Overseas Surrogacy: How Far May We Go?


In early February 2007, Reuters news service reported on a practice that has become much more visible during the past year: using a surrogate mother in India.[1] People in various parts of the world who cannot (or, at least potentially, prefer not to) undergo a pregnancy are providing their eggs and sperm to produce embryos that can be transferred into a surrogate mother’s womb in India for the duration of the pregnancy.

The primary ethical problem here is the commercial surrogacy itself, which is baby-selling. In addition, going overseas to use women for a price that women in this country would not accept augments one of the several other ethical problems with this practice. If people outside of India want to help impoverished Indian women, there are better ways to support them than by inducing them to risk their bodily health and freedom. In commercial surrogacy, admirable support is replaced with demeaning baby-selling. The intended ends may be good, but the means are unethical. Better means should be encouraged in order to achieve the ends in view. 

Some people will argue that commercial surrogacy—paying the surrogate for more than out-of-pocket expenses actually incurred by her—is just a fee for service rather than baby selling. That this is not the case is evident from the contracts that are typically used in these situations. If the surrogate does not deliver the child—because the child dies late in the pregnancy, for example—the person expecting to receive the child is usually not required to pay most of the price. It is not just the use of the surrogate’s womb that is the reason for payment; it is actually obtaining the child.

Human beings ought not to be bought and sold in this way, any more than they should be bought and sold in slavery. That the purchaser is nice and plans to treat the one purchased well does not justify purchasing a slave. Turning human beings into things to be bought is inherently demeaning, as many philosophical outlooks and political systems generally affirm, not to mention various religions including the Christian faith. Influential philosopher Immanuel Kant, for instance, has insisted that people have “dignity” rather than “price.” International political documents more commonly use the terminology of human rights. The Christian faith tends toward a more theological grounding of the same human concern: people are made in the image of God and should not be reduced to “things” to be bought, sold, or otherwise “used.”

Going overseas to involve poor women in this practice when women in this country would not accept the same price underscores the subtly coercive nature of this practice. It focuses on women who are in extremely difficult and even inhumane circumstances of poverty. Rather than helping them with a gift or an opportunity to do humane work, it makes them put their bodies at risk, often to do something considered immoral in their culture in order to survive. It preys upon their suffering.

In the case of the practice in India, it not only demeans the surrogates and children involved, it also is harmful to the community. It fosters the practice of lying—lying to one’s family and neighbors—because surrogates are commonly looked down on as participating in an immoral activity.



[1] Krittivas Mukherjee, “Rent-a-Womb in India Fuels Surrogate Motherhood Debate,” Reuters, February 4, 2007, http://today.reuters.com/News/CrisesArticle.aspx?storyId=DEL298735.


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