The Deconstruction of Motherhood

The “signs of the times” demand that we think about what is being done to motherhood, and whether we want to remain silent about it.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

Today is Mother’s Day. According to the old saw, “motherhood, apple pie, and baseball” are among the most beloved and uncontroversial things out there. Hallmark (and the USPS) sure hope so: lots of cards will be delivered this weekend, too.

But is “motherhood” so uncontroversial?

Contemporary reproductive technologies have already enabled people for decades to slice and dice motherhood. Once upon a time, “who mother was” was a pretty clear concept. In vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy have muddied those waters.

IVF, now over 40 years old, tugs on the heartstrings of “motherhood” to destroy motherhood. It undermines motherhood by making the genetic dimension of motherhood severable from the rest of motherhood. Advocates of IVF will try to sell it (and I choose that verb deliberately, because there’s big money in IVF) as “making motherhood possible” and “most people will just use it to have their own kids.” But, regardless of the apologies for it, IVF is the camel’s nose under the tent: it makes it possible to separate genetic motherhood from social motherhood, the act of raising a child.

Proponents of IVF will argue that this is no different than adoption. That’s not true.

In the case of adoption, we recognize an element of tragedy, an element of “it shouldn’t be like this.” Our language has always understood being an “orphan” to be something vulnerable and undesirable. “The widow and the orphan” in Scripture represent particularly vulnerable populations. The situation was undesirable because, without blaming the child, we instinctively knew that a child should not have to be in such a situation. A child should have a mother and a father that give the child life and raise him. To be an adoptive parent was a noble calling (consider St. Joseph) to give a child what he would otherwise lack. But we also knew that while adoption might “repair” the situation, we also instinctively knew that it would be grossly immoral to set out deliberately and intentionally to make an orphan.

IVF sets out deliberately to make an orphan because there is nothing about the process — except peoples’ wills — that a child who is the genetic child of a woman will ever be raised by, have contact with, or even know that mother. The child might – or might not. Notice the inversion of rights: the child no longer has a right to his mother, but an adult has a “right” to give away, buy, sell, donate, and/or dispose of that child.

The end does not justify the means: just because this woman might use IVF as a technological workaround to the human contact of sexual intercourse to become a mother genetically and socially doesn’t mean that IVF doesn’t do corrosive damage by making those dimensions of motherhood separable.

In the wake of IVF, however, came a “new” approach to motherhood: surrogacy. It’s not really “new,” because Abraham used Hagar as a surrogate about 4,000 years ago, nor is it a technology.

Surrogacy came into public view in the late 1980s with the infamous “Baby M” Case in New Jersey, when a woman (Mary Beth Whitehead) agreed to be inseminated by another woman’s husband (William Stern), deliver the baby, and then surrender her parental rights to Stern and the new “mother,” his wife Elizabeth. But when the baby was born, Mary Beth Whitehead refused — and the case made its way through the New Jersey courts. The state Supreme Court eventually struck down the contract as contrary to then-New Jersey public policy (since changed by the current governor) but then turned the dispute into a custody battle over alleged “best interests of the child” and — guess what — the affluent Stern won.

In an honest world, we’d call this trafficking in babies. In our “kinder, gentler” doublespeak, “mothers” are those who want the baby, while the woman who actually carries the baby to term is now — in New Jersey — a “gestational carrier.” Can you think of anything more dehumanizing?

Surrogacy continued the fracturing of motherhood IVF began: now, instead of just genetic v. social mothers, surrogacy enabled genetic, gestational, and social mothers. As one commentator acerbically observed (appropriate to this weekend): “who gets the Mother’s Day card?”

Obviously, from a Catholic ethical viewpoint, this whole scenario is immoral. I would make three observations:

The Social Justice Angle – in a world that pays lip service to social justice concerns, why is there such silence about Big Fertility? There’s gold in them there eggs and uteri (mostly for Big Fertility). It’s also frankly elitist and eugenic. Was anybody surprised that the Sterns, with good lawyers and the ability to speak “oh so rationally” about their trafficking in a baby, won the custody battle? Consider the important research that Jennifer Lahl of the Center for Bioethics and Culture in California has identified: who is recruited for ova donations, and who is recruited for uterine rent (no other way to put it)? If you’re looking for Grade AAA eggs, you pay top dollar for Ivy Leaguers. When it comes to recruiting egg donors, Big Fertility prowls for top notch, preferably Ivy League, college graduates. (See here and here.) But when it comes to surrogates, since they “contribute” nothing but space, favorite cohorts are poorer women (who could use the bucks), Army wives (especially of enlisted men), and foreign women (depending on whether the country has permissive surrogacy laws). And while the money may appeal to women in lower income brackets, rarely does it come anywhere close to even the “minimum wage” for 6,720 hours of pregnancy (40 weeks x 7 days x 24 hours). Incidentally, does this mean we can put a price on motherhood?

The Laboratory Angle – Paul Greenberg once trenchantly observed that “verbicide precedes homicide,” something Orwell had already identified with “doublespeak.” As noted above, who is the real surrogate and who is the real mother: the woman whose literal labor grows and delivers a baby, or the one who dangles a contract for the product? Already in the late 1940s, Pope Pius XII warned about turning the human embrace of sexuality and the family hearth into a “laboratory.” But that is just what IVF is. There is no inherent need that his mother’s seed should provide half the basis of the life of a child — any egg will do. Indeed, when fertilization is done in IVF procedures, multiple ova are fertilized. Since a woman usually only carries (and wants) one or two babies, the lab tech (in contrast to a senior class poll) decides on who’s “most likely to succeed” — the rest of the fertilized ova either being consigned to a senseless non-existence in cryopreservation (senseless, because often abandoned) or simply destroyed. This is the IVF face of laboratory “motherhood.”

Cultural Barbarism – The contemporary Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski has coined a concept I like very much: “cultured barbarians.” He notes that, once upon a time, the barbarians at the gates of Rome were clad in animal skins. Today’s barbarians at the gates of Judaeo-Christian civilization wear Gucci suits, Prado shoes, lab coats, and title themselves “M.D.” or “J.D.” They represent alleged “victims” – those who want a baby and will pay anything to get their “choice” – while victimizing the real victims — children — deprived of their biological mother, the mother that bore them, and — in growing cases today — even any mother at all (as opposed to “parent 2,” because parenthood should be sexually undifferentiated). They also victimize other women (egg donors, gestational mothers), for whom their sexuality and bodies are just parts providers. And they victimize motherhood, by deconstructing it into an act of will … usually buttressed by lots of cash.

Mother’s Day is a time for thinking nice thoughts about mothers and saluting motherhood. But the “signs of the times” also demand that we think about what is being done to motherhood, and whether we want to remain silent about it.