Smiling men with baby


There is a minor storm presently raging in Quebec, where the provincial government triggered outrage when it came to light that it is funding the test-tube manufacture of children for homosexual couples. Celebrity Joël Legendre and his partner outed the government by announcing on Facebook that they are expecting twin girls via the in vitro fertilization of a surrogate mother, all on the dime of Quebec taxpayers.

There is protest, but it will blow over. Why am I so certain that nothing will come of the hullabaloo? Because Mr. Legendre is right to cry discrimination. The Quebec provincial government is already covering IVF for infertile heterosexual couples, single women and lesbian couples, and if these other groups are all invited to the taxpayer-funded babymaking party, then it is plain snobbery to exclude gay men.

In fact, most of the moral issues raised by IVF and surrogacy for gay couples were already brushed aside by our society before the present debate in Quebec ever started. The fact that children need a mother and a father? Swept away with same-sex marriage. The idea that children should know and be raised by their own biological parents? Gone with the wind, as infertile heterosexual couples have assumed the right to use donor sperm and eggs to make that long-desired child.

True, there is a step forward (off the moral cliff) in the Quebec situation: the use of surrogacy, which comes with a new list of ethical concerns. Among other things, surrogate women become indentured servants for nine months as they lend or rent out not just their bodies but their entire lives (pregnancy affects everything). While some women do this voluntarily out of a misguided sense of charity, many do so out of financial need, especially in countries like India, where wealthy Westerners like to shop for cheap wombs. How different is surrogacy from prostitution, the other main way that women sell their bodies?

To keep abortion legal, we allow prenatal slavery

In the end, nothing can shock us any more and all is permitted, for a simple reason: we can’t give unborn children human rights or moral standing, because that would endanger abortion, and so potentially restrict our selfish lifestyles. Any violation of human rights is worth the price, it seems, of preserving our sexual freedoms.

So rather than restricting the use of reproductive technologies we are going in the opposite direction, permitting more and more ethically egregious procedures. First we brought murder into the womb, and now we have brought something else as well: modern-day slavery.

What else can we call it, when unborn children are treated as entitlements, as the property of adults that can be bought and sold and custom-made to order? Benevolent it may be, as we treat our “chosen children” exceedingly well, but it is nonetheless true that until the day they are born (at least), we consider them our possessions to do with as we please, including their disposal if we deem it most convenient.

The many faces of prenatal slavery

Reproductive technologies have become a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide (worth 3 billion dollars in the U.S. alone), a mostly unregulated Wild West where money is king. Make no mistake: the fertility industry is not at the edge of the precipice. It is already in a freefall, picking up speed as it nosedives into a moral morass. Let’s take a quick look at what is happening:

Children are already being born with up to five “parents”. These include the two genetic parents, often chosen online on websites where dating meets eugenics, where egg and sperm donors are marketed in terms of height, eye, hair and skin colour, level of education, professional degrees, sports accomplishments, and even hobbies and interests. The most desirable DNA commands the highest price. In many countries, including Canada and the United States, these DNA donors can stay anonymous, so the children never have a chance to know more about their biological parents.

Then there is the surrogate, now commonly rented in cheaper locales where healthy but poor women abound. Before implantation, the embryos are often screened for genetic flaws (and possibly gender) and only the most desirable are used. Afterwards, babies can be “selectively reduced” (aborted) when there are multiples in the womb. The whole pregnancy then continues to be subject to the whims of the commissioning party, who can command an abortion if they have changed their minds about having the baby.

Eventually the final “product” is delivered to one or two “intended” or “social” parents – the persons who have put up the money, thus decreeing that the child should call them mom and dad although they may be biological strangers. What’s more, even in countries where anonymous donors have been banned, no law compels the social parents to disclose to their children that they were conceived using donor gametes or surrogacy. Studies have shown that across countries, more than 90 percent of parents choose not to tell, so that most children conceived in this way don’t even realize that their social parents are not their biological parents.

Does anyone care about the children?

So much for the human rights of the children. The entire process is about the desires of adults. The fertility industry has convinced the infertile that having a baby is their new human right, and the emotional hype of the debate is such that anyone who disagrees is either cruel or downright bigoted. 

That includes the children. In an ironic twist, a real biological relationship with their parents is not supposed to matter to these children, even as the adults often spend tens of thousands of dollars to have at least some biological connection to their hi-tech children. The children are supposed to stay happy with having been “wanted”, “chosen” and “loved.” They are expected to be grateful to their social parents for having created them in the first place. After all, they wouldn’t be walking around if it wasn’t for the whole convoluted process of their high-tech manufacture. It’s hard to turn down the gift of life.

But donor-conceived children are not quite as grateful as the industry would like. They are now speaking out in the media and starting websites like Anonymous Us and Searching for My Sperm Donor Father, where they share their stories of “genesalogical bewilderment”; that is, confusion about their own identity, stemming from their lack of information about their genetic origins. They often advocate for legal limits and restrictions on assisted reproduction.

Here in Canada, no luck in that regard. In May last year, the federal Supreme Court refused to intervene in a decision by the British Columbia Court of Appeal, which found there is no constitutional right to know the identity of one’s parents. The case had been brought by Olivia Pratten, a young journalist conceived by donor sperm who argued that donor-conceived children suffer substantial hardship as a result of donor anonymity and should have the same access to the identity of their biological parents as adopted children. The Supreme Court of British Columbia had agreed with he and struck down sections of B.C.’s Adoption Act, but the decision was overturned on appeal, then cemented by the Supreme Court’s snub.

Where is our culture headed?

So far the message from our courts and government has been loud and clear: the rights of unborn children cannot possibly be allowed to interfere with adult desires. And ever since same-sex marriage was legalized in 2005, it has only added fuel to this notion, as now there is a popular civil rights element to the use of these technologies. Same-sex marriage goes hand-in-hand with assisted reproduction. Having said yes to one, it follows that we will say yes to the other.

Back to Quebec, and to the present outrage being voiced in the media. While I agree with the protests, they are a bunch of hot air unless heterosexual infertile couples can live by the same rules. And that seems doubtful — we would prefer to have no rules at all, rather than restrict our ability to make children in any way we please.

It all makes me remember that old Story of Creation. Did we think that we were smarter than Eve in the Garden of Eden? Our great temptations today revolve around the unborn child. Having possession of technology that allows us dominion over life in the womb, we seem unable to stop ourselves from exploiting it. We should know better than to eat from that forbidden tree. But we keep biting the apple just the same, eyes shut and fingers crossed. 

Lea Singh writes from Ottawa, Canada. This piece is reposted from her blog

Lea Singh is a full-time mother and homemaker living in Ottawa, Canada. In a former life she graduated from Harvard Law School, passed the New York Bar and went to work for a major law...