Speaking of Women's Rights: Mommy issues

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mommy issues

A continuation of my occasional exploration of topics related to egg donation, surrogacy and assisted reproductive technology…

A writer recently shared a story about his and his partner’s decision to raise a child. As a gay couple, they chose paid surrogacy as their path to parenthood. He writes about “shopping” for a surrogate, even comparing the process to online dating. (I’ve written before about how donors are chosen and compensated.)

The part of this story that stood out to me, though, was an assertion about the relationship between the child, the donor/surrogate, and the two dads:

We’d been instructed by our surrogacy agency not to use the “m-word.” “This child will have two fathers,” the staff member scolded. “He or she will have an egg donor and a surrogate, but no mother!”

Untrue, right? Every human baby comes from genetic material from a man and a woman. No exceptions. Every child has a genetic mother.

That’s too literal a reading of the surrogacy agency staffer’s quote, though. She’s claiming that since the two dads intend and plan to raise the baby as their own, it doesn’t matter much whose genetic material is involved or what are the circumstances of the pregnancy.

Julie Shapiro summarizes the flip side of this opinion.

It seems to me that a woman who is pregnant has an ongoing relationship with the soon-to-be child that is clearly parent-like. All the needs of the developing fetus are met, 24/7, for nine months. Thus, when a woman gives birth, she is a mother of that child. And so yes, every child must have a mother.

Ultimately, the couple in the story finds an egg donor closer than they ever imagined: the partner’s sister offers to give the couple her eggs. She undergoes the donation process. Another women acting as a surrogate gives birth to twins, which the writer and his partner are now raising.

The twins are the product of two men (the couple’s mutual desire to have kids; the writer’s genetic material) and two women (one a sister/aunt/egg donor, the other a genetically unrelated surrogate).

Who is the mother? Is there a mother? I think the answer lies in definitions of motherhood – genetic vs. social.

I’m inclined to side with the agency staffer and say that the twins in the story have no mother. They would never have been conceived if not for the egg donor – but she didn’t give birth to them. And they would not have been born if not for the surrogate – but the couple might have chosen another woman to give birth to the child, so her involvement seems arbitrary in a way.

But if I frame the question another way, I’m tempted toward a different answer: Because it takes a woman’s genetic material to create any child, the twins do have a genetic mother. So, what is the role of the genetic mother in the lives of these twins?

The sister/aunt/egg donor in this story is happily involved in the lives of the babies – she will get to see them grow up, even if not as their (social) mother. And that seems like a satisfying arrangement for all involved. There’s no need to deny her status as the kids’ genetic mother - she’s part of the family.

It’s unclear if, how and when the twins - still infants - will learn the story of their birth. It also seems to me that the folks in this story were fantastically lucky to have negotiated such a happy agreement, but it is one one that contains threads that people entering into egg donation and surrogacy situations might wish to strive for: mutual respect, consent, and benefits for everyone involved.

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