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Artillery Row

Maternal mistruths

How the erasure of maternity language hides the truth about pregnancy

When is a mother not a mother? Or, when does motherhood not matter? In this country, according to the law, a mother is a woman who gives birth to a child. Quite simple, you might think. Not so, according to the General Medical Council, who caused consternation in some quarters this summer, after news of their updated internal maternity guidance for employees became public, in which the word “mother” appeared to have vanished completely, to be replaced by “parent”. In relation to surrogacy, which gains a special mention, the internal document now also refers to surrogate parents, whereas in 2015 it referred, far more accurately, to surrogate mothers. 

Then last week I came across a (now deleted) video posted by a company called “Donor Concierge” which featured a woman talking about the experience of the company’s “gestational carriers”. Donor Concierge is an American organisation, which appears to act as an intermediary between over 100 surrogacy agencies in the US and commissioning parents. American surrogacy agencies often use such euphemistic language. However, Donor Concierge had recently been in London, exhibiting at the Modern Family Show, a symposium held on Saturday 28th September, hosted by the couple behind “My Surrogacy Journey” — Michael and Wes Johnson-Ellis — and partnered with the controversial charity Mermaids, amongst others. According to its website, the show aims to be “an educational family-building event … a show like no other, designed to safely guide and support the … community to understand their options for wanting children.” Even for those of us in the UK who are used to seeing women erased in law and literature, it was quite a surprise to see surrogate mothers referred to in such cold and frankly dystopian terms. 

Referring to pregnant women as gestational carriers, hosts and birthing people, has become so ubiquitous as to now be unsurprising to most women. Articles which talk about menstruators and chest feeders get an eye roll and a “bookmark” to return to read or criticise later; all the while increasing many women’s overall sense of disaffection with institutions and publications they once thought they could trust. 

How much more pernicious then, is this issue when it impacts women who aren’t even expected to retain custody of a child they have carried, after birth? The language used around surrogacy has always relied on euphemisms to gain acceptance. How much easier to expect the public to swallow the notion of “altruistic surrogacy”, rather than talking honestly about a woman giving up her own baby in return for a significant expenses payment. Surrogacy agencies use language which includes “the gift of giving a family”, “the help of a surrogate” or assistance with a “surrogacy journey”. With “family building” and “extreme babysitting” used as terms by agencies and commissioning parents alike; making it sound as though a woman is doing nothing more arduous than making a trip to the builder’s merchants on your behalf, rather than going through a pregnancy which could leave her with lifelong birth injuries, or worse. 

All of which masks the reality of surrogacy

All of which masks the reality of surrogacy: which is that a woman has to become pregnant, endure the sickness and complications which often accompany pregnancy, including the increased potential for miscarriage, then give birth with its attendant risks, all on behalf of somebody else. 

It’s far easier to consider surrogacy as a “lovely thing to do” when cognitive dissonance allows you to forget it actually involves a woman growing and nourishing another human, who may in fact be her genetic child, and is always her biological one, for nine months. But besides being dystopian and insulting to the woman in question; it lends truth to an even more dangerous lie: that pregnancy does not cause great strain on a woman’s body. Additionally, it does nothing to help inform politicians, who in the next eighteen months will face a decision over whether or how to reform Britain’s surrogacy laws, about what women actually go through in pregnancy. To say nothing of the long and short term impact on babies who are born this way.

The costs to women and children of surrogate pregnancies are undeniably high. Pregnancy is not an illness, and many pregnant women express annoyance at being treated as though they are unwell during pregnancy. But while pregnancy can see the remission of certain diseases in some women, and tiredness and discomfort in others; it can also trigger the onset of chronic conditions which may not have been visible prior to pregnancy. It poses greater risks to women with autoimmune disorders, as well as numerous significant problems such as placental abruption. Pregnancy places the organs under strain, and researchers at Northwestern University in the United States have previously found that women who had experienced multiple pregnancies had increased likelihood of ageing — at a cellular level — faster than those who had had fewer children. To say nothing of the increased risks associated with multiple pregnancies, when using donated gametes and implanted embryos. 

In the past week alone, I have found evidence of men being interviewed on how the birth of their surrogate-mother born children affects them: talking about how their inability to be in a delivery suite with their surrogate mother during the Covid-19 pandemic as “like someone is ripping out your stomach”; visually graphic language that rarely appears in relation to the woman who is actually in labour. Sanitising language to the point of sterility achieves nothing good for women and girls. In fact, doing so only helps those who wish to profit from the reproductive labour of women, but who care nothing for what she risks in delivering the baby, and would rather disguise at all costs what the mother actually endures.

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