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16 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 11:48am

Surrogacy snaps the mother-baby bond in two – we should not celebrate it as progress

For defenders of the industry, it is the genetic link that matters, not the long months of pregnancy that transform a single cell into a legal person.

By Louise Perry

Several women warned me that having a baby changes the way you sleep. Not just as a result of sleep deprivation – although that is a force to be reckoned with – but also in stranger, subtler ways.

Our son is now one month old and I’m no longer capable of sleeping either deeply or for more than 90 minutes at a time. I’ve stopped dreaming about anything except him. At every moment, my mind and body are unceasingly focused on the baby, and when he sleeps in the crib tethered to the side of our bed, I invariably wake up to find myself in the same pose: pressed up against the edge of the mattress, one arm cradled around him, our faces a few inches from one another. Every cell in my body loves every cell in his.

Mammals have been around for at least 178 million years, which is another way of saying that the mother-baby dyad has been around for at least 178 million years. Human babies are particularly fragile when they’re born, which means human mothers have evolved to be particularly attentive to them. Most of us consider this emotional response to be precious – even, dare I say it, sacred. A depiction of the maternal dyad is to be found in every church in the form of the Madonna and child, and the mother goddess holds an authoritative position in pantheistic religious traditions.

The feminist writer Adrienne Rich once described the bond between mother and baby as “the great original source and experience of love”. If it were not so dominated by men, I suspect that the Western canon would be filled not with romantic poetry addressed to a lover, but with maternal poetry addressed to a child.

And yet not everyone regards maternal love with wonder. The surrogacy industry, for instance, seems to me to regard it as an inconvenience, since this is a sector set up to cater for the visceral desires of intended parents – that is, the people who commission a surrogate mother to produce a child for them – but which must work against the visceral desires of the women who give birth.

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One typical guide for intended parents details the need to engineer an “emotional transfer” when a child is born by surrogacy. The woman who has just given birth must hand over a baby that has lived inside her for months, and there is a risk – to use the cold language favoured by the industry – of “psychological complications” as a result.

[see also: The politics of everyday life: motherhood]

In Britain, commercial surrogacy is illegal, although in practice so-called altruistic arrangements do sometimes involve payment changing hands as “expenses”, and intended parents are able to travel overseas to seek out commercial surrogacy services in more permissive jurisdictions. Some progressives decry the status quo as too restrictive, and the Law Commission is currently conducting a review into the regulation of surrogacy and the legal parentage of children born through it: a consultation paper published by the commission in June 2019 gives an idea of what we can expect in terms of recommendations for law reform, including – most troublingly – a proposed loosening of the legal bond between the surrogate mother and baby.

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Under British law, it is the woman who gives birth to a baby who is considered to be that child’s legal parent, and the intended parents are obliged to apply for a parental order following the birth. If the Law Commission gets its way, however, the situation will be reversed: in a new system “the intended parents will be the legal parents at birth subject to the surrogate’s exercise of her right to object”. In other words, it will be more difficult for surrogate mothers to keep the babies they help create and give birth to.

Some people will object to my use of the word “create”, pointing out that most surrogacy arrangements nowadays are of the “gestational” rather than “traditional” variety, meaning that the surrogate mother has no genetic relationship to the child. For defenders of the industry, it is the genetic link that matters, not the long months of pregnancy that transform a single cell into a legal person.

This diminishment of the pregnant woman’s role is reminiscent of Aristotle’s “flowerpot” theory of reproduction, in which the woman supplies the inert container, but the seed belongs to the man, who thus has authority over the resultant plant. When we decide that an egg donor has a better claim to parenthood than a surrogate, we are privileging the father-type relationship over the mother-type relationship, but with the sexes jumbled up. It is modern in its technological sophistication, but distinctly old-fashioned in its subordination of women.

The surrogacy industry is often criticised for its exploitative practices, and rightly so, because we should all be appalled by the surrogacy centres in countries such as India and Thailand, in which poor women of the Global South are used as broodmares for the rich of the Global North. But my objections to the industry go further than this, because even in perfect conditions, with no whiff of economic coercion, the surrogacy arrangement necessarily depends on the breaking of the maternal bond.

Of course, there are cases when this bond must break, for instance when social services are forced to remove a child, and there are also cases when the bond cannot form because of a mother’s mental illness. But these are tragedies, not opportunities for profiteering or celebration. The surrogacy industry takes the foundational human relationship and snaps it in two, in defiance of both our animal instincts and our humanity. And writing this with my baby asleep on my lap, I feel strongly that there is something deeply wrong with any society that considers this snapping to be a form of “progress”.

[see also: Parenthood in an age of crisis]

This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web