On Thursday, Arizona Republican congressman Trent Franks announced he would resign in the face of an ethics investigation, after having asked women on his staff to be gestational surrogates for him and his wife, who had been struggling with infertility. In his statement, he described the surrogacy approach they ultimately did take as “pro-life.”
Jennifer Lahl, a nurse, has been working with broad coalitions against surrogacy for years as the founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. She talks with National Review about the problems of surrogacy and why pro-lifers — and anyone else concerned with human rights and women’s health and freedom — should never embrace it.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Would you ever describe surrogacy as a “pro-life” option?
Jennifer Lahl: I would never, ever describe surrogacy as pro-life. Surrogacy necessarily depends on assisted-reproduction technology (ART) via in vitro fertilization (IVF) — creating embryos in the lab. The loss of embryos from IVF is but one very real pro-life concern. The most recent Centers for Disease Control data on ART, from 2015, shows that over 91,000 IVF cycles were begun, leading to over 59,000 embryos transferred, resulting in 26,708 positive pregnancies but only 21,771 live births. Those 59,000 embryos are far less than the number of embryos created during these processes. This is far from pro-life.
Lopez: In his statement, Franks said, “A wonderful and loving lady, to whom we will be forever grateful, acted as a gestational surrogate for our twins and was able to carry them successfully to live birth. The process by which they were conceived was a pro-life approach that did not discard or throw away any embryos.” Does that description make the process any more palatable?
Lahl: We often paint the surrogate mother as this wonderful angel who makes dreams come true. I have no idea who the woman in their situation was, and being in need of money doesn’t preclude her from being loving, but the fact of the matter is that many of the women who wind up in this situation are financially struggling. They need the money, and the marketing, the fertility agency, and the intended parents happily prey on her sense of altruism. Just Google “How much can I make being a surrogate?” and you’ll understand. Women give birth. Women are mothers. Mothers and babies should bond and be connected, and breaking these important bonds under the guise of benevolence and being “pro-life” is unethical.
Lopez: Is surrogacy exploitative to women even in the best circumstances?
Lahl: Yes. A woman’s body is being used instrumentally (often with payment of $30,000 plus) for nine months. I’ve read many, many surrogacy contracts, and they control, in detail, every aspect of the woman’s life, from before conception and embryo transfer, through the birth, and even after, if she’s also being contracted to provide breast milk. In addition, there are issues of class exploitation here. Have you seen a tabloid magazine that features a wealthy Hollywood celebrity serving as a surrogate for her poor housekeeper? Even in the case of “altruistic” surrogacy, where maybe a woman is helping her sister by carrying her child, this woman is assuming all of the health risks in exchange for producing and handing over a child.
Lopez: What are some of the most abysmal circumstances under which surrogacy takes place?
Lahl: There have been many tragic stories out of India and Thailand, for example, where truly impoverished women are separated from their families and housed in dormitory-like factories, gestating babies for wealthy couples of the world. But as the international communities ban and crack down on surrogacy, I have seen, up close and personal, tragic cases of exploitation of women and children right here in the U.S.
A few years ago, we reported on a surrogate in Idaho who was carrying twins for a couple in Spain, where surrogacy is illegal. The surrogate mother and the twins all died a day away from a full-term, scheduled C-section. This surrogate was already the mother of three small boys. I’ve worked with American surrogates who were left with unpaid medical bills or threatened if they didn’t terminate the pregnancy, or who ended up in nasty custody battles over the children, in the case of families and friends helping to have babies.
Lopez: Is there common ground here for anyone? For pro-lifers, pro-family folks, feminists?
Lahl: In my work with broad-based coalitions that are religiously diverse, politically diverse, and on opposite sides of the abortion debate, two issues stand out for common ground, places where we can agree: the exploitation of women and the rights and best interests of the child. I have found it easy to bring together people who care about women, particularly lower-income women, who are most often the ones serving as surrogates. The Left and the Right can also work together on the rights of the child: the right not to be created as part of a financial contract, not to be designed and made-to-order, to know and be known by those to whom he or she is biologically related.
Lopez: As someone who researches and combats surrogacy, what do you say to infertile couples?
Lahl: The same thing I would say to a same-sex couple or a single person: No one has a right to a child, and there is certainly no right to use another woman’s body for her eggs or her womb, or another man’s sperm, in order to get a child. While infertility often comes with great sadness, those who want to parent can fulfill these desires through other, ethical means. For example, for several years my husband and I were emergency foster-care parents. I’m a strong supporter of foster care, and there is much need there.
Lopez: What do you wish everyone knew about surrogacy?
Lahl: The biggest issue in my mind is that people believe surrogacy can be ethical if it is practiced in a certain way. The argument often sounds like, “We just need more regulation, tighter contracts, and the like.” To me, this is similar (but clearly not identical) to saying slavery can be done in an ethical way if only it were better regulated. If a practice is simply and inherently wrong, no amount of regulation and no lengthy, sophisticated contract will make it right.
Lopez: What are some other alternatives for infertile couples that you promote?
Lahl: We can never stress enough that there is much need in the foster-care system. Certainly, it has its imperfections, but at the core of it are children who need to be lovingly cared for. Serve in after-school children’s programs. Work with at-risk children. The opportunities are endless, if the goal is the best interest of children. Each couple has to find their own place in their community where they can exercise the gifts of caring and nurturing, and sometimes that requires being open to unexpected opportunities.
Lopez: Where would you have people go to better understand why we shouldn’t embrace surrogacy? How do you do educate about that without making people who have already gone that route and have beautiful children as a result of it feel bad?
Lahl: I’m part of a diverse international campaign called StopSurrogacyNow, which is chock-full of helpful resources written by leading scholars, feminists, and activists. Here you will find articles on why surrogacy can never be ethical and why we need to work together to stop all surrogacy. In addition, I wrote and directed a documentary film on surrogacy that explores the topic in depth, interviewing women who have served as surrogates, as well as experts in law, psychology, and other related fields.