WASHINGTON — After a 15-year career in Congress, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., resigned his seat amid credible accusations he tried to pressure two women on his congressional staff into becoming surrogate mothers for his unborn children.
The prominent pro-life politician’s downfall highlights the insoluble moral problems associated with surrogacy and in-vitro fertilization procedures that the Catholic Church has pointed out, according to analysts.
Franks’ fall came amid investigations into multiple lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill accused of sexual misconduct toward their staff. House Speaker Paul Ryan demanded Franks’ resignation after the speaker’s office determined the accusations against Franks were credible, according to a statement.
Multiple news outlets reported Franks at one point had offered $5 million (approximately one-sixth his estimated financial worth) to a female subordinate for serving as a surrogate. Both women were initially concerned that Franks wanted to impregnate them himself. By the time of the investigation, both had already left the congressman’s employ.
The former congressman admitted in a statement he had discussed surrogacy with the women on his staff because he and his wife struggled with infertility. They previously had hired another woman as a surrogate mother for their in-vitro conceived twins and wanted to obtain siblings for them. He denied either that he sought any sexual contact with the women on his staff or that he “physically intimidated” or coerced them.
However, Franks’ actions and statements concerned pro-life advocates and Catholic ethicists, who pointed out that “contract pregnancy,” or maternal surrogacy, treats women and children as things to be bought and sold.
“Rep. Franks should be on the right side of the issue, but he’s part of the problem,” said Jennifer Lahl, president and founder of the Center for Bioethics and Culture. “IVF-assisted reproduction is not pro-life.”
Lahl said that while most European nations have clamped down on surrogacy as a form of exploitation of women’s bodies, the U.S. has developed a multibillion-dollar fertility industry that thrives on a “woeful lack of serious legislation” on the practice. Lahl said it is discouraging to watch pro-life lawmakers allow surrogacy to flourish.
The producer of the documentary Breeders: A Subclass of Women?, Lahl said surrogacy degrades the dignity of women by treating their wombs like an “easy-bake oven” for others.
The unborn child also suffers. Lahl explained the unborn child naturally bonds with his mother during pregnancy and recognizes her after birth. But in surrogacy, the unborn child and the surrogate mother end up bonding with each other — only to be separated shortly after birth. Lahl said the rupture of the maternal-child bond has a negative impact on a child’s health and well-being.
The damage also extends to children already born. Lahl said the children of one woman who was a surrogate mother came to see babies not as potential siblings, but as money-makers. When money became tight again, the children would ask her, “Why don’t you have another baby for somebody?”
Multiple Moral Violations
According to Dignitatis Personae, the Vatican’s 2008 teaching document on IVF, surrogacy and other bioethical issues, “various techniques of artificial reproduction, which would seem to be at the service of life and which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new threats against life” (15).
The document stated the Church holds it is “ethically unacceptable” to separate procreation from conjugal sex.
“Human procreation is a personal act of a husband and wife, which is not capable of substitution,” it stated (16).
Jozef Zalot, an ethicist at the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center, explained that surrogacy involves multiple layers of violations of the natural law.
First of all, he said surrogacy by its nature involves a “third person into the unitive and procreative processes” proper to a husband and wife. Zalot said that surrogacy necessarily involves in vitro fertilization, the process of conceiving a child through the laboratory process, which is “a procedure the Church teaches is intrinsically immoral” because it separates procreation from the marital act.
IVF involves creating multiple embryos, which are frozen and stored on strips that may contain three to five embryos, with the expectation some will not survive. In certain cases, all the embryos implant, creating a high-risk pregnancy situation. This has led to situations where surrogate mothers are advised or pressured to abort some of the children, called “selective reduction,” or receive pressure from their clients who do not want all those children, or are asked to pay for them.
Zalot added that the nobility of intention does not change the nature of the act, even if a person offers to be a surrogate mother without compensation.
“If you volunteer to be a surrogate, you’re consenting to all the other immoral actions involved with IVF,” he said.
Lack of Awareness
Andrew Kim, a theology professor at Marquette University who has focused on surrogacy and other bioethical issues, told the Register that awareness of surrogacy tends to be “fairly low.”
He pointed out that the undergraduates he teaches tend to be caught by surprise when they learn that “contract pregnancy” is an increasing social phenomenon, involves a multibillion-dollar fertility industry, and is a “prominent bioethical issue” of their time.
“I would say it’s not generally in their consciousness,” he said.
But the idea that surrogacy involves consenting adults is largely a myth that needs to be exposed, argued Kim. The claim that the surrogate mother generally has autonomy in these transactions is not the case. The concept of consenting adults, he said, “presupposes some kind of equal footing.”
“There’s asymmetry between normally wealthy clients and surrogates who need the money,” he said.
Kim said coercion is involved when employers pressure employees, who may fear retaliation or loss of their jobs, to engage in acts outside the reasonable scope of their duties. Franks and his staff members, Kim pointed out, “were not on equal footing.”
The situation of exploitation is even worse in economically developing countries overseas, where the legal protections are much weaker. India, once a high-profile destination for Americans and Europeans looking for cheap surrogates from among poor women, enacted a ban on commercial surrogacy in March 2017. (Developing countries are having to fight off commercial surrogacy, as illustrated here and here.)
Respecting God’s Design
Surrogacy also reinforces the dominant cultural narrative that babies are commodities that adults can obtain, customize or dispose to their liking, explained Kim. Abortion similarly ties into this narrative. He pointed to the “troubling rise” of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome in the womb who are aborted or the increase in “wrongful- life lawsuits.”
The Church, Kim said, explains that children are “begotten” within the conjugal acts of husband and wife and received gratefully as a free gift from God, not as an entitlement. The Church’s moral theology states that while technology can assist the procreative union of husband and wife, it cannot substitute for them.
Zalot explained that there is a small, but growing, number of doctors who are seeking to use technology at the service of God’s plan for the body, rather than usurp it. This can be seen in cases where medical interventions help unblock fallopian tubes or stimulate ovulation.
He said, “They’re saying: ‘Let’s look at the source of infertility and treat it with natural means.’”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.