Photo by Jamie Grill

Parenting is not a statement of the self

Surrogacy as a morbid symptom of modernity

Artillery Row

Whether flaunting Gucci handbags on Dubai yachts or snapping a pic of a brunchtime “buddha bowl”, Instagram is still the favoured online spot for those advertising who they are through what they buy. It seems even that most personal of decisions, to start a family, can be an envy-inducing lifestyle choice for some on the platform.

Be warned, though. According to medic turned comedian Dr Adam Kay, carefully curated content about the joy of childrearing might not reflect reality. In a sympathetic BBC interview this week, he bared all: “I think if you’re on Instagram, it’s quite possible to have parenthood slightly mis-sold to you.”

Kay himself outsourced the gestation and birth of Ruby, aged 10 months, and Ziggy, six months, to a surrogate mother. Today he shares care of the two infants with his partner. He told the BBC that he had been unprepared for the lifestyle change, that he “failed to realise the realities” of parenting:

It disrupts your life more than anything else you can possibly imagine. However the net benefit is still enormous, because what they give back is absolutely amazing … But I wish someone had sat me down beforehand.

Perhaps it’s unfair to criticise Kay for his candour — his comments may have been said with a self-aware twinkle that was snuffed out on the page. There is something undeniably jarring, though, about the casual use of financial terms like “mis-sold” and “net benefit” in relation to starting a family.

An emerging shift has seen the marketing of parenthood as a pastime

The underlying unease here isn’t simply one couple’s decision to use another human to give birth, nor is it Kay’s eagerness to expose his new family’s private life to a public audience. Rather, it is that the choice to use a surrogate has become normalised. Arguably those who push the industry have a vested interest in ensuring that fair criticisms of exploitation are linked to unacceptable prejudices against gay male couples, stifling opposition. It has largely worked. An emerging social shift has seen the marketing of parenthood as a pastime — as a statement of the self, rather than a commitment to the selflessness of caring for dependents.

For now, the use of surrogates is an option only for those who are relatively privileged. One of the highest profile celebrities to be open about paying another woman to be pregnant and give birth is reality star Khloé Kardashian. Earlier this year, she described the process as a “transactional experience”. She explained on the show:

I do think there is a difference when your baby is in your belly, the baby actually feels your real heart. Think about it. There’s no one else on this planet that will feel you from the inside like that, your heart.

It’s fair to say Helen Gibson, founder of Surrogacy Concern, agrees.

Surrogacy contradicts all public health guidance on the importance of the early years, the mother-baby bond, and maternal attachment. Many surrogate mothers use their own egg in their pregnancies, meaning their own genetic child is handed away from them at birth, whilst those women who are pregnant from implanted embryos face a higher risk of miscarriage, babies with low birth weight and premature labour.

In spite of the naysayers, the baby industry is booming. Across the world, options for egg donors with desirable characteristics, along with surrogates bound by contracts stipulating everything from delivery date to diet, have become simply options on a menu for those with spare cash and commitment. Soon, it seems likely that regulations will open up what can be done to customise human embryos — firstly to screen disease and then to edit for desired characteristics.

All ages can be said to be defined by technology, from the dark satanic mills of early industrial Britain to the nuclear age that heralded the post-war era. Today we are on the brink of a revolution in engineering humans. Thanks to developments like CRISPR-Cas9, gene editing is within technological, if not yet legal, reach. Yet, it’s tempting to wonder if future generations will remember the 2020s not as a period marked by fundamental changes in what it is to be human, but as an age scarred by pornography.

The collapse of the public and private spheres has created a push to put a price on every emotional bond, whether familial or sexual. Arguably, were women not reduced to their genitals online, were they not dehumanised as sex objects, it would be harder to conceptualise mothers as “gestational carriers”, “incubators” or “surrogates”, as what might be termed mother objects. If our relationships with one another were deemed as important as consumer choice, the splitting of mothers from their children as normalised by surrogacy would be unconscionable.

It would be too easy to dismiss the choices made and language used to describe surrogacy as simply down to the individual, as another way of creating and defining families. In reality, they represent a significant and dark social shift — a product of a pornography soaked, attention-addicted society where what makes us human comes with a price tag.

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