The Problem of Glaring Inconsistencies

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on April 13, 2021

The 1999 satirical film Office Space chronicles the downfall of a comedically dysfunctional software company called Initech. The company hires two independent consultants to analyze the company’s inner workings and ultimately help them downsize by terminating the employment of non-essential workers. Throughout the film, we see the “experts” hyper scrutinize all the wrong “problems,” applaud the very worst of the employees, and completely ignore the single greatest threat to Initech’s existence- a disgruntled employee named Melvin who has been quietly demanding fair treatment, dignity, and a functional Swingline stapler to no avail for years on end. The movie ends with Melvin finally reaching his breaking point and burning the entire building to the ground. The people who had been hired to save Initech were, in the end, instrumental in ensuring its demise.

In many ways, the story arc in Office Space can be said to parallel the modern world’s approach to bioethics and, specifically, to surrogacy. The “experts” largely want to stifle conversations that matter, champion disasters like puberty blockers for children, and ignore the human rights atrocities that actually threaten our shared sense of humanity. And for the most part, people on both sides of the political divide allow it. But why? Why is the subject of commercial surrogacy never a true priority in discussions about bioethics, human rights, and maternal/child health? What will be the inevitable costs of continuing to ignore surrogacy as an issue of grave concern? 

There seems to be a great deal of disparity between the various approaches to bioethics, due largely, it seems, to differing gold standards of morality. Questions like, “Where does morality come from?” and “Who ultimately gets to decide what is good or bad, right or wrong?” have plagued us since the beginning of time.  Even Socrates and Plato wrestled with what is good and how can we even know for sure that it is good? 

There are obviously discrepancies between the way people of different faiths navigate these issues and the way the secular world engages and prioritizes them, but, surrogacy should appall us all. Inconsistencies on both sides shine bright when the topic of surrogacy is raised.  Conservative people with pro-family values, who are often religious, can’t seem to see past the “helping people have babies” side of the surrogacy equation.  Liberals and progressives, often seen as champions for the “little guy”, approach surrogacy as if they are more libertarian on the matter. Adults ought to have the right to enter into commercial contracts, and do as they wish, with the caveat that they are fully informed.  Both sides, it seems, ignore the plight of the surrogate mother, or the best interests of the child. As long as the couple who wants a baby, is a satisfied customer, what could be the problem?

Nearly every surrogacy contract on the planet includes clauses where the surrogate must consent to “termination of the pregnancy” or “fetal reduction”, should the intended parents demand it. A blurb on surrogate.com says, in no uncertain terms, “In many surrogacy situations, you will be required to abide by the intended parents’ wishes, even if it may not have been the path you would take yourself. ..If you decide that you are not comfortable with termination or selective reduction, regardless of the circumstances, becoming a surrogate may not be the right path for you.”

In surrogacy arrangements, one common reason cited for  termination of the pregnancy or fetal reduction, is the presence of multiple embryos. Sadly, other reasons can come into play as well, like the couple has decided to divorce, the fetus(es) appear to have something medically wrong with them, or they have simply changed their mind. The intended parents don’t just want a baby, they want a particular kind of baby born according to their needs or wants.  And since this is a costly endeavor, with many chances of failure all along the way, multiple embryos are routinely implanted in the surrogate’s womb in hopes that they will get the baby they want.

Nightmare surrogacy stories related to fetal reduction, stories like Melissa Cook’s, are not hard to find, but they’re not often considered in this particular narrative, which tends to gloss right on over the risks en route to a cheery “babies are a blessing; therefore surrogacy is fine” conclusion.

Of course, there are a million things wrong with commercial surrogacy contracts. All people, no matter their beliefs, should be concerned with maternal/child bonding, maternal/child health, the poor and marginalized, the buying and selling of humans, and the litany of other human rights violations inherent in surrogacy.

And people of religious faith are hardly the only demographic that needs to be convinced of the urgency of surrogacy opposition, nor are they the only people living inconsistently with their own professed standards. Today’s left, while claiming to care about women’s rights and class oppression, gives a free pass to both where surrogacy is concerned because neither women’s rights nor class warfare can compete with the left’s ultimate trump card on all social issues: LGBT rights. 

Increasingly, the progressive secular world is championing surrogacy as a human right for LGBT couples. Mainstream media and celebrities flood the newsfeed with heartstrings stories about the ache of childlessness solved by the altruism of selfless women whose offerings of love provide the cure for the ache. Surrogacy is relentlessly romanticized, and any dissent is immediately framed as bigotry. And in the US, liberal feminists have adopted a “my body, my choice” approach to surrogacy and prostitution without much thought as to how desperation or poverty can compromise the legitimacy of “consent.”

Never mind that, where surrogacy is involved, it is ALWAYS the rich exploiting the financial need of the poor. As CBC President Jennifer Lahl put it, “How many times have you seen a People Magazine cover tabloid where a wealthy celebrity is offering to be a surrogate for her low income housekeeper? It is the rich who can buy, and it is the poor women who sell their eggs and rent out their wombs.

The European Parliament in Brussels has concluded that “surrogacy undermines the human dignity of the woman since her body and its reproductive functions are used as a commodity,” and its resolution goes so far as to call surrogacy “an act of violence against women.” Even impoverished nations such as India have recently banned commercial surrogacy — a $3.3 billion annual revenue source — outright. 

But in the States, that doesn’t matter. This year, the CBC interviewed a surrogate mother named Veronica, who was appalled to discover that the intended father of the child she birthed was buying babies with bars of gold and trafficking them on the black market. Stories like hers are more common than people would like to believe.

When your standard of morality or ethics is rooted in a commitment to make people feel good, then the people with the money and the power are the people whose feelings matter most. The feelings and well-being of others can be overlooked- even if it means they’re being exploited en route to making you happy. Even if it means they’re being trafficked, as happens so often in surrogacy.

Unfortunately, the shift from justice-based ethics to feelings- based ethics has infiltrated the culture around the world to such a degree that, like the consultants in Office Space, we’ve been largely rendered oblivious to the truest threats to our shared goals of the preservation of that which we all hold dear.

Vocal opposition to surrogacy is a unique opportunity to unite left and right, secular and religious, as surrogacy merges a diverse array of our most pressing concerns into one giant stew of human indignities. It’s time to refuse to let the conversation be sidelined any longer; there are too many devastating long term implications to continue to ignore it.

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