Monday, 21 January 2008

The wise child

News comes from the Times of a woman who is pregnant with her eighth surrogate child - a baby she is intending to carry to term and then give away to someone else. Depending on the arrangement it is possible that she will never see the child again.

The couple receiving the baby must be delighted - a real baby of their own. The genetic parents are likely to be themselves or one of them plus a donor, who might be the surrogate. They know who the surrogate mother is, and when their baby is coming. Perhaps they could have adopted, but babies aren't often adopted at birth, and then who knows who or what the parents are?

As for the surrogate mother - she is surely an angel, selflessly having babies for other people when she has none of her own. According to The Times she doesn't have a partner, and has never been in love, she is overweight and has had gastric banding, she suffers from depression. Is this a woman who needs care and help for her mental health issues? Is she a fit person to carry children for others? Is the organisation that arranged the surrogacy exploiting an unwell and unhappy person? She will gain £12,000 for carrying the child - what does she stand to lose?

Pregnancy is not without its risks. This woman has been through seven pregnancies already, which is bound to take a toll on her physical health. She is in her forties - an age at which some doctors feel it is unsafe for women to attempt pregnancy. How will the parents-to-be feel if this woman dies giving birth to their child? Or if the child itself dies? Or if the woman, falling into depression again, commits suicide - something she has already attempted. And what if this time the surrogate turns this into one of the 2% of surrogacy arrangements that end with the birth mother refusing to give up the child?

One person ( a man) commenting on this story condemns surrogacy as a "barbaric practice". He says mother and child will suffer trauma from being separated at birth and that this woman must be using "serial pregnancy" to fill the gap left by those seven missing children.

Others comments call surrogate mothers "selfless" women who give childless couples the child they long for. One suggests that as most MPs have children they can't know what it is to be childless and therefore are not fit to legislate on this matter. Does anyone have an absolute right to have a child, whatever the costs involved for others? Is it possible to live happily without children?

The BBC ran a story this month on twins who married each other, having been adopted as babies and never realising the true cause of their strong attraction. As family relationships - through multiple marriages and partnerships, surrogacy, IVF and so on - become more complex is it inevitable that individuals will suffer more problems? Or does infidelity and informal adoption mean that we're at no greater risk now than before of not knowing who our true parents are? They say it's wise child who knows his own father. Does it matter, except in terms of the new imperative to know our genetic history to predict our health?

One interesting take on surrogacy is the novel The Handmaid's Tale by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. It's set in a future where there are two classes of women - the rich, married and infertile and the fertile women whose job is to breed on their behalf.

What is the answer? Should we be more fluid and accepting of unusual family relationships, and perhaps relax the kinship laws that forbid some marriages, to allow people such as the twins to marry? Do we need artificial wombs or other scientific and technological advances to allow us to create as many children as we want? Do we need to change our attitudes to childlessness? Or to children?

Perhaps that's another definition of "ethics" - those questions for which there is no clear answer! And you know where to find more stories to spark ethical debate.

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