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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.