Shouldn’t Public Policy Protect People from Worst Case Scenarios?

by Matthew Eppinette, CBC Executive Director on July 19, 2016

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I’ve just finished testifying by phone before the Minnesota Legislative Committee on Surrogacy. The committee is holding a series of meetings on the issue this summer, and each meeting has a specific focus. Today’s meeting addressed the health and psychological risks of surrogacy to women and children, and my testimony below reflects this. Of course there is much more that could be said about the practice of surrogacy, and I am glad that the Committee is open to hearing a wide range of perspectives in order to fully explore the topic.

Good afternoon, my name is Matthew Eppinette. I am Executive Director of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, based in California. I have visited Minnesota many times, and I have good friends in Maple Grove, Edina, and St. Paul. It is a privilege to be invited to speak to you today.

I am an ethicist and a filmmaker. I have worked in the field of bioethics since 2002. I hold a Master’s degree in bioethics and I have just completed my fourth year in a PhD program in ethics; I will begin writing my dissertation this fall. As a filmmaker I have co-written, co-directed, and co-produced three feature-length documentaries and one documentary short film on topics around third-party reproduction: egg donation, sperm donation, and surrogacy.

As both an ethicist and a filmmaker, I am interested in hearing, understanding, and telling the stories of those who have engaged in or been affected by practices around which important ethical questions exist.

Most relevant to this commission’s deliberations is my 2014 film Breeders: A Subclass of Women? As the question mark at the end of the subtitle indicates, the film sets out to explore the question of whether the practice of surrogacy—particularly paid, contract, gestational surrogacy—whether this practice, at its core, treats women as mere breeders. It is a provocative title meant to draw attention to an important topic.

Please allow me to briefly relate a few of the stories from the film.

Heather found out a few months into her surrogacy experience that the baby she was carrying—a boy—had a severe congenital abnormality. The commissioning parents told her to get an abortion and virtually abandoned her. Heather took it upon herself to find parents who were willing to adopt the boy, hoping to provide him with the best chance at a good life. In the end, the commissioning parents took the baby home from the hospital. Heather broke down in tears as she described the one single glimpse of the baby she was given in the hospital, and the pain of not knowing what has happened to him since his birth.

Tanya is a Minnesota resident who wanted to testify before you today, but is unable to do so because of pending litigation as she seeks custody of the child she carried. In the film, Tanya describes the way in which the baby she carried, who often cried and cried and cried, would quiet immediately when held her in her arms, even many months after she gave birth. In addition, Tanya describes the uncertainty and pain that her serving as a surrogate caused for her own daughter, who watched her carry and then give away a child.

Jessica was born from a commercial surrogacy arrangement in 1983. She relates the uncertainty she experienced growing up seeing that she was clearly not biologically related to the Korean mother who was raising her, but not knowing why or how. In her late teens she discovered that she had been born via surrogacy. She continues to be troubled by the fact that money was exchanged in order for her conception and birth to take place. At the top of her personal website, which is entitled “I am a product of surrogacy,” she has a quote that reads in part, “It looks to me like I was bought and sold . . . When you exchange something for money it is called a commodity.”

We also interviewed Nancy Verrier, a psychologist who focuses on the bond between mother and child, and especially what happens when that bond is ruptured, which she terms a “primal wound.” In our film she movingly talks about the fact that newborns know their mothers. Allow me to quote her:

One of the things that’s interesting to me is that people don’t think that babies know their own mothers. They don’t think it makes any difference to them who the mother is. And yet we know if you go out into the country and you see a whole flock of sheep, that little lamb out there is going to be able to find its own mother. Human babies are as smart instinctively. And yet we take human babies away from their mothers, right at birth, a lot of time. And I think we need to pay more attention to what we’re doing. With new neurological sciences, they’re going to find out that these babies are much more aware than we give them credit for.

Her point is this: “The baby is hurt by the separation, by the loss of that mother that it knows.”

But perhaps it’s the case that in our film we have managed to find most, if not all of those who are unhappy about the practice of surrogacy. No, far from it. In fact, after each film we’ve released, our inboxes have filled up with messages from many others contacting us to let us know that the same things (or worse) have happened to them.

As but one example—for the sake of time—we were contacted in late 2015 by Melissa Cook, a woman in the midst of a surrogate pregnancy in southern California who was being pressured to abort one of the multiples she was carrying. She has received national press attention, and I urge you to take a look at this coverage. In brief, she had a contract; the commissioning father threatened to stop paying her medical and other expenses—she was unable to continue working due to pregnancy complications—he threatened to stop paying her expenses if she did not have an abortion, according to the contract’s specifications. This was an abortion she did not expect to be asked to have, and that she most definitely did not want to have. She gave birth to triplets in the spring, and is currently involved in litigation attempting to gain custody of them.

Again, this is not the only story to arise outside of our film. I believe you have received information on a Canadian woman named Nancy who served as a surrogate and nearly died after suffering congestive heart failure at 30 weeks into her surrogate pregnancy.

And on Brooke Brown, a woman in Idaho who died a few days before she was to turn 35, from complications of a surrogate pregnancy. There is much we do not know about Mrs. Brown’s case, but we do know that she was a surrogate for at least five children, that she and the twin babies she was carrying died during a surrogate pregnancy. And we know that she left a husband without a wife, and three sons—Daniel, Aron, and Ryan—without a mother.

Perhaps some will say, but these are worst case scenarios. I ask, should not public policy protect people from worst case scenarios? Contracts and regulations simply cannot protect women and children from all of the harms of surrogacy.

So I want to urge you, as someone who has heard and tried to give voice to the stories of women who have served as surrogate mothers and of children born via surrogacy, and as someone who has studied and worked in the field of bioethics for nearly a decade and a half, I urge you to reject entirely contract surrogate pregnancies in Minnesota.

Thank you for hearing me, and for taking the time to explore this important topic, what it means for your state, and what public policy toward it should be. I wish you all the best in in your work.
 

 

Image by Jonathunder (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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