The Right to Choose

I just spotted this headline on “Surrogate mother had right to choose.” (If you need the background for this short opinion piece, go here. The short version, though, is that a surrogate mother refused to abort her pregnancy when the parents asked her to.) While I certainly don’t agree with everything Dan O’Connor has to say about this issue, I do think he introduces some smart nuances to this debate.

The most interesting to me is this: “The problem stems from our conflicted understanding of what we mean when we say a woman has the right to choose what she does with her body.” While this is very smart it come ways, it also underscores a really problematic assumption. O’Connor–like most people–seems to assume that a woman in the modern U.S. does indeed HAVE choices about her body. This is something Rickie Solinger‘s politics of choice thoroughly refutes. Women may have “choices,” but they are severely limited and influenced by oppressive systemic forces of law, politics, social pressures, and economics.

This politics of choice is also something that O’Connor gets at in a roundabout way. Consider this quotation: “Like most surrogates, [Kelley] is not financially well-off; note the distinct lack of fully employed, millionaire surrogate mothers.” Here, O’Connor gets it exactly right. Kelley may have “chosen” to be a surrogate, but that was a choice that was heavily influenced by her economic circumstances. One might consider a poor woman’s decision to become a surrogate less a choice than an act of survival or desperation.

O’Connor concludes that “a woman’s right to control her body far outweighs anyone’s rights to have the child they want.” I agree. At the same time, I really feel for the surrogate parents, who thought they had already negotiated this issue via a signed contract and who certainly believed that they were protecting their future child from pain and suffering.  A lot of the commenters on this issue–and a lot of the reporters who’ve covered it–really want to vilify at least one party involved. That’s just cruel. Nobody in this situation is evil. This is a desperately sad instance of conflicting moral values and terribly distraught people trying to navigate an impossible situation.

And, despite the pain and discomfort involved in having such conversations … I also think this is an important debate that highlights our need for applied bioethics to catch up with technology. I’m glad people are talking about it.


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