Remember surrogate mothering? Rent-a-womb? Paying someone (usually someone poor) to have your baby for you? Most people frown on it. It's illegal in some places. Well, according to the Christian Science Monitor, the latest grim story from the world of Brave New Medicine takes us all the way to India for the ultimate in outsourcing.

Of course, like so many disturbing applications of the new technologies that have given humans fresh choices for good and evil, it is a "kindler, gentler" horror. It isn't abortion; it doesn't kill babies (although, of course, in vitro fertilization does result in loss of life for embryos, either by accident or through the "quality control" that tends to go with it). And the woman who agrees to bear the child does so voluntarily. She is paid for her efforts. She may be very glad for the work and may find it fulfilling, as it helps another family end up with a child. So kind, so gentle.

According to the story, India has become a Mecca for surrogacy, which is now an industry bringing in nearly half a billion dollars a year:

"A year ago, the couple flew down from London to this dusty, unremarkable town to choose a surrogate mother. They are part of a growing number of childless foreigners beating a track to India, drawn here for many of the same reasons that have made India a top destination for medical tourism: low costs, highly-qualified doctors, and a more relaxed legal atmosphere."

Note the ironic commentary: a "more relaxed legal atmosphere," that together with "low costs" has made India the place to go. In fact, the couple now has a website up and running telling their story and encouraging others to do likewise.

The surrogate mother, Reshma, sounds both kind and gentle (as well as poor): "I have two cherubic children of my own," says Reshma, who withheld her real name for fear of disapproval by neighbors. "That couple has none. Imagine how much happiness this baby will give them."

According to the report, the economic benefits are inescapable. The entire procedure costs less than (sometimes much less than) $6,500 in India, versus $45,000 in the U.S., including $15,000 for the mother and twice that for the agency involved.

There should be no doubt at all that some infertile couples feel themselves under enormous pressure to have children, or that poor women—not just in India, but all over the world—will go to extraordinary lengths to secure resources to feed and educate their own children.

But there are two fundamental problems with all this. First, it assumes that surrogacy is a good idea in itself, morally neutral at worst—a legitimate way of enabling a couple to have a baby via the uterus of another woman. This mechanical approach to procreation has been widely repudiated, and for good reason. Its logical extension would be the use of animal wombs (which could become possible), the use of an "artificial" womb (on which there has been work for many years), and indeed gestation in a man. The radical separation of biological parenting and gestation—like all efforts to sunder the genetic, birth, and social mothers of a child, three roles that should be in one woman—strikes deep into the Christian understanding of procreation.

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Second, we have the exploitation inherent in the economic disparities, which are grossly underlined in the case of outsourcing to a developing country with many, many poor women. The answer "but they want it" or "they need the money" takes us to the same territory as the prohibition, agreed by all of us, against giving people the right to sell themselves into slavery. Indeed, it is an example of exactly the same principle at work. Many poor people, for their children's good, would sell themselves as slaves. We deny them that right. What's more, this also takes us into another grim evil. The trade in human organs, which flourishes in some non-Western countries, also offers bargain-basement pricing. There is very wide agreement that for poor people to be able to sell kidneys and other organs and tissue is an abomination. Renting a womb (in itself not without risks of many kinds) is a similar prostitution of the human body.

Which takes us to a final comment from the story. "How else will us uneducated women earn this kind of money, without doing anything immoral?" asks one of the surrogate mothers at the Kaival Hospital. That, of course, is the problem.

Good news from Europe on embryonic stem-cell funding

While most Americans seem to think that we are the only country with qualms about funding the destruction of human embryos for research (and the U.S. press tends not to report anything that would persuade us otherwise), the Bush funding policy sits somewhere in the center-ground of European debate—with the U.K. at one extreme (Brave New Britain) and much of continental Europe leaning the other way. No decisions have yet been made about the next multi-year European science program, but there is sustained opposition to going the British way, according to The Scientist:

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Germany, Austria and other nations opposed to E.U. funding of human embryonic stem-cell research proposed an E.U. funding ban this month in Brussels at a meeting of the E.U.'s 25 national science ministers, raising concerns that the minority group could force nations to remove this funding from the newest budget, even for scientists in countries where the research is legal.
The six nations—including also Italy, Poland, Malta, and Slovakia—failed to win additional backing at the meeting for a funding ban, but do hold enough combined voting power in the Council of science ministers to form a so-called "blocking minority."

Previous Life Matters columns include:

The Abortion Agenda: South Dakota's Move in Context | Plus: The latest on the biopolicy agenda and some outrageous lies on stem cells. (March 30, 2006)
Our Cloning Friends, the Brits | The U.K. and disaffected American researchers lash out at U.S. cloning laws. (March 17, 2006)
The Truth, the Partial Truth, and Nothing but Evasions | How to sell unethical science. (March 2, 2006)
The Pursuit of Enhancement | The latest from Brave New Britain. (Feb. 22. 2006)
Poaching Eggs | The latest sad story from the Korean soap opera—and a lack of Talent in Missouri (Feb. 17, 2006)
The State of the Human | President Bush sets out a vital agenda for ethics. (Feb. 2, 2006)
Are You My Sperm Donor? | Plus: Another Hwang turn, more small surprises, and other life ethics stories. (Jan. 26, 2006)
Breeding Humans Like Rabbits? | From the frying pan into the fire. (Jan. 20, 2006)

More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
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