Word came to me, a few months ago, of a friend of a friend in academe. The referenced individual was a lesbian university professor whose career would soon be interrupted by pregnancy.
Pregnancy? How does a lesbian interrupt her career to get pregnant? This is a question only the innocent ask; the reply among the informed would be: artificial insemination, or some other arrangement with a human source of semen.
This is not particularly astonishing in our era, but this case went further than similar ones, others I’d heard of, in testing standards of ethics.
It began fairly routinely. Professor X, as we’ll call her, decided she wanted to become a mom. She decided to end her non-mother status. Knowing the State would pay her one year’s pregnancy leave (and she’d suffer no consequences at work), she made the logical choice, given current technical means: she got herself inseminated. So far, this is fairly linear. But at this point, the story gets muddied.
Professor X had a spouse, a lady we’ll call Professor X-primed (nature chooses not to speak of X and Y among women, so these nicknames seem sensible). About two months after hearing that her spouse, Prof X, would be doing the insemination, Prof X-primed thought about her own status. She was about to become the “dad” in the marriage, so to speak, the non-mother, but without any genetic connection to the baby. She would see her partner pregnant, see her enjoy the fulfilment of birth. This made her an adjunct or spectator, or non-enjoyer, and perhaps that was not good enough.
According to the story, the lady realized that she was grievously deprived: I too want to be a mommy! So, with Prof X’s blessing, she too went out and got herself inseminated, so that, by golly, they could both be pregnant together.
Margaret Somerville is a university ethicist who writes in the mass media and often generates heated response. She has a record of posing difficult, even delicate questions of policy with regard to the way we lead our lives, and with particular emphasis on families.
Professor Somerville might acknowledge the feelings of the two engineered lesbian moms – feelings of being left out of Nature's Total Package and wishing, then, to circumvent nature. But that would not be Somerville’s first concern.
What might concern Somerville would be to know the fate of the progeny of this marriage. Inevitably, in the above story, we have two children engineered into existence, at approximately identical dates, in a marriage of two females, with no male content (except the body fluids). They will be the ultimate designer babies: non-biological twins who are nevertheless non-twins, programmed by a laboratory to help their mommies get through sad times, those patches of envy and bad feelings. Then, they would be sprung into two childhoods – ones that had to contextualize themselves as all childhoods do, within a matrix of other developing humans, where some identities are easily borne, while others totter to be affirmed, and groan to be owned. So what are the kids going to feel about themselves and these two engineered mommies?
In an interesting article in the Globe and Mail, Somerville tackles another case of surrogacy, that of a 61-year-old grandmother who offered to become the surrogate mother for her daughter’s child. In other words, she was carrying her daughter’s embryo from her son-in-law’s sperm. Somerville first offers that, “[f]or the sake of exploring the issues, let’s assume some surrogacy will continue to be allowed,” but then she poses the question: “What restrictions are ethically required?”
Somerville has real reservations about the 61-year-old granny-slash-mommy. She writes:
Grandmother Casey is compellingly described as “altruistic” and “giving the ultimate gift” to her daughter and her son-in-law….But let’s change the situation slightly and see if we make the same assessment of ethical acceptability.
A young infertile man and his wife want to have a baby that is as closely genetically related to them and their family as possible, including because in their culture blood relationship is considered very important.
The man’s father wants to donate sperm to artificially inseminate his daughter-in-law. The child will be the half-brother of his social father, and the biological child of his social grandfather. Is this ethically acceptable?
If not, but the surrogate grandmother is seen as ethically acceptable, is it because she was not the biological mother? Would it be acceptable to inseminate a still fertile woman with the sperm of her infertile daughter’s husband? And what about a woman donating ova to her daughter, which results in a child of the daughter’s husband and his mother-in-law?
Who Needs the Surrogate Anyway?
We are, of course, living in an age that loves birth surrogacy and special arrangements that skirt nature’s limits. Some of those techniques can be argued as ethical – conforming to the ethical standard, that they do no significant harm. For example, arrangements for informed, carefully managed “right to die” laws can enable doctors to perform assisted suicide, and the troubling ethics of that act can be discussed rationally.
But much of the current view on making babies – and caring for children – is crude and disdainful of nature, or, for that matter, common sense; much of it is based on politics, fashion, and power. Of course, an embryo has no power – neither does a new-born child – so the ambitions of adults – couples, but also people pushing social agendas – often win the day.
Somerville is a principled opponent of ALL forms of surrogacy, and, for that, she bucks the PC crowd (and at a university, wow!). On that main matter of surrogacy, I agree with her: we should discourage it, perhaps ban it outright. We are a species that can survive without it – we’re not faced with extinction. We’ve managed to have infertile couples around us for lo! these 5 million years of evolution. Very few infertile couples were driven to madness or destruction or found they were being treated as pariahs. Only kings cared whether the wife hatched what she was supposed to hatch in babies.
Ordinary people do things like adopt orphans. Others find ways to be around relatives’ children, and to support them, such that they can share the joys of child-rearing without being themselves biological parents. Why just today, on CNN, I heard the man touted as “the world’s greatest chef” broach the subject. He and his wife had decided never to have their own children because they had other, more demanding outlets. But here was his point: we are as creative as we would ever wish to be, without kids.
Is there any sort of litmus test for these controversies? Is it all a matter of culture and what era we're in, and who gets to decide what? Not really. We have a long tradition of protecting children, ONLY children, and safeguarding their interests exclusively.
Or, as Somerville says,
I believe that we must start from a basic presumption that the child’s rights to be born into a natural family structure in which the family relationships have not been intentionally confused, must be given priority. If surrogacy, in general, or any particular instance of surrogacy is not in a child’s “best interests” in such regards, it is unethical. The same “child’s- best-interests principle” should apply to all uses of reproductive technologies.
Now, what’s so complicated about that. Somerville does not touch upon lesbian surrogacy, concentrating in the article, on generational, heterosexual confusion that smacks of incest or other familial taboos. However, Somerville might agree to caution in the matter of lesbian parenting, all forms of it. We have reason to worry: for the lack of natural models at home; for the formation of sexual identities; and even for the threat of partner abuse that is so common among lesbians.
And, in the extreme example above, of Profs X and X-primed, we are so very troubled by its bad odors – of crass indulgence and glib immaturity – that we would wish the State to step in. Time to ban behavior that puts two children manifestly at harm.----------------------------------------