By Ben Smith, Catholic Outlook September 2014
The recent media storm surrounding the story of Baby Gammy in Thailand has caused a global sensation; ultimately leading to the country’s governing military junta to propose a ban on commercial surrogacy.
The extensive media coverage of the story has been complicated by a series of twists and turns. However, the heart of the situation remains the same.
In his book Catholic Bioethics for a New Millennium [i], the Bishop of Parramatta and bioethicist, the Most Reverend Bishop Anthony Fisher OP, said children have become the last big consumer item for the person who has everything.
He said ownership, patents, quantity and quality control as well as ‘take-home baby rates’ are the language and mentality of the free market and indicate the colonisation of the womb and nursery.
Baby Gammy’s situation has highlighted a number of morally objectionable practices concerning the commercial surrogacy industry in developing countries such as Thailand.
An increasing number of vulnerable young women in poor countries are being used as surrogate mothers by entrepreneurs to supply children to wealthy first world clients. The financial position of these surrogate mothers means they can be subject to all kinds of exploitation.
They can feel a strong bond with their surrogate children and naturally can find it very hard to hand over the babies they have carried and given birth to.
The babies that these women carry in their wombs are often subject to a range of testing to ensure that the ‘pre-ordered’ baby meets the ‘requirements’ of the commissioning couple.
The Australian [ii] recently reported that Australian Embassy officials in Bangkok had intervened on a number of occasions to stop Australian couples from backing out of their contracts because their baby had genetic defects.
The paper also reports there are issues if the child is the unsought sex (females are preferred over males) or even because the surrogate mother was pregnant with twins and had refused to have a “selective reduction” abortion to destroy one twin.
The commoditisation of life for both the surrogate mothers and the children they carry is an intrinsic part of any approach to commercial surrogacy. Some things are not meant to be bought and sold – especially someone’s life or someone’s womb.
The Church teaches us that this commodisation is wholeheartedly at odds with the sanctity of life of all people from conception to natural death.
While the Church understands the struggle and sadness faced by childless couples, it teaches that surrogacy in even the most altruistic of circumstances can never be justified. It violates the integrity of a woman’s womb and the life that is created.
It also complicates a child’s familial identity, because they could potentially have three ‘mothers’ (their biological mother who provided an egg, their surrogate mother and their legal/guardian mother).
The Church’s understanding of the natural order is that babies should be conceived naturally by the love of a husband and wife in the womb of their biological mother.
A positive thing emerging from this story is the outpouring of concern for Baby Gammy. One charity has received pledges for more than $250,000 to help with his medical expenses.
However, the moral outrage is in sharp contrast to the attitude shown towards unborn Down Syndrome babies in Australia.
The screening of unborn babies is routine obstetric practice in this country. When a couple is told their unborn baby has Down Syndrome, there is significant pressure on them to abort their child. There are courageous women and men who resist this unjust pressure.
Does the act of seeing a photogenic Down Syndrome baby change people’s view of the value of their life? Do our basic moral instincts in regards to bioethical issues get clouded by the rhetoric of the medical professionals and public intellectuals? Do we as a society expect others to follow a higher moral standard than we apply to ourselves?
The Baby Gammy story has sparked a valuable debate around commercial surrogacy and reproductive technology. This debate only reinforces the Church’s commitment to the sanctity of life.
[i] Anthony Fisher, Catholic Bioethics for a New Millennium, (Cambridge University Press, UK, 2012), Pg 15
[ii] The Australian article: [‘Abandoned surrogate child is only one of many such tragedies’,4/8/14]