Surrogacy, adoption, and how they impact mother and child
A foetus, floating in a balloon of water, was the striking image on the front cover of Life Magazine on 30 April 1965. This photo, and 16 photos of embryos and foetuses that appeared inside the magazine, caused a sensation, and resulted in the fastest ever sales in Life’s history. No womb appeared in the photos, and there was no hint of the interdependence of foetus and mother-to-be. Instead the iconic foetus featured on the cover appeared to be independent, floating in space, connected only to a disembodied placenta.
“In Lennart Nilsson’s pictures, this dependency isn’t visible. The foetus is alone. The mother is eradicated, The pictures don’t show any relationship between mother and child; we are born complete, self-sufficient individuals. The picture of life, as depicted by Lennart Nilsson, dropped into our collective imagination and there it stayed. We must have found it rather appealing. The question is why.”
(Katrine Marçal - Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner?, 2015)
Nilsson’s photos were lauded as revealing for the first time the reality of life before birth, even though most of them were actually of dead embryos, and none of them recognised the dependence of the embryo or foetus on the woman who had sustained it. Marçal suggests that the reason we were so taken with these photos is that we were seduced by the fantasy of total self-sufficiency. Perhaps, though, it goes deeper than that. Maybe our fascination with Nilsson’s photos reflected how much we had absorbed patriarchy’s systematic devaluation of pregnancy, motherhood, mothers, and the mother-child bond . Perhaps his photos were a visual update of what Aesychylus’ Oresteia (which I summarised here) had proclaimed dramatically, 23 centuries earlier. Were we being prepared for a transhumanist future in which mothers would actually be made redundant?
It’s not just the physical interdependence of a pregnant woman and her to-be-born child that is downplayed in patriarchy, the emotional bond between mother and new-born child is as well. Nowhere is this clearer than in adoption and surrogacy, where ‘success’ is routinely measured by how ‘cleanly’ (ie brutally) this bond is broken.
In 2019, Spinifex Press published the testimonies of ‘surrogate’ mothers from nine different countries. The book’s title, ‘Broken Bonds’, crystallised what was at the heart of the discrepancy between the promise and the reality of surrogacy for these women. As the introduction put it, “The ‘modern family’ created by surrogacy triumphs at the cost of the mother-child dyad. Its destruction leaves permanent wounds on both.”
Building families or destroying families?
Also in 2019, The Law Commissions in England & Wales and Scotland combined to issue a consultation document, ‘Building families through surrogacy’. They invited comments on detailed proposals for changes in the law to make the surrogacy process easier to navigate. These proposals were heavily influenced by intensive lobbying by surrogacy agencies, and included making the ‘intended parents’ the legal parents at the time of birth (and having their names, not the mother’s, on the birth certificate).
The Law Commissions’ aim was to “encourage those wishing to enter surrogacy arrangements to do so in the UK rather than overseas.” Full commercialisation was rejected, but their proposals would allow surrogacy clinics to advertise their services, and the “reasonable expenses” that could be paid to surrogate mothers would be large enough to cast doubt on insistence that surrogacy in the UK was, and would remain, “altruistic”.
The proposals sought to develop surrogacy as a new way of “building families” and enhancing “procreative liberty” (the supposed human right of anyone to use a surrogate mother to give them children), while including minimal safeguards for the women whose bodies are the resources it exploits. Specific health risks for egg donors and surrogate mothers were ignored, and concerns about the impact of breaking the mother-child bond were dismissed,. No reference was made to the well-documented trauma experienced by adoptees, particularly when they reach adulthood, and how this might be relevant to how children born from surrogacy might feel as they grew older.
Who am I?
One of the consultation responses to the Law Commissions’ proposals was from my late wife, Angela. Drawing on her experience in Jigsaw (the organisation she founded in 1975 to unite natural mothers and adoptees in the fight for adoptee rights to access their birth records), she highlighted the relevance of adoptees’ experiences to the surrogacy debate:
“Many adoptees had struggled with feelings that they had been rejected and given away by their mother and found it hard to trust people in later life, or to feel they could sustain a loving relationship with another person. These feelings were reported time and time again by adoptees who approached us for help and support, totally irrespective of whether the adoption had been successful or not.
The second most pressing issue was one of identity. What is quite important for us can be a lifelong haunting question for an adopted person: “Who am I?”. This can bring a profound sense of dislocation and a deeply-felt sense of not truly belonging anywhere or to anyone, and can relentlessly eat away within them despite in many (but not all) cases having loving adoptive parents, a happy marriage and children of their own.
Like their mothers, adopted children are often enduring a life-long inner pain that nothing can relieve. I now understand a profound truth, that the unacknowledged pain is the pain that comes when you separate a mother and child. There is a deep emotional connection between a mother and the child she has brought into the world. It is visceral, and it is there for a very good reason. Nature ensures that this powerful emotional connection is accompanied by a powerful hormone, oxytocin, which can create a bond between mother and child which ensures that the child is drawn to the mother for comfort and nurture, and that the mother experiences overwhelming feelings of protectiveness towards her new born infant. This protectiveness can be seen in all mothers, whether animal or human, if they feel there may be a threat to their infant(s).
When the bond is fractured, profound consequences can flow for both mother and child. My fear is that this is little understood by society at large, and especially those advocating ‘surrogacy’, because it cuts that precious and unique bond embodied in bringing forth new life, before it has a chance to develop. It strikes at the very heart of what it is to be a mother, and what it is to have a mother. And if you take that away from a child, so that they feel, at the deepest level of their being, that they are someone who never had a mother, you leave them bereft.
I wonder whether in our cavalier and superficial rush to reduce motherhood to merely a transaction between an egg, sperm, and a rented womb we have any idea what we are storing up in the future for those who will be the product of it.”
(Angela Neale, response to Law Commissions consultation on surrogacy, 2019)
The Commissioners were surprised by the extent of opposition to their proposals, particularly around birth registration, and have delayed finalising their recommendations to government. These recommendations, and a draft parliamentary Bill, will not now be published before Spring 2023.
My next post will look at the legal fictions that are used to institutionalise adoption, surrogacy, and now ‘trans identities’, and the damage that is caused when these fictions are treated as if they are fact.
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