Unconscious Surrogacy? A Shocking Proposal Should Prompt Introspection
Women in a permanent vegetative state or who are declared brain-dead could be used as unconscious surrogate mothers for people who either “wish to have children but cannot, or prefer not to, gestate.”
John StonestreetMaria Baer
Last month, in the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, philosophy professor Anna Smajdor from Norway proposed that the global medical community should consider what she called “whole body gestational donation.” Women in a permanent vegetative state or who are declared brain-dead could be used, she suggested, as unconscious surrogate mothers for people who, as the paper states, either “wish to have children but cannot, or prefer not to, gestate.” According to Smajdor, though what she is proposing may sound shocking, it is really no different, at least not in any qualitative ethical way, from organ donation and other assisted reproductive technologies.
It’s not just developments in medical technology that lie at the heart of this proposal. Also at work here is a widespread embrace of expressive individualism which cultivates the idea that whatever someone desires should determine reality. If we want children, we deserve them. Any barrier to obtaining them—moral, biological, or circumstantial—is an injustice to be overcome.
This same line of reasoning is behind calls for so-called “reproductive justice” and the increasing use of artificial reproductive technologies by gay couples, including surrogacy. Having chosen an intimate relationship that is inherently sterile, the couple demands a child, files legal paperwork to declare the unrelated related and then shares photographs that portray those who did not go through labor as if they had. In the process, children are intentionally robbed of their mother, father, or both.
“Whole body gestational donation” would be another step in the natural progression of the sexual revolution. From the beginning, the revolution has worked to separate three inseparable things: marriage, sex, and babies. Initially, the demand was to separate sex from marriage. That, of course, required a way of separating sex from the potential of babies. When artificial contraception, especially “the pill,” made that possible, the revolution continued with demand for babies without marriage and, increasingly, for marriage without babies (some of us may remember the whole Dan Quayle v. Murphy Brown episode from the 1990s).
Separated both in practice and in the cultural imagination from its God-given context and natural consequences, sex is now primarily thought of as a means (the means for some) of self-actualization. As a result, any barrier to having the sex we want is a barrier to being fully human.
With the enabling of technology, we’ve now reached a final step in this digression: babies without sex.
G.K. Chesterton called the relationship among father, mother, and child a “triangle of truisms” which, he argued, cannot be separated without committing profound harm. God’s design for marriage, sex, and children is not artificial, nor can it be reduced to a social construct. It is reality. When we violate that reality, we cause suffering.
The suggestion to use unconscious women to carry babies that are purchased by those who either cannot or choose not to gestate a child is an especially repugnant example, but it’s not as edgy as it sounds. Legalized commercial surrogacy already exploits vulnerable women and turns children into commodities. This practice further confuses what is meant by “death,” treats a body as something that can be used without exploiting the person, and artificially extends a woman’s life in order to give someone else what they want. As horrific as this sounds, these ethical dilemmas are similar to those not yet resolved in organ donation.
In his book Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, Christian philosopher Gilbert Meilaender notes that in 1994, the American Medical Association declared it would be ethically acceptable to remove healthy organs from babies born with anencephaly, a fatal brain development condition. Babies with this condition typically die shortly after birth. A year later, the AMA reversed the decision due to outside pressure. When it comes to medical technologies, the line between “can” and “should” is fuzzy indeed.
Throughout Church history, Christians have consistently opposed gnosticism in various forms. We must continue that work today by reminding ourselves and anyone who will listen that bodies are a sacred, inextricable element of what it means to be human. We are not merely souls that happen to have bodies. Human souls are embodied. When we treat organs as products, the bodies of unconscious women as incubators, the bodies of surrogate mothers as commodities, or sex as merely a physical act in the pursuit of pleasure, we sin against God and our bodies by treating them as mere tools.
The proposal in Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics claims to thoroughly explore the ethical questions related to using unconscious women to gestate new babies. Not only does it fail to adequately wrestle with the violation of human female bodies, but not a single word addresses the rights and vulnerabilities of resulting children who, of course, would be intentionally orphaned from the beginning of their lives.
Marriage, sex, and babies are a package deal. To protect our neighbors from needless and profound harm and suffering, Christians must know, teach, and live as if this is true.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Maria Baer. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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