A labor of love and money

surrogatemotherhoodSurrogate pregnancy was the focus of Newsweek‘s cover story last week. Its angle was on the women who are surrogates as opposed to the medical advances of assisted reproductive technology or the laws and regulations governing the practice.

The basic angle of the 4,500-word article is that while American women are paid $20,000 to $25,000 to carry someone else’s biological child to term, it is an act of love more than a simple sale of services. I appreciate that angle and the article itself is very detailed and compassionate. The only problem is that it’s sympathetic to the point of being ridiculous. It’s not that reporters Lorraine Ali and Raina Kelley don’t mention objections to the practice, it’s just that this is how they handle them:

Surrogates challenge our most basic ideas about motherhood, and call into question what we’ve always thought of as an unbreakable bond between mother and child. It’s no wonder many conservative Christians decry the practice as tampering with the miracle of life, while far-left feminists liken gestational carriers to prostitutes who degrade themselves by renting out their bodies.

What excellent and fair summaries of “conservative Christian” and “far-left feminist” opposition! Come on, those are ridiculous straw men. As nuanced as the portrayal of these surrogate mothers are, such infantile characterizations of complex and nuanced opposition are offensive. The only time criticism was heard, it was second-hand and clumsily portrayed.

Another problem is that I’m not entirely sure the information in the article supports its thesis that the action isn’t about money so much as love. In fact, the notion that class plays a part in surrogacy arrangements is mocked. But one mother uses the money she earns from being a surrogate mother to take the family to DisneyWorld. Others just use it to supplement the income while their husbands serve in the military overseas. The only military spouse who wasn’t married to a junior enlisted man was a woman who was using the money to pay for a piece of equipment for her autistic son. The whole piece, in fact, seems to be about military women trying to supplement their income:

Military wives are attractive candidates because of their health insurance, Tricare, which is provided by three different companies–Humana, TriWest and Health Net Federal Services–and has some of the most comprehensive coverage for surrogates in the industry. Fertility agencies know this, and may offer a potential surrogate with this health plan an extra $5,000. Last year military officials asked for a provision in the 2008 defense authorization bill to cut off coverage for any medical procedures related to surrogate pregnancy. They were unsuccessful — there are no real data on how much the government spends on these cases. Tricare suggests that surrogate mothers who receive payment for their pregnancy should declare the amount they’re receiving, which can then be deducted from their coverage. But since paid carriers have no incentive to say anything, most don’t. “I was told by multiple people — congressional staff, doctors and even ordinary taxpayers — that they overheard conversations of women bragging about how easy it was to use Tricare coverage to finance surrogacy and delivery costs and make money on the side,” says Navy Capt. Patricia Buss, who recently left the Defense Department and now holds a senior position with Health Net Federal Services.

Using government resources for personal gain seems like an area that could have been explored critically. But maybe I’m just a taxpayer.

Again, I love that the piece is not painting surrogate mothers simply as poor women in need of extra cash. But the fact is that lifestyle choices and class are a huge part of this story and one that is not being looked at critically. Infertility is an unbelievably difficult experience. But not all infertile couples can afford to pay someone $25,000 plus Superbowl tickets to gestate their unborn child. What’s more, not all infertile couples that could afford to pay someone that much money would do so. Why? Why would some women rent out their wombs while others would never consider it? What are the religious and ethical questions that come with this arrangement? Why is this practice illegal in so much of the world?

Recent stories have appeared about the growing outsourcing of the womb to poor Indian women. This March piece in the New York Times was good. The Christian Science Monitor ran something about it last week. The media circus is due, in all likelihood, to the upcoming movie Baby Mama.

But for all the coverage of these surrogate mothers, there’s just no significant mention of their religious views. It seems like it would be pretty easy to get that into a story on this topic.
Check out how the reporters did shoehorn religion in, though:

IVF has been around only since the 1970s, but the idea of one woman bearing a baby for another is as old as civilization. Surrogacy was regulated in the Code of Hammurabi, dating from 1800 B.C., and appears several times in the Hebrew Bible. In the 16th chapter of Genesis, the infertile Sarah gives her servant, Hagar, to her husband, Abraham, to bear a child for them. Later, Jacob fathers children by the maids of his wives Leah and Rachel, who raise them as their own. It is also possible to view the story of Jesus’ birth as a case of surrogacy, mediated not by a lawyer but an angel, though in that instance the birth mother did raise the baby.

That whole passage just strikes me as clumsy. Many sermons have been written about Sarah’s offer of Hagar to Abraham. There have been many repercussions. But I’m pretty sure the prevailing view is not that it was a good model to follow. The point about Jesus, in my view, borders on blasphemous. But either way, if we’re going to be mentioning all these religious examples, why aren’t we permitting an actual engagement of religious ideas?

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  • Jerry

    It’s not central to the story as written, to be sure, but what is to stop infertile couples from supporting an already pregnant woman as an alternative to abortion?

  • Martha

    “It is also possible to view the story of Jesus’ birth as a case of surrogacy, mediated not by a lawyer but an angel, though in that instance the birth mother did raise the baby.”

    *is gobsmacked*

    So that means God and Mrs. God couldn’t have a baby of their own, so they contracted Mary to be the surrogate. Except that they also let Mary and her husband raise the baby as their own son, and they seem to have permitted Jesus to consider Mary as His mother. Which, you know, seems to me to kind of be missing the point of “surrogacy”.

    But then, what do I know? I can hardly wait for these lassies to do a cover story on the real meaning of economics/the Presidential race/global warming/the Pope’s visit!

    Oh, I’d almost pay money to read what they’d make of the Pope’s visit. Can you imagine?

    “The obscure leader of a minor sect is visiting the United States in an attempt to generate positive PR for his secretive cult. Our intrepid reporters bring you the real face behind the little-known organisation known as the Roman Catholic Church. You may not have heard of it previously, but thanks to the upcoming media blitz, soon won’t be able to turn on your TV without stumbling across an ad spot selling this tour.

    So who is the man now known as Ben Sixteen,the self-declared leader of this group? We exclusively reveal that his real name is Joey Ratz and that he changed it to hide his past as an Imperial Stormtrooper based on the Death Star!”

  • http://www.arlinghaus.typepad.com bearing

    Ooooh, I hate it when the “conservative Christian” opposition to surrogacy (or IVF in general, or other) is framed as “tampering with the miracle of life” or some other such foo foo abstract nonsense. This stinks of the journalist’s simply making the opinion up.

    No, we couldn’t say anything about the commodification and marketing of real human babies and real human mothers, and the devaluing in general of real human people, and the right of a baby (where possible) to know his own parents, or the rise of children who are deliberately created to live without a father or without a mother, or the waste of resources on expensive artificial baby-making that could be used to care for real, live children who are living today through no fault of their own without a permanent home or family.

    No, Christians couldn’t possibly care about all that. It’s all about “tampering with the miracle of human life.”

  • Julia

    Until a couple hundred years ago or less, it was not known that the mother provided half of the material that made up the baby. DNA and genes were unknown, much less that human mothers contribute an ovum. Consequently, women were considered the vessel that receives the precursor of the baby – a loving incubator. I’ve read that before microscopes, they only knew that something in the semen resulted in a baby if deposited in a human woman. It was quite mysterious that somehow babies often looked more like their mothers.

    Anyway, I think that explains a lot about the accepted use of surrogates in the Old Testament. It also might explain why Mary, the mother of Jesus, is so frequently called a vessel, a house and the ark of the covenant in ancient litanies that Catholics grew up learning in the old days. http://www.intermirifica.org/Mary/marylitany.htm

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes

    Catholics see IVF, genetic screening and surrogacy as distortions of the “natural” because they make a baby a product to be bought, not a gift of God to be received.

    So if the kid is imperfect, send him back (i.e. abort him or refuse to raise him).

    And the outsourcing to poor mothers, like the “buying kidney scandals” of India and the Philippines, is merely another way of exploiting poor people: a “no no” in most religions…

    Those who point to Hagar need to see how badly that one turned out…

  • Kyralessa

    That “it’s” in the second sentence is killing me. Editor!

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    You should have notified me sooner! I’m mortified.