Mommy War: Surrogate vs. Bio

William Saletan considers what happens when you can't pay the woman carrying your baby.

Published March 25, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

SurroGenesis USA, a firm that brokered arrangements between infertile couples and surrogates, recently sent its clients an e-mail that can be summed up like so: Dear Expectant Moms and Dads, You know those massive payments you made to us so that we could make your dream come true by arranging for a woman to give birth to your biological child? Yeah, well, the money is gone. All of it. About $2 million that you all gave us just -- poof! -- disappeared. Weird, right? And now we can't pay the surrogate carrying your baby! Oops, our bad. Then they permanently closed up shop and now the FBI is checking them out.

This enraging story stirred Slate's William Saletan to return to his philosophizing about surrogacy and abortion -- because, of course, some of the surrogates might opt out of their now unpaid pregnancies. "Surrogates aren't mercenaries. But they do need to be paid for their sacrifices," he writes. "If you stop paying your surrogate, she needs to quit and find another job, just like any other worker." Well, she doesn't necessarily need to, but it's certainly within her rights to quit, just as it would be regardless of whether the cash flow suddenly dried up. He continues: "But surrogacy isn't like any other job. The only way to quit a pregnancy is to abort it." That just might be the decision some of these women make. Saletan prays "the women carrying these pregnancies will see them through," though, "even if the company that hired them doesn't."

This is a sympathetic position -- what person wouldn't want these couples, who have likely lost their life savings, to have their bio-baby! -- and similar to the one Saletan took in his column last week.  He wrote about a case he said morally complicates the pro-choice argument: A Japanese woman was accidentally implanted with another baby-seeker's embryo and became pregnant; after the mistake was discovered, she decided to abort at eight weeks without the other woman's consent or knowledge. He then posed a polemical question: Is that right, is it morally OK to abort another woman's fetus? In response, Broadsheet's Amy Benfer offered up a refresher on Repro-Rights 101: Men -- who, like egg donors, contribute half the genetic material required for a pregnancy  -- don't get to decide whether a pregnancy is carried to term because they aren't the ones carrying it to term. Why should it be any different in a case of swapped embryos?

Indeed, this latest column prompts a similar question: Why should it be any different when it comes to surrogacy? Like Saletan, I would love for these couples -- who are victims of crime and should be paid major damages -- to get the babies they have been anxiously anticipating, but it simply, painfully isn't their decision. I generally enjoy the kind of philosophical gymnastics that are part of Saletan's routine and, for that matter, any contrarian who can consistently set your brain aflame; I don't enjoy feeling led on by a politically motivated mental exercise, though. When Saletan asks me to picture myself in one of these anomalous and horrific situations, in which another woman is carrying my baby, it makes my heart drop, my stomach churn -- and all those other clichés that convey absolute devastation. It doesn't, however, make me reconsider that most fundamental pro-choice principle: It's her body. Abortion is absolutely a complex moral issue, which is why it's a decision a woman should get to make about her own body, but these cases don't present us with essentially new ethical challenges in the realm of reproductive rights.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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