Professor Don Seeman
Religion and Bioethics
30 March 2023
Feminism and Surrogacy
Feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. Both of this week’s authors, Barbara Katz Rothman, author of “Reproductive Technologies and Surrogacy: A Feminist Perspective,” and Elly Teman, author of “The Social Construction of Surrogacy Research: An Anthropological Critique of the Psychosocial Scholarship on Surrogate Motherhood,” make feminist arguments regarding the ethics of surrogacy. Both authors argue that the best interests of women alone should determine the availability of surrogacy, and both identify what they believe are the best interests of women regarding surrogacy. Rothman is against surrogacy because it is a patriarchal practice, and Teman is in favor of surrogacy because most surrogacy arrangements lead to positive outcomes for all the women involved.
At the beginning of their respective papers, Rothman and Teman acknowledge the presence of patriarchy in the culture of American surrogacy. Patriarchy is “a system in which men rule as fathers” (Rothman 1600). Teman finds patriarchy in the hesitancy that psychosocial researchers express in their coverage of surrogates. Much of the psychosocial research on surrogacy, to date, focuses on the differences (moral, economic, and psychological) between surrogates and other women, presupposing that a difference exists, and that “normal” women are not surrogates. This research continues to happen despite the fact that this topic is well covered, and the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that surrogacy arrangements are positive experiences and that surrogates are happy, rational people. She claims that this hesitancy is a part of the larger societal narrative that surrogates are moral deviants, who, given a different set of circumstances or the proper mental care, would not choose to relinquish the children that they carry and deliver. The persistence of this narrative in research specifically and society in general is an attempt by patriarchal American society to constrain the choice of rational women.
For Rothman, patriarchy is within the practice of surrogacy itself. Historically (she doesn’t specify when), men possessed exclusive rights to the children conceived with their sperm or “seed.” The women that carried and delivered these children did not have rights to them. The advent of modern reproductive technology forced societal acknowledgment that women contribute their genetic material to the conception of children as well. In this way, the privileges of patriarchy (i.e., rights to children by virtue of genetic relatedness) were extended to women. Now, children are considered to be half their mother’s and half their father’s genetic makeup. Women who contract surrogates to gestate their children (i.e., women who use other women to carry their “seed,” which those women will eventually relinquish without any parental rights) are buying the privileges of patriarchy. Even traditional surrogacy agreements, which involve the eggs of the surrogate and the sperm of the father donor, are patriarchal as they compel the surrogate to submit her parental rights to the parental rights of a man. According to Rothman, institutions born out of patriarchy cannot be used to deconstruct the culture of patriarchy, and therefore Rothman believes surrogacy, both traditional and gestational, should not be allowed because it is harmful to women.
Katie does a great job of explaining the differences between the authors’ positions and the differences between naturalist and constructivist views on pregnancy. As she notes, the authors have fundamentally different views on motherhood. Rothman’s primary concern is that surrogacy is the product of the patriarchy, leading to a variety of undesirable outcomes (e.g., rich women exploiting the reproductive capacities of poor women, or women relinquishing their rights to the children they bear). But these undesirable side effects and all the other potential outcomes of surrogacy arrangements (like the fact that tens of thousands of women happily act as surrogates each year in the US, according to Teman) are secondary to Rothman. She constructs a hierarchy of needs in which giving women rights to the children that they carry and deliver comes before giving infertile women the ability to have biological children. In a gestational surrogacy arrangement, Rothman believes that the surrogate has just as many if not greater parental rights to the child than the genetic parents because of her role as the bearer of the child. She makes no claim about the rationality of surrogates, but she assumes that surrogates are poorer than the women who contract them. While Rothman considers the feelings of infertile mothers to express her sympathy, Teman sets these women aside to center on the feelings of the surrogates. Teman believes that motherhood is a social construct. A woman can choose to be a mother and perform motherly duties regardless of whether she delivered or is genetically related to the child that she is parenting. Similarly, a woman can choose not to be the mother of a child that she gives birth to. No “natural” motherhood exists, and so being a surrogate is a rational choice for women to make.
Before about a week ago, I did not know what surrogacy was, and after reading a lot about the ethics surrounding it, in such a short time, I’m starting to notice surrogacy all around me. Recently, Paris Hilton announced the birth of her son conceived via surrogate. She chose surrogacy because of the birth-related trauma she experienced when she witnessed a live birth. Her choice was met with mixed public opinion. Both authors’ arguments were semi-persuasive to me. In terms of Teman’s argument, I am skeptical of whether the attitudes of psychosocial researchers are representative of the views of the public on any issue. In terms of Rothman’s argument, the grounds and claim are logical, but her evidence is not. The idea of a religion-feminism dichotomy seems to come from a place of ignorance. Also, as Katie points out, Rothman’s gender essentialist ideas (e.g., men don’t care about their children unless they are economically useful, or women always bond with their children) weaken her argument. On a personal level, I can see that surrogacy is a patriarchal structure, but I don’t think that that fact in of itself is a good reason to ban surrogacy. There are lots of individual surrogacy arrangements that are not patriarchal. Even Rothman includes one in her paper: the story of the mother who bears a child for her infertile daughter.