Recently Christianity Today offered Kate Shellnutt’s report of a new baby boom: more evangelical women are serving as gestational surrogates, casting this as a sort of ministry to infertile couples. That trend disturbs on several counts. Well-meaning, generous women like those featured in Shellnutt’s favorable article, who wonder how women who don’t know God can get through the trials of “my belly, not my baby” for nine months, speak as though praying over the bump not only dispels problems but claims surrogacy for the kingdom of God.
But those demons can’t be cast out merely by prayer.
Christian women have served maternity-health needs in many capacities in the United States, from frontier midwives to Catholic sisters pioneering nurse-midwifery. Surrogacy is an altogether different undertaking, and the usual ethical qualms about it apply even when Christians do it. Oft-named reservations include the economic disparity between surrogates and those who contract them, with rife potential for exploitation; the difficulty of enforcing the contracts; problems arising when the pregnancy has problems, especially those involving birth defects or multiples or abortion; the fractured meaning of motherhood when its tasks get divided as surrogacy divides them.
More troubling, this approach to surrogacy depends on a misunderstanding of the body and misunderstanding of pregnancy. Arguments in favor of surrogacy can take on a gnostic cast, emphasizing the body’s utility by first denigrating it. They may imply that the mind and will are the real part of us, the body subordinate at best. Pretending that these physical functions—relational, erotic, generative—may be cut off from their usual intimate meanings without compromise makes grave mistake. Our bodies are not detachable toolkits of useful parts to be employed at will.
Despite the “my belly, not my baby” language of gestational surrogacy, pregnancy is not just about the belly. Ever. Pregnancy makes demands upon the whole body. The belly is just the tip of the iceberg. Gestation is supported by the whole body and wreaks effects from the top of the head to the soles of the feet. The effects of pregnancy on life, on marriage, are no less subject to neat compartmentalization than are its effects on the female body.
Children are good and the desire for them is good. Those who suffer infertility bear pain particular to each situation and perhaps not fully comprehensible by those outside of those circumstances. Disapproval of surrogacy does not dismiss that pain. But baptizing surrogacy as a ministry dishonors the parties on both sides of the contract. Shellnutt notes that high demand lures evangelical women to serve as surrogates, “who typically earn more than $20,000 per birth,” in part because they “fit the profile of the ‘ideal’ surrogate and are drawn to the idea of using their fertility to bless others.” Such women should flee, rather than run to, what is implied by their “ideal” status. The person commissioning a surrogate can command that she configure her lifestyle to optimize fetal outcomes. The surrogate is supposed to act like a mother not out of actual maternal sense but from financial incentive. For the “many evangelical women” described by Shellnutt, this kind of clean living may be no stretch or sacrifice, basically what they would do anyway, which is what makes them such ideal candidates. Those bourgeois virtues, early bed and early rising, abstinence from caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, hard drugs, thus prove themselves useful to God and mammon.
Maybe we have no way of naming a just price besides the market price, and $20,000 is a lot of money, It is far, far short of the fair price. Properly reckoned, the gift of gestation, of consciously nurturing a new person to life, is beyond what any of us can pay. That is what makes appropriate evaluation of pregnancy so important to our self-understanding as human beings. We all came to be through generosity beyond what we can imagine, in circumstances beyond our control or repayment.