Work on this issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics began while I was an intern at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America last summer for the Theological Discernment Team. I was given the task of beginning the editorial process for a future issue. As someone with a strong interest in feminist theology and issues pertaining to women, surrogacy (particularly commercial surrogacy) was a captivating topic. It raised a number of thought-provoking questions, including: Do we speak about commercial surrogacy as a commodification of women’s bodies? Is this commodification permissible when the surrogate is a willing participant? Does economic inequality between those using surrogates and those who choose to be surrogates negate the idea of a willing participant? Is it ethical for people from rich countries like the United States and Canada to use those from poorer countries as surrogates? Should people struggling with infertility be encouraged towards adoption over surrogacy? Is it an ethical good of surrogacy that it enable more diverse families—including those with same-sex parents or single parents?
As I thought about surrogacy, I noticed my own tentativeness when it came to making broad declarations. I actually believe this tentativeness to be appropriate and recommend that posture as you reflect on the many moral dimensions of surrogacy. My hesitation to jump to judgment was driven by an awareness of the culture of judgment in which all women already must live, but which can be particularly heinous towards mothers.
Mothers are chastised, sometimes by other mothers, for a whole host of decisions (many of which have no obvious right answer). Will they do “attachment parenting”? Will they let their babies cry it out? Will they breastfeed or bottle feed? Stay at home, work, or some combination of the two? These questions are the battleground of the “Mommy Wars,” a phenomenon that has not seemed to have entirely died down. Fathers may be critiqued for some of their choices as well, but our American culture, consciously or not, still appears more likely to chew out a woman for the way she raises her child.
In 2012, Time magazine ran a cover story titled “Are You Mom Enough?” to accompany a feature on attachment parenting. This cover, which showed a young mother breastfeeding her four-year-old son who was standing on a stool, raised controversy at the time—over whether the image was sexualizing breastfeeding, over whether breastfeeding a child that age is appropriate, and over whether that probing headline preyed on women’s insecurities. Many felt such a question was clearly intended to pit mothers against one another and to evaluate themselves against a parenting ideal. This is just one recent and flashy example of this culture of judgment.
Though surrogacy involves much more than just mothers, the moral examination of surrogacy can play into our vicious critiquing of mothers by evaluating how people choose to bring their children into the world. Women’s feelings can become subject to our nitpicking and may even be shamed in the process. For example, the desire to have biological offspring despite one’s infertility is sometimes dismissed off-hand as selfish by opponents of surrogacy.
As a single, 22-year-old woman with no immediate plans to have children and, at this stage, no reason to suspect any problems with fertility, I can empathize with, but not fully understand, the situations of many people who are considering surrogacy. For instance, I cannot fully understand what it is like to try to become pregnant for years without succeeding, perhaps even going through multiple miscarriages. I may also not fully understand the decisions of women who find that the best way to provide for their own family or future is to carry someone else’s child. In our moral assessments of surrogacy, we would do well to remember the humans behind the issue—an imperative, perhaps, for any moral issue.
This does not mean that we should refrain from investigating the ethical questions that arise or making any moral assessments. My encouragement is simply that we undertake our task with sensitivity to the fact that women in particular already face burdensome judgments about their parenting decisions. How might we have this conversation around surrogacy in a way that does not encourage a Mommy Wars of its own? I must admit that I am not sure…though perhaps our starting point is simply empathy for all involved.