Motherhood joins retail economy

We are fond of following in the footsteps of the stars, so it shouldn’t be too long before the average Jo or Joanna is splashing out not on a gastric band or silicone implants, but on their very own “gestational carrier”.

This term was used this week in place of the more familiar “surrogate mother” and it coldly describes a person who will incubate a baby for the paid-up parents.

Motherhood—or, for that matter, parenthood—should not be regarded as a branch of the retail economy. Yet we are creating an unsavoury industry around reproductive technology that feminist writer Gena Corea described in the 1980s in her book, The Mother Machine.
As we do so, not a whimper of dissent is heard. Or perhaps it’s drowned out by celebrity photos and saccharine words about how lovely it is now that homosexual men can “have” babies.

Nicole Kidman and her husband, Keith Urban, offer the latest and most bold demonstration of how a womb for rent can be utterly dehumanised. Hot on the heels of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, and Elton John and David Furnish, Kidman and Urban announced earlier this week that they have a new daughter, Faith Margaret.

“No words can adequately convey the incredible gratitude that we feel for everyone who was so supportive through this process,” the happy couple enthused. “In particular, our gestational carrier.”

Money is not supposed to be a motive when women enter into surrogacy. Many claim to “love” serial pregnancies and as they do so society looks away, knowing that such a toll on the human body is what 40 years of reproductive research has worked to avoid and sensing that some emotional discordance must surely play a part.
A surrogate mother is said to exercise “choice”. Yet choice presupposes that we live in a society in which there are no serious differences in power, income and authority between individuals. And we don’t.

But even if we did, when we treat fertility like some giant supermarket, it sometimes gets messy, as if to remind us that there are some corners of the soul into which even those with bottomless wallets should not go. In South Africa at the moment a surrogate is reportedly holding a couple “to ransom”.

The woman bearing the child is demanding more money, the couple have refused and are seeking a court order insisting that she hand over the child. In an affidavit presented to the court in Durban, the wife argues that because none of the surrogate mother’s genetic material was used in the fertilisation process, she has “no rights to the child”.

In many surrogacy cases, the couple goes to great lengths to choose a woman whose looks, intelligence or disposition they would like to see passed on to the baby. “Ordering up” the kind of child you desire separates surrogacy from adoption, in which compromise is inherent.

And when the surrogate boy or girl in question is anarchic, as all children are, what then? Does the mother or father say in exasperation: “I wish I’d never bought you!” And where are the rights of the child in this exchange? David Furnish and Elton John, announcing the birth of their son Zachary, said that their son would be told the whole truth and that the surrogate mother would be welcome to play a part in his life. Many others give no such assurances.

Yes, love can conquer much and a sensitive telling of the tale may do the trick. But it’s a tightrope to walk made of gossamer thread.—Guardian News & Media 2011

Yvonne Roberts is senior associate at the Young Foundation, a centre for social innovation in London.

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