Consent, Commodification, and Anderson Cooper’s Surrogacy Case
Recently, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper announced the birth of his son through surrogacy. On June 10th, Cooper and his son made an appearance on People magazine where Cooper talked about the experience of surrogacy and raising his 6 week old son. However, his decision to have a baby through surrogacy has been met with significant controversy: where some congratulated Anderson Cooper, others questioned the ethics of surrogacy. Surprisingly, surrogacy isn’t a partisan issue where even in left leaning circles, many disagree about surrogacy’s place as a way for gay or lesbian couples to have a chance to raise a child while others argue it is a commodification of women’s bodies. Anderson Cooper’s surrogacy case is now starting larger discussions about the ethics of surrogacy.
The first question that arises is if surrogates can give informed consent. The definition of informed consent is stated as permission granted in the knowledge of the possible consequences with full knowledge of the possible risks and benefits. When a surrogate signs a contract to give all legal rights away to the connection of the child, many times, surrogates do not know the feeling of the emotional bond of mother to baby nor the experience of carrying a child. So how could a surrogate, especially a first-time mother, know the experience of having a strong emotional bond to the baby? They don’t, so to have potential surrogates sign contracts, while not knowing the experience of being mothers, means that surrogates cannot give informed consent because they cannot possibly know what it is like to give up their baby.
However, even if a surrogate is not a first-time mother and can give full consent, one needs to consider whose choice is forgotten in this case? The baby’s choice. If you put yourself in the baby’s position, would you want to stay with your mother or a foreign family you are being sold to? Not only can some surrogate mothers not give full informed consent, but the baby’s preferred choice has not been taken into account. Many think only two parties are involved in surrogacy: the surrogate and the adopters, but the baby is the third party that has to be considered.
Secondly, surrogates cannot provide informed consent because surrogacy disproportionally attracts women of lower income. This explains why surrogacy is especially prevalent in developing countries such as Ukraine, Russia, and India where laws are lax and many people are of lower income. Whether or not surrogates are from the US or other countries, women who are struggling through financially hard times are more vulnerable to coercion due to the mindset of scarcity when struggling through poverty. Women are often coerced into risking their health or even their lives when signing the unbreakable contract to giving away the child. Furthermore, when in circumstances of financial scarcity, potential surrogates are more likely to sign exploitative contracts where pregnancy-related medical issues during or after pregnancy are not covered or where the surrogate is not sufficiently paid.
Another key part of surrogacy is if it pays for the baby, the service, or both. The answer yields two very different moral viewpoints; if surrogacy pays for a baby, this means a baby is being bought and sold, putting a price tag on human life. This carries enormous consequences to individual rights of the modern world because it would mean human life and value can be measured instead of being infinitely valuable. But if surrogacy only pays for the service of carrying the baby, some would say there isn’t much of a difference between a surrogate and a 24/7, nine-month-long babysitter. The debate around if surrogacy is a payment for the service or the baby depends on the situation. If the surrogate mother is artificially inseminated, some argue surrogacy pays for the baby because it uses the oocyte of the surrogate to produce the baby. If the surrogate were to carry an embryo of the biological parents, then it would be considered a service, because the surrogate is only raising the baby in the womb, not providing reproductive material. However, this reasoning leads to the assumption that new life (reproduction) starts at conception. If one believes that life starts at birth, then surrogacy implies paying for the baby because the pregnancy is part of the process of making new life. Surrogacy would only seem ethically permissible if the surrogate is carrying the “living” embryo of the two biological parents, because the embryo has already been created and now carrying it is a service. Even then, a biological reproductive service seems quite different in moral worth from an economic service like babysitting.
However, advocates of surrogacy would argue that disallowing women to sell their reproductive services would be unequal, because men are able to sell their reproductive services. So why would we allow sperm donation but not allow surrogacy? There are two significant differences between sperm donors and surrogate mothers. Sperm donors can give implied consent because they have full knowledge of how their sperm will be used, whereas surrogates might experience unexpected effects like an emotional bond to the baby. Secondly, surrogacy requires nine months of pregnancy and the delivery of a baby, while sperm donors have no interaction with the baby; therefore, these differences cannot be held at an equal standard. Rather, egg donors seem to be the equal standard to sperm donors since both meet the same standards of consent and disconnect from offspring. In surrogacy, the moral worth of mother and baby and the ability to develop new life is inexplicably precious, but putting a monetary value on pregnancy might degrade the intrinsic value of carrying and delivering a baby. Society would no longer view pregnancy as an unbreakable bond with a baby but view it as something able to be bought and sold.
To exemplify this concept of how money changes societal morals, consider the case of an Israeli child care center. The childcare center wanted to decrease the number of parents late to pick up their children, so it implemented a small fine for parents who arrived late for pickup. The result had the opposite effect than many predicted: more parents picked up their children late; the societal moral standard to not give the childcare workers a burden was gone. By implementing a monetary value on being late, it degraded the moral standard of being late. The childcare center reversed the decision after experiencing higher rates of late pickups, but even afterward, the childcare center continued to experience the high rates of late pickups. Once a monetary number is assigned to something, it can degrade the moral value of it. The same might happen to pregnancy if surrogacy was widespread: the intrinsic value of the bond between mother and baby would simply be defined by financial cost. The mother to child bond is something inexplicably precious. We see it when adopted children go looking for their biological mothers or mothers spend years looking for their lost child. This emotional bond is sacred; it’s something no one would put a moral utility measurement on. However, surrogacy risks breaking the mother to baby bond because something infinitely and intrinsically valued has changed to a monetary value.
In the end, although Anderson Cooper’s case has been one of few high profile cases of celebrities taking the path of surrogacy, the surrogacy process is often used by many people who want biologically related children. On the surface, surrogacy may seem like a 9 month biological babysitter, but surrogacy brings along serious moral questions that need to be addressed. From (un)informed consent, exploitative contracts, the transaction of human beings, and the degradation of mother-baby bonds, surrogacy could have dangerous moral implications to human wellbeing and the core question of human value.