Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban announced the birth of their second child, Faith Margaret, last week thanking everyone for their support, especially Faith’s “gestational carrier.” While Nicole and Keith were simply using the vernacular of the fertility industry, referring to their child’s birth mother as a “gestational carrier” betrays an underlying cultural attitude fostered by technological developments in this field.
With advances in the field of assisted reproductive technologies [ART], a surrogate mother can carry a baby conceived with her egg and a donor’s sperm. Now there are also gestational carriers: a woman who carries a couple’s fertilized embryo to term, but is not herself the baby’s genetic mother.
Ethics within the field of ART are, admittedly, complex, but the shift from surrogate mothers to gestational carriers, while subtle, is significant. In the past, the words “birth mother” or “surrogate mother” and “adoptive mother” have been used to describe the situation in which a baby born biologically to one mother was given to another family. But as technology evolves, so does its vocabulary.
Regardless of the technical intent behind “gestational carrier,” the term is, at its root, dehumanizing. The phrase reduces a woman to a function, instead of a person in a relationship. No longer does her title represent who she is— a woman, a mother bearing a child in her body— she is her function, a gestational carrier.
Thanks in part to technology, our society makes distinctions between function and identity. Men can be “sperm donors” without being known as the father of the baby. We have children who are biologically one man’s, but socially another’s. This calls into question the very nature of relationships. Not all fathers always act like fathers, and children may look up to another man as a “father figure,” but for most of human history, fatherhood was tied to biology, except in cases of adoption. This is no longer the case. Technology is changing what it means to be a parent: the creation and raising of a child can involve a sperm donor, an egg donor, a gestational carrier, or surrogate mother, and the couple that the child eventually lives with and calls Mommy and Daddy. And this technology defines people by what they do, instead of who they are. While calling someone a mother certainly does not describe the totality of who that woman is, at least the title of “mother” is defining her relationally, humanizing her, for the ability to have relationships is uniquely human.
Jennifer Lahl, founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, notes that the use of ART is turning baby-making into a consumerist activity. “Pregnancy has been reduced to a “bits and pieces” brokered industry: sperm from a handsome Scandinavian stud, eggs from a beautiful Ivy League graduate, a womb-for-rent from a poor woman in India trying to provide food and education for her children, and brokers in the middle setting up the legal transactions to build a better baby the 21st-century way.” Individuals are applying their bodies to bringing new life into the world through a segmented, fractured process,turning children into things to be designed and purchased. The Scandinavian man and the Ivy League woman are now means to an end. Lahl argues that children are not products to be made, but with the rise of medical tourism, that is what they are becoming.
Technology brings with it as many questions as answers. In the process of advancing our physical capabilities, it (in this case) blurs the bright line of relationships. I will not make a moral judgment on all blurry lines; not all things unclear must be rejected as wrong. But how we speak about things matters for words frame how we see the world. In this case, it is important to remember that people are fundamentally ends, not means thereto. Before helping ourselves to the vast array of opportunities technology offers, it is imperative that we ask hard questions and consider the ethical implications of each. When people are defined by their functions and not their relationships, are we seeing an age in which technology helps the body while harming the soul?