Week 10: Surrogacy Continued

Natalia Ruich

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.

14 thoughts on “Week 10: Surrogacy Continued

  1. Hi Natalia! Thanks for your post on this week’s readings. Your paragraph covering how the patriarchy influences research on and our understanding of surrogacy, is of particular interest to me. This argument is very compelling, and would suggest to me that there are much more fundamental problems with the ways we engage in research and medicine. Research into surrogacy isn’t the only field that is trapped within institutions grounded by the patriarchy. As such, I think your key argument here, that the patriarchy influences research and how society views certain issues can be extrapolated even further, to other reproductive technologies and even beyond reproduction and health. Your point regarding Rothman’s construction of a ‘hierarchy of needs’ is also interesting to me. I find it difficult to understand Rothman’s position that one carrying a child necessarily relates to the ‘right’ to that child (though I also have a substantial concern to the notion of having a ‘right’ to a child in general). As we have discussed, surrogacy can exist in two main forms, one where the surrogate egg is used in addition to the surrogate’s womb, and the other where both an unrelated egg and unrelated sperm are implanted in the surrogate’s womb. In the latter case, the surrogate bears no biological relation to the child, yet Rothman’s framework still contends that the surrogate has more ‘right’ to the child. While family ties do go beyond blood and genes, it seems to be to be difficult to argue from any cogent ethical (or legal) standpoint that the people who’s genetic material literally created the embryo which would turn into the child could be seen as deserving the child less.

  2. I think Rothman’s argument is fascinating, particularly because up until this point I viewed surrogacy as potentially empowering to women despite some of it’s societal connotations. I think that, by allowing women to go through the process of motherhood by themselves, they can become the patriarchs of their own families. Allowing women the freedom and independence to change their lives and bring life into the world without the help of man seems to be as feminist as it gets in my eyes. At the same time, I don’t quite believe that motherhood is a social construct that can be given freely to anyone with a baby. That is not to say that parents don’t love their IVF and adopted babies in a real and true way, but I do disagree with the idea that motherhood is something that is literally created by society. I think there can be different types of motherhood, each one being valid in its own way, but I do believe it exists independent from societal ideals. I do see the argument that tools which tie women even further to family structures and motherhood (whatever type it may be) could be considered the opposite of feminism. However, if these choices were made consciously and independently by the woman, than I think that is just as feminist as choosing to follow a career. I think that having choice is power, and IVF gives women choice.

  3. Hi Natalia. Thank you for your blog post and your summary of the readings. I really appreciate your view through the lens of feminism. When reading, I did not see the influence in Teman’s article, but now reading your blog, I see it very clearly. Additionally, your discussion of the influence of the patriarchy really stood out to me. It astounds me how much influence men had when much about life was unknown. To have a child you carry be solely a man’s property is unimaginable, especially if there is no support or involvement from him. In the context of surrogacy, I do see a connection if you think about it through a strictly genetic lens: if a surrogate is simply growing the baby, but the child is not genetically related to her, I can see how there may be some dissonance. However, this potential conflict is partially part of Teman’s argument. The general idea that women bond with a child just because they carry them for 9 months is challenged by Teman continuously. Though I do not have experience with this, I can see both sides–how someone might feel a responsibility to the child after the physical labor and how someone may want nothing to do with the child. I think Teman’s argument, at its core, is also concerning this idea of how women are typically viewed as emotional. Incorporating your mention of feminism, I think Teman does a good job of forming a strong argument on the basis of pushing against those preconceived notions of women being more emotional than men or forming tighter/stronger bonds with children simply because they are a woman.

    Thank you for your blog post!

  4. Hello Natalia.
    I really like how you started this off by defining what feminism and patriarchy are. I feel it would be nearly impossible to read these articles without an understanding of what those actually are. I also think you did a great job highlighting the fact that both authors are talking about surrogacy in the context of patriarchy, but Rothman does so saying that surrogacy is bad because it is made from patriarchy, whereas Teman states that the restrictions on it are often patriarchal.
    You do a good job also talking about in the end how surrogacy is right now in the world. It is a very prevalent assisted reproductive technology that is hard to ignore. And stating that Paris Hilton opted for one and giving her simple reason raises debate in itself: What are good reasons to pursue assisted reproductive technology? Does one need a reason? And ultimately, which I think is the theme of both of these articles yet expressed differently, who decides?

  5. Hi Natalia! Thank you for synthesizing the history of feminism and its interplays with the works we have read. I appreciate your summarizes as well as your references to Katie’s work to provide a very thorough and thoughtful review of the week.

    I agree with you in that surrogacy can be used as a patriarchal tool that enforces a patriarchal structure in society. However, I also agree with you in that banning it in justification of reducing misogyny does not seem effective. Here we come to the discussion of what is better–prevention or intervention? Choosing to ban surrogacy seems, to me, that we are allowing politics to get involved in an individual’s choice to reproduce. We see this again and again, especially in the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

    Banning surrogacy will not debase the patriarchy. Banning surrogacy would enhance the assumption that Teman explains that women are not actually making choices for themselves (i.e. some women truly do altruistically choose to become a surrogate).

  6. Natalia,
    Thank you for providing such a clear and concise summary of this week’s readings. I enjoyed how you focused more on their ideas and critiques of patriarchy and how it related to surrogacy and feminism. I tend to find Teman more compelling, but I do have to acknowledge that I already had a bias in that direction. I think Rothman’s argument of surrogacy being born from patriarchy is important, and definitely should be acknowledged and talked about. However, I think society can progress and evolve, and surrogacy today doesn’t have the same patriarchal effects that it use to. I would agree that motherhood, along with pretty much everything, is a social construct, and should not be determined solely by who carried a fetus. I liked how you concluded with how you notice surrogacy in your everyday life, and examples of non-patriarchal surrogacy arrangements.

  7. Hi Natalia. Thank you for your summary and reflections. I especially appreciated your definitions of feminism and patriarchy and your discussion of these pieces as containing opposing feminist arguments. One of the limits, I think, of Katz’s argument is that it is so essentialist—by “essentializing” women, it also “essentializes” men. If parenthood or the right to a child is determined by carrying that child in one’s body, are men parents and do they have the right to a child? Even though (as we’ve discussed in class) gender non-conformity is perhaps the exception to the rule in our society as it is, I still think it is important to consider how people who do not fall into either of Katz’s categories might navigate issues of motherhood and surrogacy. You define feminism, but both Katz and Teman push at this definition, and their arguments are limited, I think, by being “feminist” in a definitional sense. It seems to me that men are as much a part of this issue as women, and not just in the rather negative way that Katz presents them.

  8. Natalia, thank you so much for your blog post. I enjoyed reading your summary of both author’s work. I also liked that you included a popular, modern day figure to try to bring the arguments of both author’s into a real life example. As you mentioned, Teman believes in the idea that motherhood is a social construct. I completely agree with the idea, and have many personal life examples that would only reinforce this concept. There are no set rules or limitations as to who you can call mother. Someone could have a better connection with a mother that is not there biological one. In other words, women can choose to embody a motherly figure regardless of any genetic connection. That is why Teman argues that a woman can choose to give birth to a child, and not be a “mother” to it. I believe that her argument makes a lot of sense. However, I am hesitant to agree that it always works. The child bearer may not feel a connection to her baby at first, but she might feel a that “motherly” attachment after she gives birth that could cause her not to want to give up the child. I would like to dig deeper into how this might factor into surrogacy, and how these situations can be (if at all) avoided.

  9. Hi Natalia! Great post, and I appreciate you bringing in some outside knowledge from recent events in pop culture. To elaborate on this myself, I always found it odd how celebrities use surrogacy not as a treatment for infertility but as an optional method to give birth in order to not be pregnant themselves. I am reminded of two Kardashian sisters who went through the surrogacy process similarly void of infertility issues. This seems to highlight Rothman’s points that surrogacy has become a tool for capitalism and patriarchy, as the ultra rich are able to pay for their pregnancies to not affect their bodies like most. However, void of certain situations like this, altruistic surrogacy can play a very helpful role in fertility treatment for many people. As long as there is no power dynamic behind the surrogacy, it serves to benefit infertile couples by providing a child and benefit the mother by providing money. However, when one party is clearly “above” the other and does not need the process to happen in order to maintain their livelihood while the other does, the process can become toxic, and the financial reliance appears very plainly.

  10. Hey Natalia! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this week’s readings. I really appreciate how you focused on the feminist arguments present in both texts and how they compare and contrast. I agree with both authors that surrogacy should be allowed, but only when it protects the interests of the women involved. However, I feel that each of these texts argues different definitions for those “interests”: Katz seems to argue that it would be in a woman’s best interest neither to act as a surrogate nor to seek out another woman as a surrogate. From my own experience, and from seeing other people’s experiences, I feel that the positive outcomes of the surrogacy process are too valuable for us to ban the process altogether. Nevertheless, I am certain that there are ways in which we can minimize the potential negative effects for all parties involved. I found Teman’s argument to be really interesting, just because it forced me to consider my own definition of kinship/motherhood within this context; I find it hard to believe that physical connection between a newborn baby and the woman who carried it could outweigh the emotional and social connections that form between that child and the parental figures who raise it after delivery. Again, thank you so much for your post and I’m looking forward to our discussion!

  11. Hi Natalia! Thank you for your essay on this week’s topic. I think you did a great job of summarizing the arguments of each other and putting them in conversation with one another, which I really appreciated. In the second paragraph, you mention the argument that rational women are not surrogates – they do not sacrifice their bodies to have the children of another person. You do a great job of expanding upon this point in your essay, but I wanted to dig a little bit deeper into this claim. I agree that women who are surrogates do not abide by “natural” or biological law. Surrogacy was not even possible until complex medical interventions were created to assist infertile couples. With that being said, infertile couples even being able to reproduce by any means does not abide by “natural” law. This makes an important point. Humans do not care if they abide by natural law – biology is typically in the back of their minds due to the fact that a child means more than just the continuation of their biological bloodline. While the specific value of a child in every society is different, humans possess a unique power in creating their families that other members of the animal kingdom do not have. They are better able to time pregnancies, plan for pregnancies, prevent pregnancies, get rid of pregnancies – none of this has anything to do with natural law. Would the same person who argued that rational women do not undergo surrogacy also argue that rational women do not use contraception, simply because that does not abide by rules of evolution and the purpose of sex biologically? Additionally, there are animals that will nurse or groom the young of another mother – they do not do so for money and they may not do so for any evolutionary benefit of their own, yet they still do it? Why? A point like this is more translatable to the topic of surrogacy than the phenomenon of surrogacy only existing within the human world, in my opinion.

  12. Hi Natalia! I also dislike the term “normal women” that was used in the articles because it allows for stereotypes to govern how we think of others instead of understanding each persons situation in its own unique way. Also, I am surprised to learn that Rothman is a woman. I’m so shocked to learn that she would rather not have surrogacy exist despite how surrogacy has helped many parents have a child. I believe that many people today are aware of how big of a problem it is for parents want a child, but can’t conceive one on their own. I wonder whether Rothman was closed off from this information or experience. I think that it’s important for more people to understand how dangerous pregnancy can be to the point where it can be very life threatening to certain people and their children. I believe that if more people understood this, they would be more accepting for those who choose to have a child through a surrogate mother.

  13. Hi Natalia! Great work on your blog post. I really enjoyed reading your perspective on this topic and the readings for this week. I agree with you in the sense that I think both authors make important points, though I do align more with Teman’s points. I do think that the patriarchal structure of surrogacy is important context when considering the ethical/moral implications of surrogacy–so there is certainly value in Rothman’s piece as well. Like I said in my blog response to the readings for this week, I think the points that Teman makes are crucial in the way that women who desire to carry pregnancies for other are often pathologized in terms of their psychology. I appreciate that you included an example of a high-profile surrogacy that occurred. I can understand how the example of Paris Hilton’s surrogacy can be polarizing. However, at the end of the day, I do not necessarily think it matters what someone’s reasoning is for wanting to utilize a surrogate. I think what matters much more is the way in which the surrogacy is carried out and how the surrogate mother is cared for and compensated.

  14. Hi Natalia! Thank you for your thoughtful insights. Your blog post did an excellent job weaving together to compare and contrast the viewpoints of the two authors. I was especially impressed by your discussion of surrogacy as patriarchal and surrogates submitting to parental rights of a man. This is a really interesting point, but if women are making this choice of their own free will and without coercion, I wonder if it would still be considered patriarchal? You also mention that you have started noticing surrogacy all around you. I wonder why this is – are you tuning in more because we are discussing it in class or has surrogacy become more prevalent recently? If it has become more common now, I wonder why? Thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *