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The potential pitfalls of commercial surrogacy have emerged in the case of a Down’s syndrome baby born to a Thai woman. Yet there may be circumstances in which the Church’s ethical opposition to surrogate motherhood could be challenged
Surrogate motherhood, according to one commentator, represents an objective failure to meet the obligations of maternal love, of conjugal fidelity and of responsible motherhood. “It offends the dignity and the right of the child to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents; it sets up, to the detriment of families, a division between the physical, psychological and moral elements which constitute those families.”
Those words could have been written this week, in response to the extraordinarily complex story of seven-month-old Gammy, born to a surrogate mother in Thailand and now separated from Pipah, his twin, who has gone to live in Australia with the couple who commissioned the surrogate. Gammy has Down’s syndrome, and although it is unclear whether he was abandoned by his Australian parents or kept from them by his Thai mother, it seems obvious that his chromosomal abnormality is at the centre of what has happened.
David and Wendy Farnell say they had been hoping for a baby for eight years; when they were not able to conceive one via other means, they enlisted the help of a surrogacy agency in Thailand. Pattaramon Chanbua, 21, a food vendor, was signed up to carry “their” child, and a conception was “arranged”; it is unclear from the reports whether the eggs used were Chanbua’s or Wendy Farnell’s, although presumably the sperm used was David Farnell’s.
The procedure was successful, and two babies were conceived. All was well until antenatal tests revealed one of the two babies had Down’s. Next, depending on whom you believe, the Farnells said they wanted the pregnancy terminated, and their money back. Chanbua refused to consider an abortion – and termination is in any case illegal in Thailand on the grounds of foetal impairment.
After the birth, Chanbua is reported to have said she would not let them take Pipah unless she was allowed to keep Gammy – because she feared the Farnells would put him in an institution. Pipah then went to Western Australia to live with the Farnells, and Gammy stayed in Thailand to be cared for by Chanbua. And then another fact emerged: David Farnell has a history of sex offending.
All of this has brought an outpouring of concern across the globe: concern for Gammy, but also concern about the “human trade” of surrogacy.
Should a convicted sex offender be allowed to commission a woman to carry his children? Should anyone be allowed to pay a woman, particularly an impoverished woman, to go through a pregnancy? What rights do surrogate mothers have? What rights do children have who are born to surrogates? Do they have different rights if they are disabled than if they were able-bodied?
As these questions swirled around the world, there was a feeling that surrogacy had somehow gone under the radar: that it was quite obvious, now Gammy’s story was out in the open, that here was a phenomenon laced with conundrums and questionable ethics and dubious values, and that the rights of the person who ought to have been central – the child’s – had been compromised by an over-emphasis on the rights of the potential parents.
Which brings us back to the quote at the start of the article. In the light of the Baby Gammy saga, it seems to make perfect sense; as it did to its author, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he issued his guidance on issues about human life in its origin and on the dignity of procreation 27 years ago.
Back then, no one was worrying too much about surrogacy; but the practice was already beginning to develop in a way that has allowed the existence of Gammy. Many of the issues around surrogacy and its development simply went under the radar. But not at the Vatican, and not for the future Pope. His words were prescient; moreover, they seem to apportion very sensible weight to the place in the triangle of the child, and his or her rights. So Rome was ahead of the game; but is it still on track? As surrogacy has developed, have scenarios emerged that have changed the game? In a world where adoption has a different place – it is far less likely to involve babies than it was in the past, and far more likely to be prompted by negligence on the part of natural parents – is there ever a role for the altruistic act of carrying a baby to term, giving birth and then handing the child over? Could it, in any circumstances, be the morally right thing to do?
Reread the Ratzinger guidelines quoted above, and it is difficult to see how it could be. Church teaching is, and always has been, uncompromising in its views on unnatural methods of conception, which are invariably at the centre of surrogacy. Moreover, the Church is adamant in its belief that the only proper place for procreation to take place is inside a marriage, and a marriage between a woman and a man. Furthermore, the rights of the child – even the child who has not yet been conceived – trump the rights of the couple. What could possibly be the fly in the Vatican’s moral ointment on this one?
Gerard Magill thinks he knows what it is. He is professor of health-care ethics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Originally from Scotland, he is a Catholic who studied at the Gregorian University in Rome in the 1970s, and a leading thinker on the subject of surrogacy and its rights and wrongs from a church as well as a secular perspective. “There’s a real head-scratcher in the pipeline,” he says. “It’s something the Church has not anticipated and has never thought about or pronounced on.” But, he says, it is an issue that has becoming increasingly pertinent, and the Vatican is starting to turn its attention towards it.
Magill’s head-scratcher centres on the by-products of IVF: the leftovers, the early-stage embryos created by out-of-the-body conception, and then not needed. Almost every IVF cycle or procedure creates more embryos than it requires; the ones that are never used are frozen. Sometimes the couple return to them at a later date; other times, the embryos are left to die. In the UK, embryos can be stored for 10 years before permission is needed to keep them for longer. It is difficult to find out exact figures, but it is estimated there are as many as 200,000 embryos in storage in the UK, and perhaps 600,000 in the US.
The vast majority of these embryos will eventually be thawed and left to die. And here is the conundrum: because the Catholic Church believes life starts at conception, these are hundreds of thousands of human beings. Unlike aborted babies, their fate has not yet been decided: they are in an icy limbo, but their lives could still be ahead. In effect, they are not yet a tragedy: they are lives waiting to happen, and the logical position of the Catholic Church is surely to enable them to live those lives.
But how could that happen? The answer, of course, is with the recruitment of surrogates: women who would volunteer to give these embryos the chance to gestate and be born, and who would then either raise them themselves, or pass them on to adoptive parents. The Catholic Church, says Magill, would not see these women as being physically commodified, but rather as having opted for a heroic action to save a life.
And if it seems unthinkable for a Church that has pronounced so strongly against surrogacy for more than a quarter of a century to change its mind, says Magill, consider this: when Pope John Paul II decided to overturn church teaching on the legitimacy of capital punishment, he acted swiftly. If Pope Francis was moved by the plight of the world’s frozen embryos, and saw the logic of the argument Magill floats, he could act quickly too. Surrogacy never has been, and never will be, straightforward; but it seems to get ever
more complicated, in every way, as time marches on.
Joanna Moorhead is a freelance journalist.