Why Ireland should think twice about legalising surrogacy

It is a terrible thing, to desire a child and be unable to have one, naturally. There is perhaps no more universal human instinct – no more universal instinct, in fact – than the urge to have children, and parent the next generation. We share that instinct with every living thing under the sun. Having children is an existential issue, a desire placed inside us by evolution itself. For many people, and couples, being confronted with the news that such a perfectly natural and normal thing is denied to them, through no real fault of their own, is a life crisis that those who have not experienced it can barely imagine.

It is also a pain that is not openly, or at least often, discussed. It is still wrapped up in all sorts of taboos and fears: When a couple cannot have a child, after all, there is usually one party who will feel, no matter what they are told, as if it is their fault. The pain of loss is added to by a sense of guilt that they are also denying their partner a chance of having a child. It is an unjust and unwarranted sense of guilt, but it is there.

It is not a surprise then that across the world, couples will go to any length to have a child. People routinely spend tens of thousands of euros on fertility treatments, even after signing the forms which tell them that while the medics will do their best, success is never guaranteed. Some couples go through multiple courses of IVF, and achieve only the crippling pain of repeated miscarriage.

It is not a surprise, then, that those who defend surrogacy do so with such ferocity. The desire to have a child is the most natural thing in the world, and those given the chance will run through almost any door that opens before them. They should not be condemned for that, because their desire is powered by the most primal of instincts.

But surrogacy opens all sorts of doors and questions that a sensible society would answer carefully and cautiously before proceeding with legalising the practice.

Surrogacy, after all, involves borrowing a woman’s womb. Sometimes this is done from altruism, in the case of a sister who bears a child for her sibling, and volunteers. Sometimes it is done for financial reward, as in the case of Irish families who pay Ukrainian women, or women in other countries, to carry their children for them. There is a clear difference between these two kinds of surrogacy, but there is one major commonality: In both cases, the woman who gives birth to the child carries all the risks of pregnancy, and bears all the natural emotional trauma of giving the child they have just given birth to away, and signs over all rights to that child to somebody else.

It is not hard to see how this plan can, and often does, go awry: Who, after all, would blame a woman who has carried a child for nine months if she feels some ownership of that child after it is born? A law that puts surrogacy on the statute books recognises something unique and bizarre: That a woman who gives birth to a child may not be considered the natural mother, and may have no rights at all to a child she has nurtured, at great cost to herself.

This is objectively unnatural.

“Unnatural” is a word that gets some people’s backs up, of course: It has echoes of those who claim that homosexuality is unnatural, and so on. Often, when we talk about what is “natural”, people automatically paint us as the baddies. But that does not make them correct. It is inherent in nature for mothers to feel a bond to their children: That is what makes the whole process work. Across species, those that, like humans, provide parental care to their young feel natural ties. A dog will die to protect her own puppies. The most placid cow will defend her own calf. This is not a matter of morality or ethics, but of simple evolution. Humans like to pretend, at times, that we have evolved past stuff like this, but we have not.

And what we have, with surrogacy, is a legal severing of the natural ties between birth mother and child. We have not explored, or even begun to explore, the trauma and pain that such a law might induce.

There are other issues, here, too: the commercial surrogacy market has become, as it was always likely to, inherently exploitative. It is hard to explain exploitation to people who believe in choice as their over-riding moral value – after all, if a woman chooses to become a surrogate, is that not her right?

This does not take into account the fact that, as every mother you will ever speak to will testify, that nobody really understands what it is to give birth to a child until they have done it. Nobody ever understands the bond that they feel to their child until they have their own. It follows from the endless river of testimony to that effect that nobody who makes a choice to sever that bond for money can really, truly, know what they are signing up to do. It is not unlike offering teenagers money to fall in love with their crush, and then get dumped. They might agree, but those of us who recall the pain of a first broken heart might advise them differently.

In Ireland, we are introducing a new law on surrogacy. The cabinet approved it yesterday. As is the manner of these things, it will be hailed far and wide as progressive, and compassionate, and kind, and tolerant. We should not be so quick to believe that any of those things are true.

Sometimes, painful as it is, the kindest thing you can do is come to an accommodation with the cards that nature has dealt you. But then, that’s a very old fashioned view, these days, isn’t it?

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