing rampion greens (in German, rapunzel) to feed to his pregnant wife. Faced with an angry witch in a mood for vengeance, he agrees to a bargain. He gets the salad greens. The witch gets the baby.
Fairy tales are full of strange and heartbreaking agreements that no reasonable government would enforce. I remember my mother reassuring my troubled childhood self that Rapunzel’s odd situation was just such a case. In the real world, a new mother would never be required to hand her baby over to a creditor. This was true at the time (at least in America), but it isn’t so clearly true today.
Surrogacy contracts often specify that the “intended parents” (the people who expect the baby to call them “Mom” and/or “Dad” after birth) are not shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to buy a child. They are paying for services. They are compensating for risks. This is not a baby market.
In every important sense, though, it is a baby market. Wealthy people want children, so they hire scientists to make them, and then pay poor women to carry and bear them. Technology has brought us to the point where virtually any person or combination of persons could requisition a child to specification, supplying whatever ingredients they wish to contribute (sperm, egg, or womb) and purchasing the rest.
Do we want our laws to affirm this as a legitimate form of commerce? That question is still being answered, but unless concerned citizens engage more forcefully, financial interests are likely to be the determining factor. There’s money to be made in the baby-making business. Infertility has been rising, especially because so many couples now wait until their mid to late thirties before trying to conceive. Same-sex coupling also increases demand for reproductive assistance. You need both sperm and egg to make a baby, so naturally infertile couples are looking to technology to supply whatever pieces they don’t have.
Many conservatives are wary of surrogacy activism, because they’re genuinely undecided about the issue. They’re sympathetic with the plight of infertile couples, and many libertarians are comfortable letting women make their own choices about whether to be surrogates. Unlike Rapunzel’s parents, most surrogates bear children who were initially brought into existence “under contract,” meant from the moment of conception to be raised by someone other than their gestational mothers. Why is this categorically different from adoption or other non-traditional parenting arrangements that are by this time reasonably familiar?
Surrogacy degrades all mothers, not just those who choose to participate in it. Consider this: To avoid the charge that they are selling babies, proponents of surrogacy must contend that pregnancy and birth are properly seen as a job, of a sort that can be outsourced. As with any other job, employers assess their options in keeping with their priorities and budget. Couples looking for a bargain often go to India to find more-affordable surrogates. Wealthy foreign couples, willing to pay more for first-rate health care, sometimes bring their business to the United States. To convey a sense of normalcy about the arrangement, some have described surrogates as “babysitters,” paid to look after the child for a bit until the intended parents can assume their proper role.
This is an offensively reductive way of thinking about the earliest stages of life. For a prenatal child, the woman who carries him is his world. That intimacy is felt on the mother’s side as well, as the first discernible movements gradually become more rhythmic, more intentional, and more recognizably human. Mothers of large families can remember how their children were different in utero. If a prenatal mother calls her physician to report that her baby seems distressed, the physician will take that seriously, even if the mother is unable to explain exactly what’s wrong. Doctors know that mothers are naturally attuned to their babies’ well-being.
The gestational relationship, in other words, is a meaningful relationship. As of the moment of birth, it is the child’s only significant human relationship. Sometimes grave circumstances may lead us to the conclusion that that natural tie needs to be severed, for the child’s (and potentially mother’s) long-term good. Adoption proceedings can recognize the gestational bond as important, but not all-important. Surrogacy treats it as nothing. In a surrogacy arrangement, the child’s separation from his gestational mother is not viewed as an unfortunate necessity. It’s the plan. Most likely, lawyers negotiated that separation before the child even came to be.
For a prenatal child, the woman who carries him is his world, and that intimacy is felt on the mother’s side as well.
If the public comes to see the gestational relationship as trivial, it’s difficult to predict what other social changes might follow. Many progressives have already shown a distaste for parental rights, especially because they recognize that strong familial bonds are one of the most stubborn barriers to the growth of the state. Progressives likewise show a strong interest in championing the rights of certain groups (for instance, gay couples) who are unable to reproduce naturally. But it displeases them that certain less-favored groups (for instance, religious conservatives) bear large numbers of children. What schemes might they devise once the general public has been convinced that there is nothing particularly special about an infant’s bond with the woman who bore him?
Other dangers lurk in the wings. Advocates of surrogacy typically emphasize the job-like nature of gestation, because they recognize that few things are as offensive to Western sensibilities as trafficking in humans. Even so, there is no hiding the advocates’ longer-term intention.
What advocates of assisted reproductive technology want is an established, regularized system whereby any “suitable” adult can reliably obtain a desired child, in roughly the time and circumstances of their choosing. Artificial reproductive technologies have already massively increased our capacity for adapting children and family structures to the changing life patterns of adults. Sperm banks enable women to impregnate themselves with genetic material that they picked from a catalog. Human eggs, too, are de facto available for purchase. Surrogacy is still expensive and legally complicated, but in principle it supplies the final piece of the puzzle, enabling the fertility industry to supply children on demand to anyone who wants them. This is what proponents hope to regularize.
Don’t look now, but I think this is a market. Babies are being bought and sold, and U.S. law is already facilitating it to a considerable extent.
What will happen to families if this kind of transaction is broadly accepted as normal? Right now, surrogacy is still a fairly limited, “boutique” practice. A surrogate’s contract child is likely to be raised by an educated, financially comfortable couple in a Western nation. That would make it easier for us all to feel comfortable with the arrangement. The fertility industry can print glossy brochures filled with healthy, smiling kids in lush, landscaped backyards, testaments to the joy of artificial reproduction. They’re building families. They’re making dreams come true. This is a wonderful thing.
It can’t be long, though, before people start to ask: Why should only the rich be able to buy themselves children? We must do something to defray the costs for the worthy but not wealthy. Why must a surrogacy agreement be made in advance? Sometimes impoverished couples might decide partway through a pregnancy that they aren’t ready to support a child. If some wealthier person is willing to assume the responsibility and better the couple’s situation, won’t everyone benefit? Or consider a situation in which I owe a staggering debt to a creditor whose wife desperately wants a baby. Perhaps I am quite fertile, or even already pregnant. What’s wrong with agreeing to pay them in kind?
There’s no feasible way to stop all use of reproductive technologies. What we can do is oppose legislation that would regularize the market for babies on demand. State officials should not be marching into delivery rooms (a term that suddenly sounds far more sinister) to seize babies who are under contract. Gestating a child should not be recognized as a job for which one can legally be paid.
When we consider the ramifications of commercial surrogacy, Rapunzel’s situation suddenly doesn’t seem so fantastical. Being purchased by a witch was especially unlucky, but you know, these things happen. Or they could.