In early February, a 58-year-old woman is due to give birth. Her age is not the only factor that makes the birth unusual, however. The baby she is carrying is her grandchild.
Julia Navarro’s daughter, Lorena McKinnon, has had roughly twelve miscarriages since she and her husband began trying to get pregnant about three years ago. Realizing that carrying their children to term did not appear to be a viable possibility, they sought a gestational surrogate.
The surrogate who volunteered turned out to be Lorena’s own mother. This is not the first time a mother has gestated her own grandchild, but the instances of this occurring appear to be rare.
Julia was warned by physicians that the embryo(s) would only have a 45% chance of survival once implanted into her, due to her age. Defying odds, the baby did survive, and Julia says the pregnancy has gone well so far.
Choosing to have children via a surrogate can require extensive psychological counseling ahead of time because of the mental preparation necessary, and this factor was even more at play in Lorena’s case because the surrogate was her own mother — the same woman who had carried and given birth to her 30-something years ago. However, Lorena reports that some aspects of surrogacy, such as the steep price tag, were eased by the fact that her mother agreed to be the surrogate.
Surrogacy poses a number of ethical concerns, chief among which are that it threatens to downgrade children to deserved possessions rather than a gifts, and that it has the potential, in a legal setting, to classify children as property that is owned.
First, children may be viewed as something deserved, instead of as gifts. If a couple cannot carry a child to term on their own, but hire a temporary, substitute mother to gestate the child for them, it may be because the couple believes that they deserve to have children despite their own natural limitations. Children, however, are primarily a gift, and as such cannot be given to ourselves. When medical technology interferes with the bond between a husband and wife in order to fulfill a couple’s belief that they have a right to parenthood at any cost, children cease to be gifts and become a supposedly deserved possession of the couple.
Secondly, surrogacy poses a slew of legal issues that can threaten the well-being of children. When (as previously discussed), parenthood begins to be seen as a right, children become more susceptible to the preconceived ideas that their parents may have about them; for example, a surrogate may be required in her contract to procure an abortion if fetal anomaly is detected. This problem not only poses a lack of regard to the child, but also to the dignity of the gestational surrogate, who will bodily and emotionally bond with the child regardless of the fact that she may not be its biological mother.
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Furthermore, surrogacy calls into question the nature of motherhood itself: if a surrogate can carry and bond with an unborn baby without being its mother, the baby must be the possession of someone else. Thus, surrogacy puts into place an understanding that the woman whose genetic material contributed to the baby who is forming inside of another woman gives her higher parental rights than the woman carrying the child. This can (and does) pose legal issues when, for example, a fetal anomaly is detected but the surrogate does not want to honor her contractual, legal obligation to kill the baby via abortion. In these cases, for example, neither the rights of the pre-born, nor the right of a woman to protect and care for the child inside of her are honored.
Therefore, all at once surrogacy poses a great threat the dignity of unborn children as well as calls into question the definition and meaning of motherhood.