Jennifer Lahl is fighting to outlaw surrogacy in the United States. In her new documentary, Breeders: A Sub-Class of Women, she explores the issue of third-party reproduction. However, the documentary is not about the surrogacy industry, which is how the movie is marketed. It is a movie about independent surrogacies gone wrong, without the checks and balances of professional agencies, lawyers, therapists, etc.
Surrogacy is not a worldwide fertility option. It is banned in many countries, and where it is allowed, there are often ethics committees involved in evaluating cases. Several countries will allow altruistic surrogacy, where the carrier is not compensated above and beyond the expenses of pregnancy and delivery. Countries have many reasons for banning surrogacy, one of the chief reasons being the belief that surrogacy commodifies the human body.
I haven't seen Lahl argue the legal uses of a woman's body as a reason for banning surrogacy. Let’s review her main arguments against surrogacy from her recent ABC News Interview:
1. Surrogacy has become a baby-buying operation by wealthy women.
First, surrogacy is not always a baby-buying operation by wealthy women. Does that happen? Sure. But of the 2,000 U.S. surrogacy cases in a given year, is it 5% of the time? 10%? 25%? To my knowledge, there are no statistics available around the wealth of the couples hiring carriers. I doubt the majority seeking out surrogates are women who want to “buy” their baby to avoid stretch marks or the uncomfortable side effects of pregnancy. I believe this is a very small percentage, just like Lahl’s handful of examples of surrogacy gone wrong versus the thousands of cases where it has gone smoothly.
Most often, surrogacy is sought by couples who cannot have their own children due to infertility. Women who cannot carry a baby to term, for whatever reason, have only one choice outside of adoption, and that is to have a gestational surrogate carry the couple’s child. Surrogacy is very expensive, but you’d likely find many middle-class couples who used their savings in order to bring their biological child, their dream, into this world. Is it fair that less fortunate couples cannot afford surrogacy? Certainly not. Unfortunately, there are many unfair realities for the poor, of which there are way too many in this country. But that is for another discussion.
Same-sex couples also turn to surrogacy to have children that carry on their own genes. In a time where a majority of people in this country finally agree with same-sex marriages, are we now going to ban them from having children?
“Banning gestational carrier surrogacy is a way of saying that certain people shouldn’t have children,” said Barbara Collura, executive director of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association in a Good Morning America interview. “I am not sure that is what our country wants to tell people.”
2. Surrogacy exploits vulnerable women, often those of lesser means.
First, surrogacy is not always for money. Sometimes family members or friends or even neighbors agree to be surrogates. I remember the day my sister volunteered to be a surrogate for my husband and me. We had been trying to conceive for three years, had tried multiple fertility treatments, and had miscarried with our first in vitro. We had unexplained infertility, and if I had not been able to carry a baby to term after a few more tries at in vitro, we would have considered my sister’s offer.
Not everyone has a volunteer to turn to - and surrogacy is a very big favor to ask of someone. For commercial surrogacy, guidelines published by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine state that a gestational surrogate is “generally compensated for the time and effort involved in fulfilling this role,” and recommends that the compensation be agreed upon in advance and “documented in the contract between the carrier and the intended parents.”
So who are the carriers undertaking pregnancy for money? And are they, in fact, vulnerable women being exploited? Lahl would like everyone to believe this is the case. But again, there are no statistics to back this argument, at least none that I could find. Only hand-picked examples, like those in her documentary.
Professional surrogacy agencies go to great lengths to make sure the carrier is psychologically stable and that all of the parties understand the agreement details before a legal contract is signed. Again, the examples in Breeders were not carried out by professional agencies. And that contributed to many of the surrogacy issues documented in the movie.
The documentary talks about the significant percentage of military wives who become surrogates. One reason for this is because, with their husbands abroad and children of their own at home to care for, there aren’t many other options to bring in the kind of revenue surrogacy can. If you asked the surrogate military wives if they were vulnerable, and/or being exploited, what would they say? Many of those interviewed loved the experience and were grateful for the opportunity.
3. Surrogacy and IVF are damaging to children.
In the ABC News interview, Lahl said she also worries about the “primal wound” when a child is separated from its carrier. What is the primal wound, and does it apply to surrogacy?
The primal wound theory is that those who are adopted carry a scar from being separated from their biological parents. This theory came out of clinical research that showed adopted children often have more psychological issues. But the primal wound theory appears to be just that – a theory.
In an interview with Dr. Charles Nelson, Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and one of the leading experts on how early childhood neglect, abuse, malnutrition, institutionalization, and prenatal environment affects children, Nelson claims, “There is no scientific evidence to support the primal wound theory that all adopted people carry a scar from being separated from biological parents. A theory that says just because they were separated from their birthmother leaves a permanent wound is just false on the face of it.”
Even if proof existed for a primal wound, that there is some kind of irreparable broken bond between biological mother and parent, would it apply to surrogacy, where the birth mother has no biological tie to the child? Is it a biological issue or a psychological one?
As to Lahl's claim that surrogacy and IVF are damaging to children, no proof exists to substantiate this damage, other than stories here and there where children were disappointed to find out that they were surrogate children, or where surrogate babies were delivered into the hands of abusive parents. While these are certainly awful situations, they do not represent the masses. They do not substantiate banning surrogacy for all.
Lahl also worries that children do not have a say. ”It always strikes me that the children are so absent in the discussions,” said Lahl in the interview. While this is certainly true, children NEVER have a say about what family they’re born into. I’m not sure where that argument is meant to go.
Jennifer Lahl’s documentary is just that, a one-sided opinion about the issues she sees in surrogacy. Lahl has written in the past about why surrogacy and in vitro are not Christian concepts. From what I’ve read and watched, I wonder if this all really comes down to her belief that science does not belong in the realm of baby making. That only God should be able to make those decisions. And she is certainly entitled to that opinion. But that is what makes the United States of America a wonderful democracy. Along with Lahl’s entitlement to her opinion, comes the freedom of choice for all of the other women in this country who disagree with her.
I personally do not believe it should be up to Jennifer Lahl, or lawmakers, to say who should or shouldn’t have children. As an infertility warrior, I have to side with the couples who are willing to go to great lengths to have a baby. And I see positives for carriers, even for commercial surrogates, in the right circumstances.
Lahl claims the Unites States is the "Wild West" of surrogacy. I believe consistent regulations around surrogacy throughout the country that protect carriers, the intended parents and the children involved would be ideal. So let's focus on how to improve the surrogacy contract and how to handle any arising disputes, instead of crushing the dreams of couples hoping to bring their baby into this world.
You now have my 2 cents. And that may be exactly what it's worth. But it sure does feel good to get it off my chest.