Daily Dispatches
A scene from the documentary <em>Breeders</em>.
Center for Bioethics and Culture
A scene from the documentary Breeders.

Making motherhood a commodity

Family

In 1987, Charlotte Lee agreed to become a traditional surrogate mother for her barren sister. Lee grew up in an abusive home, so she relished the opportunity to help create a loving family for her sister and her husband. After four attempts to become pregnant through insemination with her brother-in-law’s sperm, Lee joyfully announced a successful pregnancy. 

The sisters remained close until the baby’s birth in February 1988. According to Lee’s 2005 autobiography, Silently I Cried, her labor required an emergency C-section that nearly killed her. Relations between Lee and her sister quickly chilled after Lee signed the adoption papers a few days later. Promised visits with the baby became less frequent, eventually dwindling to none. 

“I was not rewarded with abounding love,” Lee said. “I was left with a physical scar and a much deeper inner wound.”

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Surrogacy has gained increasing popularity in the United States. Celebrity couples and films like Baby Mama, starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, add to the perception that surrogate motherhood is a viable solution for fertility problems. But Jenifer Lahl, president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, says surrogates and the children they bear face dire repercussions in a largely uncharted area of reproductive technology that creates more problems than it solves. 

The first legal contract between parents and a traditional surrogate, when a surrogate’s egg is fertilized with the father’s sperm, was signed in 1978. Although 36 years have passed, state laws regarding surrogacy are sporadic and inconsistent, exacerbated in part by the rapid advancement of reproductive technology, Lahl said. For example, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) now enables gestational surrogacy—the implantation of a fertilized donor egg into a surrogate’s womb—in which the mother has no genetic connection to the child she carries.

“Our laws haven’t kept up,” Lahl said.

But infertile couples aren’t waiting for laws to catch up. The most  recent statistics available show a rapid rise in surrogacy. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, 738 babies were born through gestational surrogates in 2004. The number nearly doubled in 2008 to about 1,400, not counting the unknown number of births through traditional surrogacy. 

On May 31, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed a bill that would have codified surrogacy contracts in his state. Current Louisiana law has few regulations governing surrogacy. It isn’t illegal, but contracts between a couple and a surrogate aren’t enforceable in court. The woman who gives birth is presumed to be the child’s mother. The bill would have legalized altruistic (uncompensated) surrogacy chosen for medical reasons. It only allowed gestational surrogacy for heterosexual couples using their own egg and sperm. 

Jindal, who vetoed a similar bill last year because of moral and ethical objections raised by groups like Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) and the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued this year’s veto due to similar concerns “regarding the ramifications of government-endorsed surrogacy contracts and how this legislation impacts the way we value human life.”

According to Lahl, surrogacy degrades women by turning them into “breeders,” a topic her organization addressed in its most recent documentary, Breeders: A Subclass of Women? During the hour-long film, four former surrogates share their stories of heartache and emotional trauma. Surrogacy breaks natural mother-child bonds and turns children into commodities, said Nancy Verrier, a marriage, family, and child therapist interviewed in the film.  

Poor women are especially vulnerable to exploitation through compensated surrogacy, Lahl said. They need money and surrogacy seems an easy option. Military wives make especially good surrogates due to their husbands’ long deployments and the need for extra cash. Some women become serial surrogates, coping with childless post-partum depression by becoming pregnant again. Surrogacy is increasingly common internationally, with women in India, Thailand, Mexico, Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine offering to bear children for Western couples. Europe has outlawed the practice.

Researchers have conducted few studies on surrogacy’s effects on women and children. And surrogates can be reluctant to share their stories “because it’s shame, it’s pain, it’s custody battles,” Lahl said. One surrogate mother refrained from publicizing her story due to an ongoing court battle over visitation rights. She bore a child for a homosexual couple, and even though she hasn’t seen the child for five years, a court order requires her to pay monthly child support, Lahl said. 

But Breeders has encouraged some surrogates to share their experiences. After a screening of the film, Lee told Lahl her story. She still has no contact with the child she bore, whose parents have since died. Lee believes surrogacy should be outlawed and that families should consider other options, like adoption.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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