NOTES IN BIOETHICS – Surrogate Motherhood, Ethical Perspective


There are many bioethical issues related to the beginning of life, including among others, In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), embryo research, frozen embryos, artificial insemination, cloning, gene therapy and enhancement – and surrogate motherhood. In this piece, we focus on the ethics of surrogate motherhood, which is currently on center stage in many countries of the world. 


What is surrogate motherhood? “The agreement by a woman to become pregnant and give birth to a child with the understanding that she will surrender the child after birth to the contractual parents” (The American Medical Association). Today the “commissioning parents” may be heterosexual couples, same-sex couples, single man, or single woman. (The embryo “produced” in a petri dish through in vitro fertilization may come from a different sperm donor and egg donor. It is transferred to the uterus of the woman to be the gestational mother.) So many ethical questions come to mind! 

What are the kinds of surrogate motherhood? Altruistic surrogacy, when a woman offers herself to carry the child of an infertile couple — or of others — for philanthropic reason, not for money. Commercial surrogacy, when it is carried out for financial gain, and is often called womb for rent or womb for hire: “a woman offers herself to carry a pregnancy in exchange for money.”

In most countries of the world, surrogacy is not legal while in some it is legal with conditions — like in Portugal and Hong Kong (not in Macau). On one hand, fighting internationally for the legalization of surrogacy worldwide are in general the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) groups. On the other hand, and against its legalization, are feminist groups, promoters of traditional marriage and family values, and faiths and religions.


While respecting the equal dignity and rights of all human beings from the moment of conception to natural death, our stand on the matter – as a human being and as a Christian — is this: we are not in favor of surrogate motherhood. Like for many others, our arguments are grounded on the nature of the human person (body-soul, incarnate spirit) and the complementarity of the sexes, the nature of marriage, of motherhood, and the dignity and rights of every child — born or unborn. From reason and faith, we promote marriage as the conjugal union between a man and a woman ordered to mutual love and the procreation and education of their children. For Christians and other believers, marriage is also a sacred reality, a sacrament.

Surrogate motherhood, or gestational motherhood does not take into consideration “the reciprocal respect for the right within marriage to become a father or mother only together with the other spouse.” Moreover, the dignity of procreation requires that “a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses.” Furthermore, gestational motherhood “represents an objective failure to meet the obligations of maternal love, of conjugal fidelity and of responsible motherhood” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum Vitae [1987] and Instruction Dignitas Personae [2008]. 

Every child is a human being belonging to the human species from the moment of conception, and therefore, to be respected as any and every other person (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC 2378). The child has “the right to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception; the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality…” (John Paul II). Truly, the desire to have a child is very good, laudable and understandable, but it cannot be absolute principle. The desire of a child “cannot justify the ‘production’ of offspring.” There is no right to parenting, no right to a child. A child is a gift, not a sort of “private property.” He or she has to be given from the beginning of life the best possible conditions, which are provided by a family “founded on marriage, through the complementarity of father and mother” (CCC 2378).   

Gestational surrogacy is dehumanizing for the gestational mother and the child – disrespectful of the dignity of both. Surrogacy treats the gestational mother as a useful means to have a child that she will gestate but leave after birth. The body of the surrogate mother is used as “a commodity” and is “reproductive exploitation.” Is it natural for a gestational mother to renounce the child after the child’s birth? It is unnatural. This explains why often the gestational mother – who promised to leave the child to the “commissioning parents” right after birth – wants to keep the child.

Surrogacy violates the rights of the child mainly because it treats the child as an object, or commodity. Every child has the right to a father and a mother, and to know and love them. Is it natural for a child to have, three or even five parents? Indeed, a child from surrogate motherhood may have up to five parents (2 adopting, 2 genetic and the surrogate mother).


Most people seem to accept that commercial surrogacy is deeply unethical: it involves the exploitation of the woman who rents her womb for a fee. It has been said that it must be terrible for a child to know later on that he or she was “sold” like an object. After her third pregnancy for pay, a gestational mother realized sadly that she was being “exploited.” A women’s advocacy group, the State Network against Surrogacy (Spain), states in its web page: We are not incubators, nor vessels, nor uteruses, nor wombs for rent: we are women, human lives with whom some people are trying to set up a new business that will benefit the strongest and suppress the weakest. Certainly, “poverty does not allow for a truly free choice to be made” (Ireland Iona Institute). 

Some countries are legally in favor of the so-called gestational altruistic surrogacy as long as certain stringent conditions are dutifully fulfilled – like in Portugal and Hong Kong. Are these and other possible conditions required by law good enough and truly realistic? Julio Tudela Pharm PhD writes: “The proposed legislation of this form of pregnancy, only in the case that there be no financial payment, is naïve and unrealistic”: “the altruistic cases are few and this insufficiency pushes those who want a child to countries that allow financial payment.” As proven in England and other countries “the altruistic womb for rent does not exist and it is source of an industry that moves plenty of money and hurts the poor” — as usual (Bioethics Observatory, November 19. 2017). Even if — for the sake of argument — the conditions were faithfully carried out, this lawful fulfillment would not make gestational altruistic surrogacy ethical: it dissociates biological motherhood from genetic motherhood due to the unique bonding established between mother and child — a bonding that will most probably affect (as experts advance) the future life of the child psychologically and socially.   

The European Union expresses these reasons well in its Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World (2017): The European Union “condemns the practice of surrogacy, which undermines the human dignity of the woman since her body and reproductive functions are used as a commodity. It also considers the practice of gestational surrogacy which involves reproductive exploitation and use of the human body for financial or another gain, in particular in the case of vulnerable women in developing countries, shall be prohibited and treated as a matter of urgency in human rights instruments.” It is affirmed that human trafficking for surrogacy is already existing. For its part, the teaching of the Catholic Church states clearly: “Surrogate motherhood that makes use of the uterus of another woman or of gametes [male and female reproductive germ cells] of persons other than the married couples, and thus “injuring the right of the child to be born of one father and one mother who are father and mother both from a biological and from a legal point of view” (Instruction Donum Vitae).


Perhaps, the opposition of philosophers, ethicists and believers to surrogacy may sound to some ears rather negative, but it is not properly negative but positive. The Catholic Church in particular is against the culture of death because she is for the culture of life; against human exploitation because she is for what we Christians consider true freedom. The Church is for human dignity and rights for all, and teaches an enriching meaning of sexuality, marriage and family. The Church – let us add – encourages the adoption of children who need parents (Dignitas Personae).

The Church is Teacher as well as Mother. She proclaims the truth and accompanies persons wounded – who are our brothers and sisters – on the roads of life with the compassion of a mother, thus following the merciful path of the Son of God Jesus Christ, who is the face of God’s mercy and gives true life. Indeed, life, every human life is sacred: “To me therefore you shall be sacred, for I the Lord am sacred” (Lv 20:26).

Featured image: Free-Photos at Pixabay

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