When we studied psychology in the seventies a surrogate mother was a lump of wood to which was attached a miserable bottle with a teet. A baby monkey, which would be defended today by animal liberationists for the cruelty inflicted upon it, was then studied for its pathological infant development. The warm, hairy and no doubt smelly primate mother who suckled her baby turned out to be essential for the infant’s development—normality, or a (relatively) healthy, happy movement towards being a grown-up monkey.
OK. We know that human beings aren’t monkeys (even though we are both primates), and that care and comfort can be provided by non-biologically associated carers. But extreme closeness, constant touching and intimate suckling, which most mothers know create ties of the deepest kind with their children, are hard to recreate away from the actual mother, especially in the earliest weeks and months of the newborn’s life, a period of great intensity that leaves its mark for life. Mothers matter; and they happen to be female.
We also know that the closeness and complexity of this bodily and psychological tie, which goes both ways between mother and child, is implicated in difficult relationships that sometimes turn out to have pathological consequences for either or both parties. This is sometimes pointed to in post-humanist arguments for new, technologically mediated means and relationships for birthing and raising children (children can be scarred for life in heterosexual families; why shouldn’t men be mothers too etc.). But the kinds of difficulties that can grow up between mothers and children would seem to me to be part of the human condition, which is to say one of the risks of being human; one of the many things like sexual love, birth and death that, as we practise them, define us as a very particular kind of primate (one with culture, language, self-awareness, complex sociality). In the main, those relationships don’t turn out to be destructive. Indeed, they are usually a bedrock that helps to sustain whole complex webs of familial and extended familial life and the empathy for the ‘other’ basic to sociality.
The post-humanist view, which is also post-primate, actually, is just one of the self-serving arguments for commercial surrogacy that is currently supporting the farming out of pregnancy and birth to women in various circumstances. Often these women are from third world countries, or third world parts of the United States, and it doesn’t take much to see the truth of it: they are oppressed people with few options, being used by wealthy couples from the West. Other surrogate mothers, especially from the United States (where commercial surrogacy is legal), like many prostitutes post feminism, claim that it is simply their choice, and making money by selling their bodies is a commercial transaction like any other. But many of these women seem no different really from the first group: oppressed and used, though here they have adopted a rather sad notion of individual rights. The typical liberal goal of self-actualisation that usually justifies ‘choice’, whatever it may be, is absent. ‘Choice’ may be no more than what these women end up doing— ‘choice’ as a post-hoc explanation dressed up morally as if to describe an act of independent will and action. There may also be women who really do believe in the neo-liberal view of the world as an unrestricted market, where ‘rights’ actually means trading rights, pure and simple; where just about anything goes so long as there is a market for it. But why would we honour that view as a moral one?
In a number of recent television and newspaper depictions of surrogacy, some surrogate mothers do seem to veer towards a form of self-actualisation justification, saying they feel they have a special gift for giving birth (although why they do rather than any other female or mother is never raised). The work of such statements, however, seems mainly pointed at making clear that although these women are accepting payment, their motive is altruistic. In concert, in these same television shows and articles, we are shown how the buyers of women’s gestational services attempt to build caring relationships with the mother. ‘We went every day to see X and hold her hand before the birth’, ‘We sat with her when she had the ultrasound and watched our baby on the screen together’ etc. etc. The ‘altruistic’ commercial surrogate and the caring purchasers of gestational services are two side of the same happy narrative coin.
But there is something murky here. Images of the buyers’ relationship with the surrogate are typically incredibly uncomfortable-looking, as if the new parents just want to get the hell out of there―get on that plane and get home as fast as possible to enjoy the child by themselves in the happy cocoon they have imagined. Despite the voiceovers that attempt to convince us of the protagonists’ good intentions and sometimes desperate need, there is something deeply perturbing going on. It is written in the images and the narrative: they always involve loss, vulnerability and inequality; the class and cross-cultural differences involved between buyers and sellers are patently obvious. The story inevitably ends with many viewers asking themselves what will the child think when s/he comes to consciousness of that past transaction; what will the real ending of the story be? This is especially slippery as such ponderings are usually against the grain of the meta-narrative that suggests we should be accepting of ‘difference’ and that any reluctance we might have is because we haven’t yet caught up with the cultural revolution happening before our eyes.
We already know it is very difficult for adopted children to accept that their biological mothers gave them up, even if those children consciously accept that as single women their mothers were blamed and shamed and faced intolerable societal pressures. Why then, should a child be expected to be sanguine about their being the object of a commercial exchange, or about a mother who gave them up for personal gain? Of course surrogacy usually involves the use of the gametes of one member or both of the purchasing couple—the man’s, or one of the men’s, usually (but not always), and if there is a woman, then sometimes the woman’s, depending on the status of her fertility. So often at least a part of the child’s genetic and familial line is ensured in the transaction, through the intervention of in vitro fertilisation techniques. In large part, I imagine, it is this that carries those who must be unnerved by the whole process past the psychological hurdles. The child isn’t just an ‘orphan’ picked up at the body shop. And together with the hefty fee paid for the service, a sense of just entitlement prevails. This of course plays within and against experienced desires and projected pleasures, which carry people forward, though those desires and imaginings now have much fuller rein exactly because the new fertilisation technologies exist.
As we live in a liberal democratic society in which democracy has come to mean openness to individuals’ personal rights and needs, with virtually no examination of what they might mean, the campaign for commercial surrogacy, as with other forms of ‘self-fulfillment’ and commercial transaction around body parts and processes, is readily conceived as one against mere superstitions and oppressive labellings. A sense of just entitlement takes off as a militant assertion of one’s ‘democratic’ rights. One’s ‘right’ to a child is put across as natural and fundamental, despite the fact it is only possible by virtue of a new class of technologies that promise to transcend human embodiment altogether. Politically, the problem is a conflation of political and basic human rights with personal desire, and with the limitless horizon of post-human engineering. The childishness of this vision of democracy and of cultural value is at times breathtaking.
So radically sensitised as we are to the claims of difference and suffering upon us, and to the imperative of individual self-fulfillment, Western populations have lost the capacity to make good judgements about the sources of our human being and how they may restrict what it is that we should desire. Sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, have long observed how human desire abounds and is in all cultures controlled; today any such basic propensity to boundlessness is supercharged by the high-tech revolution, especially in the biological techno-sciences. It is a cultural contradiction that for the things we want―often the most cherished things like babies and intimacy―we are prepared to sacrifice what arguably makes them thus: in the case of commercial surrogacy, the mother, and all she has stood for; and deeply embodied social relationships that do not take the abstracted form of money transactions.