Rise in surrogate pregnancies raises ethical concerns

Jennifer Lahl president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network CNA US Catholic News 5 18 12 Jennifer Lahl, president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.

An increase in the practice of surrogate pregnancy is leading to health risks, ethical concerns and a problematic understanding of the family, warns the founder of a bioethics organization.

Because people are “uninformed about the reality” of surrogate pregnancy, they have “uncritically accepted it as good technology,” said Jennifer Lahl, president of the California-based Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.

However, the practice of gestational surrogacy leads to a variety of ethical issues, as well as growing “confusion” about the purpose of a woman’s body and the meaning of family and parents, she said.

In a surrogate pregnancy, a woman is paid to have a previously created embryo implanted in her womb. After carrying the baby for nine months, she gives birth and returns the baby to the parents.

Lahl told CNA on May 18 that such pregnancies are “becoming more socially acceptable” and mainstream, as wealthy couples are increasingly using them to have children.

In addition to older women struggling with fertility, surrogate pregnancies are often used by homosexual couples who want a child, she said. 

Lahl is the executive producer, director and writer of the documentaries “Eggsploitation,” which reveals the struggles of women who have donated their eggs, and “Anonymous Father’s Day,” which explores the issues faced by children of sperm donors.

She noted that surrogacy veers toward being an exploitative industry, which targets “lower-income women needing to make money.”

While many of these women live in third world countries, women in the United States are also choosing to become surrogate mothers, Lahl said.

This is particularly true of military wives, who are often young and living on a modest income, with their husband deployed for long periods of time, she explained. Surrogate motherhood appeals to these women because it allows them to make money while staying at home with their own children.

But while modern culture often applauds such procedures for helping infertile couples, surrogate pregnancies pose a variety of ethical problems.

Among those are the significant health risks for surrogate mothers, including problems associated with the fertility drugs that are taken as part of the procedure. Lahl remembers a pointed experience speaking to one surrogate mother who developed cervical cancer and was forced to undergo a hysterectomy at a young age.

It's also “not uncommon,” she said, to see gestational surrogates carry twins, which is considered a higher-risk pregnancy.

On a biological level, there is also the possibility of bonding between a mother and the child in her womb, which poses questions on the “long term implications” for both the women and the children they carry.

She also voiced concern about the effect on the woman’s husband, as well as her other children, who watch their mother go through a pregnancy without understanding why the baby is given away after birth.

Children who think concretely may start to wonder when their mother will give them away too, she said. Lahl believes it is problematic to “turn baby-making into a contractual agreement,” as if one were buying a house.

“We really are buying and selling children,” she said, observing the need for contracts to regulate the transaction.

More in US

She explained that legal problems can arise in such transactions, as unexpected complications occur or a surrogate mother develops regrets about giving the baby away.

Even more troubling to Lahl is her view that increasing rates of surrogate pregnancy  are “absolutely” changing the way that people think about family.

In a world where it is possible for a child to have one woman donate his genetic material, another woman give birth to him and a third woman raise him, ideas of family and parenthood quickly fall into “confusion.”

Same-sex couples add to the complications, as do intentionally-single mothers, who conceive from donated sperm, she said.

While the culture may accept these alternate understandings of “family” as progressive and tolerant, it does not address the needs of the children, Lahl added.

A former pediatric nurse, she explained that even in cases of adoption, children can feel a great longing to know more about their family tree. Surrogate pregnancies intentionally create a child who lacks a connection to the woman in whose womb he grew and developed, and sometimes to his biological parents as well.

Lahl ultimately sees the process as exploitative, arguing that it involves the use of body parts for money and treats life as a commodity. What needs to be acknowledged, she stressed, is that the child in question “ is another human being.”

(Story continues below)