This week, NC Family president John Rustin talks with Jennifer Lahl, founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, about the dangers of surrogacy for both women and children, and why it should be banned nationwide.
INTRODUCTION: Jennifer Lahl is founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. As a former pediatric critical care nurse, Jennifer has 25 years of experience in the health care field. She is routinely interviewed on radio and television, including ABC, CBS, PBS, and NPR, and her writings have appeared in a number of publications, including the American Journal of Bioethics. Jennifer has produced or directed several critically-acclaimed documentaries on third party reproduction, including “Eggsploitation,” “Anonymous Father’s Day,” and “Breeders,” which focuses on the harms of surrogacy.
We are going to be talking with Jennifer about surrogacy, the dangers to women and children, and why she believes it should be banned.
JOHN RUSTIN: Jennifer, for some of our listeners who may be unfamiliar with the term, would you describe what surrogacy means, and how frequently is it used in the United States?
JENNIFER LAHL: Surrogacy is literally a woman being hired or contracted with to carry a pregnancy to term, knowing that when the child has been born she will surrender that child to whoever the intended parents are. The surrogate can either contribute her genetic material as well as her womb, her uterus, or she can just contribute her uterus. And we talk about different forms of surrogacy, and sometimes the word “traditional” surrogacy is thrown out there, which means she’s literally the biological genetic and birth mother, or “gestational” surrogate, which means she’s just as the TV shows like to say, she’s just the easy-bake oven, baking cupcakes for a nice couple. So, those are the different types of surrogacy, but it’s the understanding that a woman once she delivers the child will surrender that child to whoever has contracted her to carry the pregnancy to term. As far as numbers in the United States, John, it’s really hard to get a handle on that because we don’t track and monitor. This is one area of medicine, which is largely operating at a multi-billion dollar level here in the United States, with little oversight and regulation. So it’s hard to know when a baby’s born in a labor and delivery hospital in the United States, you know, who are the parents, and is this a child born of a surrogacy contract? We do know that the numbers are trending up. They’re trending up because it’s become more mainstream. It’s become more acceptable within our traditional faith communities, who see this as a wonderful way to help people have families. And now with the Supreme Court ruling on marriage, we’re seeing a much more forceful policy shift to allow same-sex couples, in this instance homosexual men, to become parents through paid surrogacy.
JOHN RUSTIN: You’ve written that surrogacy really represents “the commodification of women’s bodies.” Explain for us, if you will, how surrogacy reduces women to essentially commodities.
JENNIFER LAHL: It’s very clear that what the woman is being paid to do, or contracted to do, is to use her body for nine months in a pregnancy and deliver a child, and often this is managed by contract, which leaves the surrogate mother very exposed. And at the end of the day, she’s being paid to deliver a product, a baby. If that’s not commodification of a woman’s body and a child…we call that human trafficking, we call that baby trade, and we call that baby buying and baby selling. That’s what is really happening here. And you can’t dress it up and make it any other way other than literally the hiring of a woman to produce a baby for sale.
JOHN RUSTIN: And what kind of money are we talking about here, speaking in terms of this contract, what are we talking about as far as the amount of money that a women might receive for a surrogacy contract?
JENNIFER LAHL: Again, this is a market-driven enterprise. This isn’t medicine, you know you don’t negotiate with your doctor as normally when you enter into the healthcare system, but this is a market-driven thing. I’m in California, and out here in Hollywood-land where we have very wealthy celebrities, surrogates can make [between $20,000] to $50,000. Repeat surrogacy pays even better because you have been proven to demonstrate that not only can you carry a pregnancy to term, but you won’t change your mind and demand that you have rights and access to this child. It’s very common for surrogates to deliver twins, or triplets. It’s very expensive technology, and it’s largely a high failure rate, so a surrogate is encouraged to deliver a multiple birth so that the consumers—the buyers—get a baby in the end. That’s what this is all about—getting a baby. So a surrogate who is willing to carry twins or triplets can even get a higher amount of money because of the risk and onerous effort to produce three and four babies at a time.
JOHN RUSTIN: I imagine that based on the potential financial benefits involved, it could be very tempting for some individuals to offer their bodies for this, especially women who are struggling with finances. I know that you’ve argued that the practice of surrogacy really depends on the exploitation of poor women. Give us some examples of how the surrogacy industry does exploit poor women.
JENNIFER LAHL: You don’t have to go very far in just picking a newspaper or a tabloid magazine to see the faces of surrogate mothers. Outside the United States, [it is the] low indigent, uneducated, poor women, destitute poverty in India, Thailand, Nepal, Mexico, where there’s a booming growing market. Here in the United States, military wives are heavily recruited and marketed to, [and asked] to serve God, to serve country, to serve another couple and help make dreams come true and become a paid surrogate. So—again back to the Hollywood tabloids—you’ll never see the wealthy Hollywood actress offering to be a surrogate mother for her low-income housekeeper. It will always be the low-income woman who is serving couples of affluence. How many affluent women want to be pregnant for nine months only to help somebody and deliver baby at the end of that pregnancy to a low-income woman? It doesn’t work that way, and we are naive if we think that wealthy women are serving the poor. It’s the poor serving the wealthy.
JOHN RUSTIN: In your documentary, “Breeders,” you tell the stories of some women who have been surrogates, and really highlight how they were harmed by this practice. One of the harms of surrogacy involves the drugs that are used to prepare women to be surrogates. Tell us a little bit about those drugs and the dangers involved with them.
JENNIFER LAHL: You are obviously having to trick a woman’s body into becoming pregnant in a very unnatural way. Here is a woman [who is] not… becoming pregnant the old-fashioned way; rather, she’s being manipulated through powerful hormones to prepare her uterus to accept the pregnancy that’s not her own. And so these women do have to take hormones to not only prime and prepare their uterus to accept an embryo into the womb, but then they also have to stay on extended periods of hormones to actually secure that pregnancy that the embryo is implanted and the pregnancy is coming along. It’s an unnatural thing we’re doing here, and so we’re trying to mimic, if you will, nature by inducing from these hormones. In our film “Breeders,” we tell the story of four different women, and we had traditional surrogates in the film, we had gestational surrogates in the film, we had surrogates who were helping family members have a child, we have surrogates who are helping strangers, we had surrogates who were doing it for free—purely altruistic—and those who were being paid because they needed the money. And no matter which way you slice the argument, all of these women regret their decision. And they regret it because of health risk and health complications, and because of bonding and attachment to the children that they were carrying, and a whole host of other reasons.
JOHN RUSTIN: You just touched on this, and that is the negative emotional effects that women suffer as a result of being a surrogates. Tell us about the experiences that you’ve seen with that.
JENNIFER LAHL: [When] you introduced me, you said that I was a pediatric critical care nurse. We work so hard in maternal child health to connect mothers to their babies in-utero. I took care of severely premature babies for many years. We worked very hard in those instances to connect mothers and children together, because it is an important, real, necessary, good bond. And then in this area of surrogacy, we say, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t harm the child, and it doesn’t harm the mother. And we’ve seen over and over again that it is a wound to mother and child. I’ve interviewed what we call “serial surrogates,” who suffer post-partum depression because they go home from a hospital, and they don’t bring a baby home, and so what do they do to fill that void? They get pregnant again because there’s a grief and a brokenness. One of the women in our film was born of surrogacy, and she talks about that brokenness of that bond, and that feeling that she was a commodity, knowing that her birth mother sold her for $10,000, and what that does to your psyche, your emotional health. I’ve seen the larger impact on little children in the home. What do little children in the home learn when they know Mommy’s not keeping this baby? One little boy was asked in the grocery store when his mother was visibly pregnant, “Oh, do you want a brother or a sister?” and he said, “Oh, we’re not keeping this baby. We’re giving to a nice lady that can’t have a child.” And, what is the impact on little children who grow up thinking Mommies keep some of their babies, and Mommies give some of their babies away. So we’re only now sort of hitting the tip of the iceberg, if you will, not only the impact to the mother and the child in the surrogacy arrangement, but the larger social family, and other children in the home. And [what about] marriage? What is the impact of surrogacy on the marriage of a surrogate mother?
JOHN RUSTIN: Considering all these concerns, how is surrogacy regulated in the United States? Are there federal laws regulating it—what’s the status?
JENNIFER LAHL: Sadly, the status in the United States is very much an ad hock patchwork situation. We do not have any federal legislative overlay in this area of these emerging reproductive technologies, which is very unfortunate. So what we have is a patchwork. My state, California, is very liberal. You know, anything goes, and we call it the “wild wild west.” Where did Elton John come twice to have his children with his male partner? It just shows anything literally goes out here in California. And we’ve had legislative victories three years in a row with Governor Jindal and Governor Christie, pushing back on progressive liberalizing surrogacy laws in those states. So, it’s sadly a patchwork, which encourages people to fly from one state to the next and hop around shop for the best price that they can get in hiring a woman to have their baby. It’s quite unfortunate.
JOHN RUSTIN: What is the status of surrogacy in North Carolina?
JENNIFER LAHL: Right now, North Carolina really doesn’t have laws governing surrogacy. How surrogacy operates in North Carolina is sort of under the auspices of your contract law and your adoption laws. So North Carolina is open to, and friendly to, gestational surrogacy. And I would love to see that change in North Carolina, to stop surrogacy in North Carolina.
JOHN RUSTIN: I appreciate that, and I know that it’s something that seems to be more and more on the radar screen as people become more aware of it, and as it becomes more widespread. And so it’s definitely an issue that the North Carolina Family Policy Council is very interested in and will be pursuing legislation in the future…Now, Jennifer, you argue that simply regulating surrogacy is not the answer, and that we really should ban it altogether. Why is regulation not enough in your opinion?
JENNIFER LAHL: In my mind, surrogacy undermines the dignity of women and children, and undermines the dignity of the family, and it exploits women and it exploits children. So if something is undignified and it’s wrong, why would you regulate it? We don’t regular slavery, and we don’t regulate human trafficking—things that we have decided are undermining the dignity of the human person. So, in my mind, regulation only protects the money stakeholders.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s a great place to close, and unfortunately we are just about out of time. But before we leave, I want to give you the opportunity to tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about this issue, and about The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network?
JENNIFER LAHL: I would drive everybody to our website, which is www.cbc-network.org. Our website is full of all kinds of valuable information and resources.
JOHN RUSTIN: Jennifer Lahl, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters today, and talking about the harms of surrogacy, and what we need to do here in North Carolina on this issue. We are grateful for your time, for your insights, and for your interest.
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