Pope Francis Is Spot-on About Surrogacy

COMMENTARY: Calling for an international ban on surrogacy is a good example of the Petrine office calling attention to a moral issue of truly international scope.

Pope Francis addresses ambassadors accredited to the Holy See Jan. 9 in the Sala Regia at the Vatican.
Pope Francis addresses ambassadors accredited to the Holy See Jan. 9 in the Sala Regia at the Vatican. (photo: Vatican Pool / Getty Images)

Pope Francis shook the world on Monday when he called for an international ban on gestational surrogacy. 

In his annual audience with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, he called surrogacy “deplorable,” and a “grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child.” I thank him for this clear and correct statement. 

I have written frequently about surrogacy. I have interviewed several experts on the subject, including Katy Faust, Jennifer Lahl and Stephanie Gray Conners. This article from 2016, “Why Everyone Should Oppose Surrogacy,” summarizes my views: Surrogacy has something to offend everyone. 

Pro-woman reasons to oppose surrogacy include the very things that Pope Francis mentioned: its objectification of women and the broken bonds between the gestational mother and the child. In addition, I would add that surrogate mothers have fewer rights than mothers placing their babies for adoption. 

The law surrounding adoption recognizes that women bond with their babies during pregnancy. Women cannot fully anticipate how they will really feel once their baby is born. Even women determined to release their child for adoption, even women who have signed contracts, sometimes change their minds after the baby has been placed in her arms. The law recognizes this reality: A mother is generally allowed a period of time during which she can change her mind and keep the baby. 

Is it unimaginable that surrogate mothers might likewise attach to the child? Is it good public policy to insist on her hardening her heart, so she can fulfill the terms of her contract? The law surrounding surrogacy denies the reality that women normally and naturally form emotional attachments with their babies. Denying surrogate mothers the right to change their minds is, quite simply, inhuman. 

Pro-life reasons: Every surrogacy procedure creates tiny human beings. The “extra” embryos that are aborted or frozen indefinitely are just as human as the ones selected for life. 

Pro-child reasons: There are both medical and psychological risks to children conceived through artificial means. The pamphlet summarizes the medical issues. Babies conceived through artificial procedures are at elevated risks for premature birth, low birth weight, cerebral palsy and other physical complications. 

And we have barely begun to consider the psychological issues. Will the normal process of infant attachment, which begins in utero, transfer seamlessly to the commissioning parents? We have no idea. 

Olivia Maurel was among the people interviewed for this Washington Times article about Pope Francis’ statement. She was born from surrogacy and is part of an international coalition to ban the practice. She reports: “I was ripped away from my mother at birth, the one who birthed me, the only person I actually knew [through] voice, smell, heartbeat. I was sold to people I did not know. This created a very, very intense trauma.” 

Maurel experienced substance abuse, sexual abuse and “terrible relationships,” which she attributes to the fallout from the circumstances of her conception. 

We are experimenting on small children, for whom giving meaningful consent is impossible. 

Progressive reasons: Surrogacy exploits poor women, often women of color and in poor countries, for the benefit of wealthy westerners. As Maurel quipped to the Washington Times, “We have never seen a rich surrogate carry a baby for nine months and give it away for free to a poor woman.”

Libertarian, pro-liberty reasons: With natural conception, the law’s role is strictly limited to recording the natural parents of the child. Surrogacy drags the law into deciding which of the parties to the various surrogacy contracts will count as the legal parents. This expands the role of the state into an arena that should be fiercely protected as a naturally private realm. Finally, allowing some people to buy other people, even if they are really young and small, is not a pro-liberty policy. 

One more reason should be emphasized: The Church holds that being conceived in the loving embrace of one’s parents is the birthright of every human person. We are well aware that many people are deprived of this great blessing, for a whole variety of reasons. Nevertheless, God loves every person who has ever been conceived, no matter how unjust the circumstances of the conception may be. No matter what the parents may or may not have done, God’s participation in the creation of new life is always love. 

Therefore, we must never regret the child, no matter the circumstances of his or her conception. God wants this child to exist. That is reason enough to welcome the child into life and celebrate his or her existence. But it is no reason to plan in advance to deprive the child of his or her most basic birthright. 

As Catholics, we have the advantage of access to some great minds and holy people who have thought through difficult issues. Pope Francis’ recent statement is consistent with Catholic teaching, as expressed in Donum Vitae, promulgated in 1987 under Pope John Paul II by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This matters in our personal lives and decision-making. 

I’ve had Catholics ask me questions about these issues. I tell them what the Church teaches. They say, roughly, “That isn’t what I was hoping to hear. But I’ll go with it.” They move on. 

On the other hand, non-Catholics have to think through tough moral issues from scratch at a time when they are most emotionally fragile. We all tend to kid ourselves under those circumstances. These well-meaning but desperate people are on their own when the inevitable problems come down the pike.

Some cynics might say that the uproar over surrogacy diverted attention from aspects of the address to the diplomatic corps that might be controversial, such as the Vatican’s secret deal with China. The Pope only mentioned an earthquake in China, as a “disaster that human beings cannot control.” He didn’t mention the persecution of Catholics in Nigeria at all. 

No matter. Calling for an international ban on surrogacy is a good example of the Petrine office calling attention to a moral issue of truly international scope. I, for one, am grateful for this statement.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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