What is a Mother?
some problematic thoughts on surrogacy, liberalism, and sex differences
This post has many Implications, many of which I do not delve into, and some which make me uneasy and will undoubtedly feel distressing to readers as well. However, the substance feels true and important, and I have faith that my readers can tolerate troubling ideas, and challenge me on them.
On a recent episode of my podcast with Meghan Daum, A Special Place in Hell, the question of surrogacy came up.
I’ve been troubled by the practice for a while, and am putting into words some of the reasons why in this post. I am excluding a big one: the exploitative nature of the trade on the surrogates, as it is covered well enough elsewhere.
To be clear, I don’t feel that powerfully about surrogacy as an issue in itself–but I do feel powerfully about the assumptions behind it: the commodification of children, the disregard of the unique nature of motherhood (as opposed to fatherhood), and even more fundamentally, all the ways in which our beautiful, abstract notions of equality, freedom, and choice fail to map to reality, and therefore, misguide us as we navigate ethically murky waters.
So let’s dive in.
First, I reject the idea that anyone has a ‘right’ to a child.
I realize why others may disagree. In our very liberal society, we consider any inequality inherently unjust, and further, we believe it is our duty to collectively address that inequality. Some of us are not fertile, or cannot gestate, and others cannot have biological children with the partner of their choice, it is not ‘fair’ that they cannot build families as many others can–the joy of related-children denied to them on account of what they cannot control.
These people want the kind of family available to everyone else, and if technology allows for it, why shouldn’t they have one? Why shouldn’t, for example, a straight couple in which the woman cannot carry the child hire a surrogate to carry her fertilized egg for her? Why shouldn’t a gay male couple have related children of their own–borrowing (or renting) a willing womb? Or, more controversially, why shouldn’t a superstar celebrity whose career depends on her beauty hire someone to turn her eggs into a child? If she has the money, why shouldn’t she have a child whose eyes match her own, without losing her flat and attractive abdomen?
Perhaps I would say ‘why not’ before I myself became a mother, and learned in detail about what actually happens in pregnancy and labor. It is a myth that a pregnant woman is simply a vessel: The act of the carrying itself transforms both her body and her mind: she changes as an organism to better meet the needs of the child she is producing and long after delivery. Meanwhile the child's DNA remains in her body, affecting it in ways that are not yet understood—the child quite literally remaining a part of her. Mothers of young babies will tell you about the “baby radar” in their heads—how they will snap out of deep sleep in an instant at hearing even the slightest whine of their baby (while their exhausted husband can snore throughout purple-faced cries). They wonder at the way their bodies change to accommodate the baby even after birth–body odor increasing and areolas darkening so that the newborn can better sense his mother, and as the he ages and his eyes improve, witnessing their body revert. Their breastmilk itself “grows” with the baby–changing in its composition to meet its needs, even enhancing its protective properties when the baby is sick. Exactly how the breasts know to do this is debated–one of the many ways that the maternal-infant bond continues to mystify.
After going through all this myself, it was clear to me that a mother is more than just a female egg-donor. The process of pregnancy and labor too “create” the mother, psychologically and physically. In an ideal scenario (and indeed, throughout most of human history), the mother is also the sole source of nourishment for a child in its early days, and the primary caretaker long after that, cementing an already-unique bond.
Thankfully, human societies have made life easier for mothers by easing her burdens. She no longer needs to be the one forced to look after her children–her partner can take on the primary role, or otherwise, a paid professional can step in. She does not need to feed the child from her breast–first there were wet-nurses (largely available to high-status women) but now there is the relatively cheap, accessible and healthy option of formula. Finally, a new frontier of freedom: if she has enough money, does not even need to gestate her child.
But at that point, what is a mother, anyway?
Social progress and technologies have freed women from our biological restrictions (and there are so, so many of them). Inarguably, this is a wonderful thing…for the woman. Is it wonderful for the child?
This question is a dangerous one, and I can practically feel the anger of some readers. (I advise that if your feelings are getting the better of you, to refer again to my throat-clearing above. This is, some will note, the same argument that lies at the heart of the abortion debate. I am not going to go into that one today, but I will say: I do not believe one has the “right to be born”, but neither do I believe “my body my choice” is an honest or accurate encapsulation of the multi-people being that is a pregnant woman). To assuage any unpleasantness somewhat, let me disclose that I myself am a working mom who pays others to help with childcare, and consider breastfeeding a “nice to have” luxury. Having said that, I do not believe that such behaviors, while good for me and (on the whole) good for my family, do not come without a cost. So what is the “cost” of outsourcing gestation itself?
Put another way: Does the child have the right to be both gestated by and biologically-related to the same person? Unlike childcare or formula, without severe intervention of cutting-edge technology, such a thing would be biologically impossible. But thanks to the miracles of modern science, the woman who has undergone material changes in body and mind to better meet the needs of a child and the woman who shares that child’s DNA need not be the same. What are the consequences of this division of roles–especially given the intense needs of an infant? More interestingly, is there a case to be made that in this scenario, there are three biological parents? Does the child have a right to a “full” mother (or any mother at all)?
In these conversations, I feel a division in myself.
There is the individualist liberal on the one hand, who feels emphatically that it is a social good to grant as many people as many freedoms as possible–to allow them to decide for themselves what is good and healthy for them. This person is inherently suspicious of ‘limits’, especially if they are imposed by society. More abstractly, this person has a transhumanist bent and looks forward to a future where more and more of our biological restrictions can be overcome through technological progress–freeing us from the constraints of our own bodies.
The other self, the realist pragmatist, recognizes that freedoms are not entirely free, that with every gain, there is a corresponding loss. Sometimes that loss is a moral good too, but other times, it is more complicated. The pragmatist also notes that much of the ‘individualist liberal’ discourse rests on assumptions which are not necessarily true, such as “more choice = more happiness/satisfaction”. This person does not regard biology as a set of physical impositions which hold us back from being true to some deep inner-self. Instead, she denies that there is an inner-self separate from the body at all. Our biological limitations do not constrain us, they are us.
The liberal wishes to believe that humans are equal in our capacities–that mothers and fathers can be equally good parents and equally important in the lives of a child. The pragmatist agrees–but adds that while both mothers and fathers are parents, a mother is not a father and a father is not a mother. That is to say, biological roles are highly flexible but they are not interchangeable. The specific maternal bond, when lost for any reason, cannot be fully replaced by a different bond. (That is not to say that the loss is inherently damning–children of devoted single fathers are proof that one can still be raised in love and enjoy a beautiful life. Nevertheless, it remains a loss.)
The liberal wishes to grant every person the ability to experience every joy–including the joy of parenthood. The pragmatist takes into account that some joys require the presence and participation of other human beings, whose joys and experiences too must be taken into account.