Written by Dr Deirdre Little, National Bioethics Convenor
A little boy, commissioned by his parents and abandoned when he disappointed them, has brought a focus to many issues. Babies paid for under surrogacy contracts can become the objects of a business deal to the purchasing parents. The heart, mind, soul and body of the contracted child are not seen as the person—their son or their daughter— whom they would give their lives to protect. The child they are to pay cash for at the point of handover is not loved first and foremost, but assessed.
During 30 years of obstetric practice I have marveled at the grand welcome and rapturous love that fountains up in labour ward during the moments after a birth. Whatever distress, concerns or apprehension are present through those long antenatal months, all worries vanish in the face of this overpowering joy. It is so strong that it fills the room and sweeps away doubts and conflicts. Family, friends and even midwives weep and laugh at the same time for sheer joy, overcome with reverence for the new arrival and honoring the grand meeting of kith and kin.
The surrogate birth mother of a particular little boy, who featured in the Australian newspapers recently, deserves our gratitude and respect too. In difficult and despairing circumstances she chose one available path to financial assistance for her own family. What began as a ‘means to an end’ called up enormous courage and self-sacrifice see it through. She rose to the occasion. When she was pressured to abort one of the twins she carried for their Australian ‘parents’, she resisted due to her religion. She could have abandoned the little boy who turned out to have Down Syndrome. She did not. Exposing herself and her family to more hardship and to disapproval in her own society she sought help to care for him properly and to give him what he needed.
The acquisitioning parents have received hefty condemnation from the Australian press for jettisoning the child who disappointed their expectations of quality. This abandonment practice, however, is solidly built into Australia’s antenatal care policies. Almost 95% of children with Down Syndrome ‘seen’ by testing before birth are not just abandoned but destroyed, in one Australian count (Moreira C, Muggli E, Halliday J. Report on prenatal diagnostic testing in Victoria 2007). These children are not left on doorsteps. No hope of adoptive parents for them. No institutions will provide them with the basic essentials of care. Would that we only abandoned them. Our elimination process, which we think is so civilized, so professional and clinical and merciful, is as cold as steel and as cruel. There are no words written to protect first-world babies in the consent contract to ‘see’ their genetic appearance. Prenatal testing brochures do not condemn the cutting loose and destruction of these babies. They offer it. No pictures of mothers cuddling little babies with Down syndrome, as we saw Gammy’s mother do. No suggestion of charity drives to raise heart surgery money. The sad snapshots taken of our own society by this story reveal our double standards. They also capture the commodity approach toward children, which claims a ‘right’ to have a child, a ‘right’ to purchase a child, a ‘right’ to invasively test a child and a ‘right’ to destroy one. The disposability of the child is intrinsic to the IVF process and philosophy, which works hard to see and remove defective embryos.
The emotional pain of infertility—if not balanced into our faith and life in the community—fuels the desperate drive for a child by any means. Decisions founded on emotions are more self-interested and less measured against wisdom and morality. This resort to ‘any means’ is revealed in Australian statistics. Paying surrogate mothers is illegal in Australia, so infertile and homosexual couples therefore turn to India, the USA, Thailand and Canada. They prefer overseas contracts because of the reduced likelihood of prosecution and the perceived reduced fear of the surrogate mother deciding to keep the child. The sums of money paid range from $69,200 (Aus) to Indian mothers and $172,400 to USA mothers (Sam Everingham Research Director, Surrogacy Australia). 270 babies were born by overseas contracts to Australians in 2011 (MJA 2014;201:1-4)
National Bioethics Convenor: email@example.com