Surrogacy: undermining motherhood?

Sunday 14 October, 12:0013:00, Frobisher 1-3Modern family

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When diver Tom Daley and his husband announced their impending fatherhood with an image of them both holding up a fetal scan picture, they were criticised by some for failing to acknowledge that there was a fourth party in the happy news: the birth mother. Elton John also received an ambivalent response when it emerged that his husband, David Furnish, was listed as the ‘mother’ on the Californian birth certificate of their newest son. This might indicate the continuation of old-fashioned anti-gay prejudice. But other, female celebrities, notably Kim Kardashian, have also provoked negative reactions for referring to the women they have paid to carry a genetically unrelated fetus to term as ‘gestational carriers’. Germaine Greer, commenting on the John and Furnish story, claimed that motherhood as a concept has been ‘emptied out. It’s gone. It’s been deconstructed.’

This is confusing territory. Alongside the opening up of parenthood to all and the possibility of large numbers of motherless children being brought into the world, we also have an increasingly intense focus on maternal behaviour, with the responsibilities of motherhood increasingly extending and expanding backwards into pregnancy. Twenty-first-century women are strongly encouraged to nurture and bond with their babies while still in utero, so how does this sit with the normalisation of surrogacy? Does the success of the recent television dramatisation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women have become ‘two-legged wombs’ or ‘ambulatory chalices’, indicate that Greer’s qualms about the effacing of motherhood have a wide cultural resonance?

Does the continued unease about surrogacy reflect a desire to maintain a distinction between contractual and familial relationships, between a belief in spontaneous bonds and families of choice? Should surrogacy be a private matter between consenting adults, with women paid handsomely for the work of carrying a child or does it undermine important relationships? Should we welcome the greater opportunities for parenthood offered by surrogacy or are we at risk of leaving children with an identity crisis about who their parents are? Fundamentally, what is the meaning of motherhood today?