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The Problem with Surrogacy: A Brief Sketch

March 12th, 2018 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

This will, hopefully, be brief.1 I wanted to briefly articulate what the core good of the Christian vision of sexuality is so that we can then connect that good to the problems of IVF and surrogacy.

My gateway to the traditional Christian view did not actually come from a typical sort of evangelical, but rather from Wendell Berry who may have arrived at it as much because he simply understands virtue as because he understands Christianity. Here is a key text from the novel Hannah Coulter:

To know that I was known by a new living being, who had not existed until she was made in my body by my desire and brought forth into the world by my pain and strength—that changed me. My heart, which seemed to have had only loss and grief in it before, now had joy in it also. I felt myself setting out with that ‘Little Margaret’ into the world and into her life.

She would wake up hungry in the night where she slept in her basket by my bed. I would turn on the light, change her diaper, and then turn the light off. The rest I did in the dark, by feeling. I took her into bed with me and propped myself up with pillows against the headboard to let her nurse. As she nursed and the milk came, she began a little low contented sort of singing. I would feel milk and love flowing from me to her as once it had flowed to me. It emptied me. As the baby fed, I seemed slowly to grow empty of myself, as if in the presence of that long flow of love even grief could not stand. And the next thing I knew I would be waking up to daylight in the room and Little Margaret still sleeping in my arms.”

For context, the narrator here, Hannah, is describing her early experience of motherhood with her daughter, Margaret. Margaret’s father and Hannah’s husband, Virgil, was killed overseas in World War II while Hannah was pregnant. And so Margaret came into a world already soaked in grief.

But there is a turn here: Hannah recognizes in this child that she is holding not only herself and not only Virgil, but the love that existed between them: She was brought forth “by my desire.” In one of his older essays on here Matt speaks of children as an “icon” of a couple’s love. I have always loved that image. It runs closely parallel to the idea we find in Dante that it is love which moves the stars. In this understanding, the truest thing we can say about children is not Gradgrindian fact about their biological makeup, their numbers of fingers and toes, their eye color, and so on. Rather, it is that the child is called into being by the love of father and mother, the love of father and mother speaks, this is quite literal, and takes on flesh in the world. And so in this small way we ourselves echo the work of the God who made us.

This, then, is what we might call the template for marriage and childbearing: a covenanted couple whose love takes on flesh and enters the world after being called forth by father and mother. There are various ways this order is violated—certainly, extra-marital childbearing is not the norm, nor, in this sense, is adoption. Rather, as Alastair Roberts noted on Twitter last week, adoption is the acknowledgement that something has failed and an attempt to mitigate the damage of that failure as much as possible. And in both of these cases the initial failure to fulfill the ideal of childbearing is not a condemnation to permanent failure. I have family members who have been adopted and can attest to the beauty and power of adoption. Similarly I have seen beautiful things come from children born outside of marriage. When we say that adoption or extra-marital births do not completely reflect God’s design, we are not therefore assigning the child or its parents to a permanent status; we are simply remarking on the manner of the birth.

That said, it is also worth noting that even in adoption and non-marital childbearing we still retain the male-and-female model: a man and woman come together and a child is the result. I have heard Mardi Keyes, a L’Abri worker, try to make this point provocatively by saying that what God hates in non-marital sex is not the sex itself, but the walking away that comes after when the two people depart from one another.

That is over-stated, but makes an important and deeply Pauline point all the same: In that act, the couple are acting as a covenanted union in that they are literally becoming one flesh. The evil in the act, in this sense, is in the fact that the couple is telling a lie with their body; they are saying, with their bodies, that they will be one flesh with the other person even though they have not made that covenant. This is Paul’s point when he talks about the evil of sleeping with a prostitute: You are becoming one flesh with them. You just aren’t fulfilling the obligations you owe to that person with whom you are united.

When we turn to questions of IVF and surrogacy, we have left this domain and entered into something new and different: We have, using the terms put forward by O’Donovan, moved away from “begetting” and toward “making.” Here I can do no better than what O’Donovan himself has written:

That which we beget is like ourselves. Our offspring are human beings, who share with us one common human nature, one common human experience, and one common human destiny. We do not determine what our offspring is to become. Just so, the fathers said, the eternal Son of God who was not made, was of the Father’s being, not his will. But that which we make is unlike ourselves. Whether it is made of matter, like a wooden table, or of words like a lecture, or of sounds like a symphony, or of colours and shapes like a picture, or of images like an idea, it is the product of our own free determination. We have stamped the decisions of our will upon the material which the world has offered us, to form it in this way and not in that. What we ‘make,’ then, is alien from our humanity.

When we speak of IVF and surrogacy alike we are speaking of a willful rejection of the logic of begetting, as it concerns the birthing of human life, and replacing it with the logic of making. There is, undeniably, a power play here: O’Donovan hints at it above and Lewis does as well in his contrast between virtue and technique in The Abolition of Man. When we talk about man’s conquest of nature, what we are really talking about is a small group of powerful people’s conquest over their fellow man qua the conquest of nature. In other words, when we move toward making and toward technique, as we do in IVF and surrogacy, we move away from life being called forth by love, by the emptying of the self for the good of other, and toward life being called forth by power, by the detached manipulation of the body.

I will end my remarks here simply because I am trying to keep this brief. But I wanted to take a moment to spell out the traditional view and set it next to the modern view. The ugliness of modernity’s understanding of life is plain when you consider the sheer cost of it—starting with the embryos discarded and continuing all the way up to the legal minefield that is surrogacy. But my real hope here was to sketch out a picture of the traditional view that is beautiful and compelling, such that we actually want to embrace that rather than simply rejecting what is new because it is ugly. It is true that modernity is ugly. But if that is all we know it is not sufficient. We must also know that creation and a life lived in agreement with the way God made the world is lovely.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).