Surrogate 'Motherhood.' (Ethics)

By Hewitt, Marsha | Canadian Dimension, September 1991 | Go to article overview

Surrogate 'Motherhood.' (Ethics)


Hewitt, Marsha, Canadian Dimension


In 1987, a forty-eight year old South African woman gave birth to triplets, after having been impregnated with the fertilized egg of her daughter. If we use the vocabulary available to us in an effort to describe the family relationships resulting from this procedure, then the 'mother' of the triplets is also their 'sister'; the 'mother's' husband is both their brother-in-law as well as their 'father' and the 'grandmother' is also the triplets' 'mother.' How do these children, born of reproductive technology plus surrogacy, come to understand that their 'mother' is their 'grandmother' and their 'sister' is their 'mother,' and so on.

If this seems confusing to the reader, what must it be like for all the people actually involved? How do people in such a situation begin to make sense of their identifies, and their relationships with each other? Although we have the technology available to produce such family structures, we do not possess an adequate vocabulary to describe them, nor the ethical language by which we might evaluate them. Such developments in 'reproductive technology' (the phrase itself boggles the mind) render us humanly speechless.

The contract

Most surrogate arrangements look like this: a woman is employed by a man via legal contract to function reproductively in place of another woman who cannot (will not?) become pregnant herself, in order that the couple may have his genetic off-spring. The birth mother is paid a fee for the use of her uterus, which will grow and incubate a child that is either genetically hers and her employer's, (by whom she has been artificially inseminated) or, if in vitro fertilization techniques are involved, is biologically related to the employer's wife. In some cases, the birth mother is given part of the fee at the beginning of the pregnancy, receiving the balance upon 'delivery' of an acceptable product, i.e., a physically and mentally healthy baby. If something goes wrong, and the baby is defective, the birth mother may be forced to keep the child, and will receive a portion of the total payment. The 'father' of the child has no further responsibility for supporting it.

Who is the surrogate mother?

The woman who actually gives birth to the baby is most commonly known as the 'surrogate mother,' whereas in fact she may be more accurately described as a paid reproductive worker, the product of whose 'labour' becomes an object with an exchange value, consumed in the market just like any other commodity item. Like any other wage-labourer, the birth mother too is alienated from the object of her (re)productive activity, although in her case, the alienation is especially deep because her product is literally, physically, part of herself. If she is to properly fulfil the terms of her employment, the birth mother must split herself off from herself, objectifying her body into an instrument of (re)production as well as objectifying her 'child' into a commodity item. However questionable or even repugnant her actions might be considered in renting out her body for purposes of giving birth to a child that she will relinquish for payment, she is not a 'surrogate mother,' the surrogate is the woman who assumes the role of mother in the place of the birth mother after the employer (her husband) has appropriated the product of the birth mother's labour.

In the surrogate arrangement, the man defines the relationship of both women to the child; on the one hand, he reduces the birth mother to little more than a machine that makes the child, and on the other, his marriage to the actual surrogate allows him to bestow maternal rights on her that become legalized through adoption. In commercial surrogacy, men are able to control the entire reproductive process by rearranging and transforming the relationships involved in the creation of new life.

Ethical issues

By focusing on the commercial aspect of surrogacy, several things come into focus that reveal waht surrogate contract arrangements really are. …

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