Weird Gestations

Rent-a-Womb, Build-a-Child Technologies Harm Women & Children

Following the development of in  vitro fertilization (IVF), gestational surrogacy arose in the 1980s and has since given rise to an industry that markets itself as a way to make aspiring parents’ dreams come true. As nations redefine marriage, same-sex couples have been availing themselves of the “dream” of acquiring a family using this means.

There are two types of surrogacy, traditional and gestational, either of which can be conducted “altruistically” or as a commercial transaction. With traditional surrogacy, a “substitute” mother carries an embryo that has been made with her own egg, usually via artificial insemination. In gestational surrogacy, the woman carries a child that isn’t genetically related to her but was created in a lab via IVF. In both cases, the sperm may have been sourced from the “intended father” or a donor.1

Last year, Jordan Peterson interviewed gay political commentator Dave Rubin about Rubin’s pursuit, together with his partner David Janet, of having two children via gestational surrogacy. Rubin and Janet both contributed sperm, which was then combined with eggs from a donor they chose from a catalog. Two surrogates were pregnant with the children at the time of the interview.

Surrogates are often portrayed as “angels” who give the “gift of family” to infertile couples, but there are dark undersides to surrogacy, over and above the cold commercialism by which these two men commissioned the use of three women’s bodies to create children for them. Following are some of the harms to women and children that get lost in the glowing rhetoric about making dreams come true.

Harms to Women

Risks of Egg Extraction: IVF requires the extraction of eggs from either the intended mother or a donor. Lupron, a common drug used off-label to stimulate egg production, carries risks of side effects that include hypotension, blood disorders, autoimmune diseases, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, and cancer.2 In addition, the egg-harvesting process involves risks of bladder and bowel injury and loss of an ovary.3

Risks of Surrogate Pregnancy: A recent study comparing surrogate pregnancies with natural pregnancies found that gestational pregnancies were more likely to be high-risk and had a three-times-higher risk of delivering via C-section.4 Certain complications also increase with the use of eggs not genetically related to the gestational carrier. These include a more than three-fold higher risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension and pre-eclampsia, and an increased risk of gestational diabetes and placenta previa.5

Psychological Harms: The unnatural process of surrogacy requires a separation of mind and body on the part of the surrogate—what psychologists call dissociation. This dissociation is similar to what happens in prostitution, when a woman splits off what’s happening to her body from her conscious awareness as a protective coping mechanism. After the split, it’s often difficult to reestablish a sense of personal wholeness.6 A similar dissociation is inherent in surrogacy, as the surrogate’s body is treated as an incubator, and she herself as little more than a babysitter. Although her entire being is involved in developing the new life, the nature of the arrangement says it has little to do with her because the baby does not have her genes.7

Objectification & Exploitation: As the ad campaigns portray it, surrogates aren’t in it for money but want to give the “gift” of family. But the fact remains that women and children are still exploited and commodified, regardless of intention. Not only does surrogacy reduce the child production process to a business transaction, but the fertility industry preys on women in lower socioeconomic brackets.

In the same study of gestational surrogates, most of the surrogates were in the bottom half of the 2020 federal income tax brackets, and compensation was an incentive for them. They reported using their payments to pay off credit cards, student loans, and other debts. As stated by the researchers:

Women reported the strength of the financial incentive was inversely proportional to their financial status. This relation is ethically problematic, because those with less financial resources or education may be willing to take more risks and might be targeted by those seeking to exploit them. Commercial surrogacy disproportionately impacts poorer women.8

Wealthy clients have often exploited poor women overseas, which has led to a ban on international surrogacy in India, but surrogacy for foreigners is still legal in countries such as Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.9

Harms to Children

Abandonment and Disposal: IVF results in the disposal of millions of tiny human beings. Only 7  percent of IVF-created children are born alive.10 Most languish in forgotten freezers, die during thawing, fail to implant, are discarded for being non-viable or the wrong sex, or end up “selectively reduced” due to a multi-child pregnancy. Rubin admitted that there were two miscarriages in their efforts to achieve a surrogate pregnancy. How many more embryos were created and either discarded or put on ice in the process is unknown.

Developmental Risks: IVF procedures expose embryos to unnatural changes in hormone levels as well as changes in temperature, pH, and oxygen tension. These disruptions occur at a time when embryos are most vulnerable, and changes in the environments of these small humans can contribute to epigenetic modification in those that survive.11

Primal Wound: Surrogate-born children can suffer a “primal wound” when separated from their birth mothers. As the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University states:

Human studies with infants and children as well as animal studies have shown that adverse early infant experiences  . . . can lead to short-term neurobehavioral and neurohormonal changes in offspring that may have long-term adverse effects on memory, learning, and behaviour throughout life.

As stated by Catherine Lynch, “early separation trauma is biologically embedded, influencing learning, behavior and health for decades to come and perhaps beyond, as research in epigenetics has shown that stress in infancy can have intergenerational impacts on gene transcription.”12 And Lesli Johnson, an adoptee, wrote:

All of the once-familiar sights, sounds and sensations are gone, and the infant is placed in a dangerous situation—dangerous that is, [as] perceived by the infant.  . . . [The] baby needs his or her familiar mom to act as the soothing agent to help with self-regulation, but she’s not there.13

Distortions of the Natural Family

Devaluation of Motherhood: Rubin compared the process of picking an egg donor to something “like Tinder.” He described searching for a donor who was physically healthy, didn’t have major genetic issues, and “sort of looked like the type of girl” he and his partner “might be with.” This is a glaring example of the reduction of women to nothing more than looks and raw genetic materials in the build-a-baby process.

Surrogates are commonly referred to as “ovens” and “babysitters” by the agencies and even among the surrogates themselves. The whole process exploits the reproductive abilities of women while treating the women themselves as incubating machines hired to do a job and deliver a product. Surrogacy says there’s nothing especially meaningful about the prenatal bond between mother and child and that pregnancy need not be considered in any significant way a part of motherhood.

Deprivation of Mother and Father: Rubin and Janet used their own sperm because, Rubin explained, “the genetic component” was important to them. No one mentioned how the very process they were discussing was intentionally depriving the two children of their genetic connection to their mother, or worse, that they were completely denying these children the benefit of a mother altogether. While there are few studies on motherless children raised by fathers from infancy, it is well known that children raised without fathers often don’t fare well.

Mothers provide comfort and nurturing. These originate in the deep, profound attachment initially formed during pregnancy. Mothers are vitally important to a child’s development, especially in the first three years of life. Mothers soothe their children’s distress and help regulate children’s emotions “by making sure that their emotions do not run too high or too low,” states psychoanalyst Erica Komisar. This regulation of emotions helps babies begin to learn how to cope with and build resilience to stress going into adulthood.14

No Justification

For his part, Rubin acknowledged that his children will have two fathers and no mother and that there are biological differences between men and women. He further acknowledged that having other mother figures in the lives of his children, such as grandmothers, cannot fully compensate for the absence of a mother, as both he and Janet know that mothers provide distinct benefits that fathers do not. He admitted that his route to parenthood has been a “little bit weird,” and that he doesn’t actually know if it will be the best thing for the kids. However, as a gay man, he spoke of the arrangement as the best he and Janet could do to “approximate the ideal,” as if that justified intentionally subjecting the children to all these unknown risks.

These risks and effects on women and children add up to something more than “a little bit weird.” There are ethical ambiguities and falsities behind such terms as “intended parents,” “substitute mother,” “donor,” and “altruistic.” All these terms mask the distortion of created reality that is involved in the surrogacy process. Donors aren’t simply “donors,” but are the biological parents of these children. To the commissioned child, there are no “intended parents” and “substitute mother,” but simply “mother” and other persons who are, as far as the child is concerned, complete strangers.

No adult has a “right” to a child, and no one’s approximation of the ideal should come at the expense of the dignity of women or the natural rights of children. It is children’s rights to their parents that should be recognized and affirmed.

1. The term is a misnomer, as “donors” are usually compensated for their gametes.
3. Renate Klein, Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation (Spinifex Press, 2017), 21.
4. Jennifer Lahl et al, “A Comparison of American Women’s Experiences with Both Gestational Surrogate Pregnancies and Spontaneous Pregnancies, Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence (2022):
7. Klein, Surrogacy, 23.
8. Lahl, “Comparison.”

works for the children's rights organization Them Before Us. She holds a master's degree in Mental Health and Wellness with an emphasis in family dynamics and a graduate certificate in trauma-informed practice and is working towards a second masters in bioethics. She has written for various outlets on beginning and end-of-life issues, and has had articles published in The Times UK and The Scotsman through her work as a research associate for the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #64, Spring 2023 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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