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On surrogacy, slavery and choice(s): My response to Breda O’Brien

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Breda O’Brien is a conservative Catholic and columnist with the Irish Times, notable for her resolute adherence to church doctrine in all matters reproductive. She has become notorious for crackpot columns like this one, a response to the horrific case of the 9-year-old Brazilian girl who was raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather and whose mother and doctors were excommunicated after getting her an abortion. (Her rapist, quite tellingly, was not.) The column is behind a pay wall, but to summarise, O’Brien’s response was first to grab her own 10-year-old daughter and put her on a scale to compare her weight with that of the Brazilian girl, and ultimately to proclaim that if the same thing happened to her own daughter the pregnancy would be carried to term.

Last Saturday she wrote this piece, which I hope can still be read without subscription. It’s an attack on surrogate motherhood, which she condemns as “just another form of slavery” and wants to ban, although she does not clarify exactly what form this ban would take. The clear implication of her column is that surrogacy is something only done by desperately poor women in the developing world, which isn’t actually true; here, for example, is the website of a Canadian woman who seems to have become a professional surrogate and encourages others to do the same. I don’t think she’s aiming her “Information on how to become a surrogate mother” at Kolkata slum-dwellers – but even if she was, the possibility that they might rationally consider surrogacy a better option than their alternatives is one that O’Brien simply cannot fathom.

I sent a response to the Irish Times but, true to form, they didn’t print it. In fact, they haven’t printed any replies, which is unfortunate (I can’t believe mine was the only one). This is an increasingly important issue – not least because of the gap in Ireland’s laws which means that some children produced through surrogacy are ending up stateless – and as Ireland’s paper of record, the Times has a responsibility to facilitate debate on it and not to simply print one side of the argument and leave it at that.

Anyway, here’s the response that I wrote.

Breda O’Brien raises a valid point about the potential for exploitation of women as surrogate mothers, although her invocation of slavery to describe what is more likely to be a preference among limited options is unfortunate. Real slaves do not get to make even constrained choices.

It is not clear, however, why surrogacy should pose any greater legal dilemma than adoption, which O’Brien seems to believe should be not only legal but mandatory when a woman has an unwanted pregnancy which she would otherwise abort. Is it not also a form of surrogacy to compel a woman in this circumstance to bear the child for the benefit of another woman?

Furthermore, O’Brien is silent about exactly HOW Ireland should make surrogacy illegal. Would she criminalise a woman who becomes pregnant on behalf of another? Would she force such a woman to become the legal mother herself? Or would she simply deny Irish couples the right to recognition as parents of a child born through surrogacy, leaving the child and birth mother to whatever fate awaits them under the laws of their own country (in the hope this will never be Ireland)?

Finally, O’Brien fails utterly to address what will happen to the women who become surrogate mothers due to lack of other options. Those who use protection from exploitation as a reason to deny a source of income to persons in poverty have a responsibility to outline how they expect those persons to compensate – now, not in some future utopia where there are adequate alternatives available.

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About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

17 responses »

  1. Recently, the Pope made a statement against Surrogacy and the Catholics for Choice made the following statement:

    Not all Catholics are willing to simply accept his condemnation of infertility treatments, however. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, dismissed the Pope’s comments as another sign of the church being out of touch with the realities of everyday believers. “Catholics around the world will be saddened at the label ‘arrogant’ being applied to couples seeking help to have children and the doctors who try to help them. The pope’s remarks only serve to drive another wedge between people of faith and the church hierarchy. This attack on reproductive technologies is yet another display of the Vatican’s lack of empathy and understanding and a vain attempt to hold back scientific development as well as impede access to reproductive technologies for couples around the world.”

    Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/pope-condemns-ivf-saying-it-is-arrogant-to-replace-the-will-of-the-creator.html#ixzz1o2o7LvHV

    Reply
    • The opposition to IVF really annoys me, as someone with much-loved extended family members who wouldn’t be here without it. Isn’t it ironic that anti-choicers often act as though the existence of (legal) abortion is a personal assault on their own children’s right to exist – even though no one on the pro-choice side is calling for mandatory abortions – yet by opposing reproductive technology, they are actually saying that my relatives and others conceived in similar fashion should never have been born.

      Reply
      • Precisely. Or, to put it another way, their argument is that many those who want children shouldn’t have them, while others who don’t want children must have them.

        Reply
  2. Is it not concerning if surrogacy becomes an industry in developing countries? Just as I am concerned about sweatshops and child labour I am concerned about this. It seems to me to be very open to exploitation. There is also potential for health concerns, and impacts on the woman’s existing children if she is away for months. I wouldn’t defend that practice, and certainly not on the basis that the women involved are open to the exploitation.

    I don’t see that adoption and surrogacy are the same either – logically then adoption and conceiving a child are identical. They obviously aren’t. If no adoption happens the child still exists, if conception doesn’t no-one exists.

    Where I think this is problematic is that it assumes only one type of surrogacy is possible. What if a man or a couple hires a woman to carry a child conceived from her egg – how is that to be regulated or prevented? Should that resulting child be stateless? Is the aim only to prevent implantation of another woman’s egg in the surrogate? If so, are donor eggs (where a woman can carry a pregnancy to term but is infertile) to be banned too? I think those questions need thrashing out.

    Reply
    • Any type of labour can be exploitative when people are poor. The best solution to this is to end poverty, but failing that, I think that generally the more options poor people have the better. Perhaps a woman might want to become a surrogate mother as an alternative to sweatshops, or to putting her children to work. Would you really force her into one of the two latter choices (or into a third, sex work) because you think surrogacy is exploitative?

      There is “potential for health concerns” in many types of work. Usually the way we deal with this is by occupational health and safety measures. I can’t see that surrogacy, properly regulated, would be more dangerous than for example the fishing industry.

      I’m also not sure why a surrogate mother would necessarily need to be away from her own children for months at a time but isn’t it interesting how nobody ever uses that argument when it’s men’s work we’re talking about?

      I don’t see that adoption and surrogacy are the same either – logically then adoption and conceiving a child are identical. They obviously aren’t. If no adoption happens the child still exists, if conception doesn’t no-one exists.

      You’re missing the point, it’s about sorting out the legalities of parenthood when the persons legally recognised as parents are not the biological parents. Obviously this is an issue both for surrogacy and adoption. It is not an issue when a person/couple conceives a child they plan to raise as their own. If we can sort out the legalities with adoption I see no reason why we can’t with surrogacy.

      Reply
  3. Here is the text of the article (pay per view) mentioned above:

    Despite some awful dilemmas, abortion is not an option

    Sat, Mar 21, 2009

    Compassion for families facing awful dilemmas does not always dictate the remedy of abortion, writes BREDA O’BRIEN

    RÓISÍN INGLE inspired an unusual event this week. I put my little girl, aged 10, on weighing scales for the first time since she was six weeks old. I didn’t tell her why, and she just accepted it, shrugged, and went back to playing.

    Róisín wrote about her niece in her last column. She wanted to know why she had to make her first Holy Communion, a question Róisín found hard to answer, as she is not a Catholic nor particularly fond of what she sees as a religion that specialises in indoctrination.

    I winced a bit at Róisín’s description of the sacrament, as eating “crispy bread that she will be asked to believe has been transformed into the body of Jesus Christ”. However, for someone to whom it makes no sense, it was probably within the boundaries of fair comment. Róisín goes on to say she was mellowing a bit, moving on from her “ranty, anti-organised-religion” stance. Maybe there is no harm in these rites of passage. Maybe she would even get her own twins baptised after they are born, adding mischievously that the multi-denominational school was a bit further than she would like to walk.

    Then her mother told her about the nine- year-old in Brazil who became pregnant with twins after being abused by her stepfather. The child’s mother took her for an abortion. The Archbishop of Recife excommunicated the mother and doctors, but said the rapist’s crimes did not merit excommunication.

    At that point, not surprisingly, the detente was over. Róisín hopes that her niece does not ask her again about why she has to make her Communion, because “despite what I told her, I don’t know and I never will”.

    One detail really struck me from Róisín’s column. The little Brazilian girl, called Carmen in some reports, apparently weighed only 36kg even though she was 16 weeks pregnant with twins. I asked my little girl to let me see what she weighed. Twenty nine and a half kilos. She disappeared, and I remained, staring at the scales, feeling faintly sick.

    I kept remembering a time a few months ago when my daughter had a really severe headache. She was begging, “Make it go away, Mammy. Make it go away!” As usual, I was certain it was a brain tumour or meningitis, but my husband calmly suggested that we wait and see if the Calpol kicked in, which it quickly did. Crisis over.

    I tried to imagine what I would do if she were pregnant as a result of rape. What if she were begging me to make it go away, Mammy, make it go away? What would I do?

    I don’t blame Carmen’s mother for the choice that she made, especially since she was also dealing with the horror that it was her husband who was the father. He apparently had also been raping his other, older step-daughter who is physically handicapped.

    The archbishop’s comments, if made as reported, were desperately lacking in compassion for the dilemma facing Carmen’s mother. It emerged that a high-ranking Vatican official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, thought so, too. He talked about the way the case was handled, which “unfortunately hurts the credibility of our teaching, which appears in the eyes of many as insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking mercy”.

    However, even though the mother’s decision to choose abortion for her daughter was absolutely understandable, I knew it was not one I could go through with. I am well aware that our culture has moved to a place where it is impossible to envisage that denying a child an abortion might ever be motivated by compassion.

    I know that for some people it would simply put me in the same category as Josef Fritzl forcing his daughter to go through incestuous pregnancies. I don’t feel like Josef Fritzl. I feel like someone desperately trying to decide what would be best for all three lives in a situation where all of the alternatives were truly appalling.

    Children should not have to have children, especially after rape. But the younger a child, the less likely she would be to be able to rationalise an abortion, no matter how great the initial relief. Even a rapist does not receive the death penalty. Could a little child cope with 20 more weeks, in order to possibly save two lives?

    Doctors in Brazil disagreed about whether there was a threat to Carmen’s life. Some of them pointed to Lina Medina, who gave birth at the age of five (yes, five) to a healthy baby in Peru in 1939. (The internet coverage of this well-documented case gives the impression that some of the doctors at the time were more interested in her as a medical freak than in discovering who had raped her. Her father was arrested, but was released without charge. An internet image of Lina Medina, her tiny belly swollen with the pregnancy, verges on the pornographic.) However, for any mother, the fact that a five-year-old survived a pregnancy would hardly be comforting. My head hurt with the awfulness of it all.

    Answering why a child has to make a First Holy Communion was a snap in comparison. The short answer is that she doesn’t have to. And if it is only viewed as a rite of passage, with no deeper meaning, she probably shouldn’t make it at all.

    But if it does mean something, if it is not all about frilly dresses and bouncy castles, then it is one of the most moving moments of any parent’s life.

    Seeing our children commune for the first time with a God who is love, so loving that he was willing to become completely part of our sad, muddled, often heartbreaking existence, brought tears to my eyes.

    Just because so many of our so-called celebrations of Mass seem to manage to mask entirely the heart-stopping mystery and wonder of a God who is with us always, doesn’t mean that the wonder no longer exists. And just because some church people say and do appalling things, perhaps including from time to time this columnist, does not negate 2,000 years of a message of love.

    © 2009 The Irish Times

    Reply
    • Thanks for that Glitterball. I had forgotten how completely bonkers the column was. Seriously, try telling this “2000 year-old message of love” crap to a nine-year-old rape victim who’s pregnant with her stepfather’s twins.

      Reply
  4. You do see that response is rather more nuanced that your original one? If surrogacy was properly regulated, if women did not have to leave their families to go to dorms to be fully supervised, if women were fully protected legally & physically, the situation would be different. As it is, the situation is NOT different. As it is the situation IS open to exploitation.

    The sex work example just underlines this. Is doing sex work because of an urgent need for money empowering or just taking advantage of people’s desperation? Would you advocate encouraging prostitution in a society which had little of it to give women more choices?l

    Regarding the “leaving their families”, personally I have used that argument in relation to men forced to move for work. I think it is an issue that needs to be acknowledged for all people.

    The difference with surrogacy vs-a-vis adoption is that in the latter case there is a child in need already existing; in the former case you are creating one. I agree that in both there is an issue of establishing legal relationships between parents and an unbiologically related child. I agree this can and should be examined and put in a proper legal footing. Many of these issues apply with a surrogate within this country. As I outlined in my original comment, I don’t think it’s as simple as banning the process. I don’t think that is possible.

    Reply
    • You do see that response is rather more nuanced that your original one?

      Erm, my original response started off by acknowledging the potential for exploitation. You seem to be creating a source of disagreement where none exists.

      The sex work example just underlines this. Is doing sex work because of an urgent need for money empowering or just taking advantage of people’s desperation? Would you advocate encouraging prostitution in a society which had little of it to give women more choices?l

      Actually, one of the key themes of this blog (or of my posts on it, anyway) is that the option of sex work should not be taken away from women – or men – who see it as a preferable alternative to other forms of exploitative labour. I know the likes of Breda O’Brien would not agree with me, which is precisely why they need to be challenged for advocating policies that are only likely to push more women into the sex industry.

      Reply
  5. This was an interesting post. I live in the United States & had a son via gestational surrogacy almost 3 years ago. I’m always frustrated at how people think surrogates are in 3rd world countries & being exploited. There are US surrogates too & they are far from exploited.

    Reply
  6. Women are not second-class citizens and do not need to be protected from themselves. They are fully capable of making their own decisions and accepting responsibility for them. Being a gestational carrier is a choice, so it is not exploitative for those who wish to take part in it.

    Rather than preventing harm to surrogates, the prohibition of commercial surrogacy creates optimal conditions for their exploitation.

    Reply
    • Thank you for saying that Jon! I live in Canada where the laws around egg donation and surrogacy have left a void into which Intended Parents, Donors and Surrogates can all fall. No one is “protected” from anything: everyone in the equation -most of all the child- is vulnerable. The best situation is a legalized and regulated fertility industry as exists in many countries.

      Reply
  7. Did anyone see that dreadful woman on primetime the other night. She was given free reign by miriam o callaghan, condoning surrogacy. she’s nuts

    Reply
  8. I really can’t figure out why she gets so much TV and press time.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Surrogacy… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution

  10. hello Wendy! a late entry in the discussion but i just thought I’d write n say i enjoyed reading it and that woman o brien does sound really nuts!!
    I am from the ‘third world’ so to say and a part of a team engaged in a research on surrogacy in India and trying to figure out a feminist response which also needs to lead to policy recommendations, i think most of all, the legislation needs to be figured out around this issue.. pretty murky! we’re mostly look at the surrogate’s perspective and what is /isn’t work, what is ok and isn’t in this realm, the parallels to sex work, to adoption, how we value gestating and the birthing process while recognising that all women don’t thing ‘motherhood’ is natural…

    Reply

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