Opinion: The real problem with the Pope’s extreme words about surrogacy

Pope Francis delivers his yearly address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, sometimes called his "State of the World" address, at the Vatican January 8, 2024.

Pope Francis delivers his yearly “State of the World” address Monday at the Vatican.Simone Risoluti/Vatican Media/Handout/Reuters

Editor’s note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.CNN — 

Attention women of the world: Pope Francis — a man who has taken a vow of lifelong celibacy and presides over a religious patriarchy within which women cannot occupy top leadership positions and male leaders are not permitted to marry, have sex or reproduce — believes surrogacy is despicable. He is also against other family-planning decisions people may make, including abortion, contraception and in vitro fertilization. But “despicable” (or “deplorable,” depending on your translation) is in fact the word he used to describe surrogate motherhood, which he defined as human trafficking and included in a list of grave threats to humanity, including terrorism and war.

Jill Filipovic

Jill FilipovicCourtesy Jill Filipovic

Some “progressive Pope.”

Surrogate motherhood, Francis said in a speech Monday in Vatican City, “represents a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child, based on the exploitation of situations of the mother’s material needs.” A child should not be “the basis of a commercial contract.” He further called for surrogacy to be banned worldwide. (It is already illegal in many countries.)

This is the same Pope who gets fawning applause from too many liberals for treating gay people marginally better than his predecessors did, but who stops far short of treating them equally to heterosexuals. It’s the same Pope who has compared having an abortion to hiring a hit man.

I know, I know: The Pope is Catholic. He is the head of a religion that formally opposes abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, IVF and surrogacy. This is not exactly shocking new intel.

The Pope’s statements on surrogacy are an extension of the church’s broader teachings on gender and human life, which essentially amount to this: Make as many babies as possible but also leave it in God’s hands; don’t interrupt the process with contraception or abortion and don’t try to grease the wheels with IVF or surrogacy. It’s a too-simplistic recipe for a complex human desire, vested in our notoriously imperfect and complicated human bodies.

A rainbow flag, a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBT) pride and LGBT social movements, flies at St John the Baptist church in Felixstowe, Suffolk, after the use of prayers of blessing for same-sex couples in Church of England services were approved by the House of Bishops. Picture date: Sunday December 17, 2023.

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The Pope isn’t alone in condemning surrogacy. Paid surrogacy is banned or restricted in large parts of Europe, and surrogacy is illegal in Italy. A few US states have also outlawed it. And yet his choice of words, in their attempt to render as a black-and-white issue something so shot through with nuance and difficulty, reflects how spiritually and ideologically threadbare knee-jerk dogmatism really is when it comes to surrogacy.

Surrogacy is among the most ethically thorny reproductive questions. It creates many opportunities for exploitation, with wealthy people who want children willing to pay poorer women to carry and birth them. Feminists often rely on the concept of “choice” when discussing reproduction, and choice is key, but it isn’t the only concern. No choice, after all, is made in a vacuum. And with surrogacy arrangements often involving poor women in developing countries who carry babies for far wealthier people in rich and developed ones, the potential for abuse is high and the negotiating table perilously uneven.

How might circumstances shape a woman’s “choice” to be a surrogate if she is desperately poor but can make a decade’s salary by having a baby for a wealthier family, even if doing so sounds tremendously unpleasant? How might it shape her choice if the payment is significantly lower, but she has debts to pay and being a surrogate will bring in much more money than she can make otherwise — even though she’s risking her life, may be warehoused in a hyper-surveilled and hypercontrolled surrogate dormitory, and is potentially being subjected to dangerous pregnancy-maximizing, multiple embryo implantations or unnecessary cesarean sections?

How much agency does a woman have if she cannot read the contract she’s asked to sign and may not fully comprehend it if it’s read to her, if she cannot negotiate for better terms, if her pay may be docked for giving birth prematurely or if she needs an extended hospital stay? How much choice do surrogate mothers have if, at the end of gestating and birthing a baby, they have no legal right to change their minds, repay the money and keep the child? Many of these circumstances have been realities for women in the developing nations that became global surrogacy capitals. Even in the United States, where surrogacy laws vary by state, surrogate mothers have complained of shocking maltreatment.

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - JANUARY 08: (EDITOR NOTE: STRICTLY EDITORIAL USE ONLY - NO MERCHANDISING) Pope Francis holds his speech during "State of the World" address to members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See at the Apostolic Palace on January 08, 2024 in Vatican City, Vatican. In his annual "State of the World" address to members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis reflected on the conflicts and divisions ravaging the world and highlights the responsibility of individuals and nations to foster peace. (Photo by Vatican Media via Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

Pope calls for ban on surrogacy, calling it ‘based on exploitation’

And wherever it happens, doesn’t this model — of women doing the radically metamorphosing, often health-and-life-threatening work of pregnancy and childbearing, while their actions are monitored to ensure optimal health and their rights to the child they are carrying nonexistent — treat women like literal incubators for fetuses?

On the other hand: Who is anyone else to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her own body? Doesn’t she know, better than any church leader or government official or concerned nongovernmental organization worker, what’s in her best interests? We use our bodies to perform all sorts of labor for others, including, sometimes, labor that mimics our most intimate relationships: Nannies offer not just child care but love for someone else’s children; fertility specialists offer not just health care but the hope and often outcome of a pregnancy.

The line between agency and exploitation is not always clear. What is clear is that surrogacy, like international adoption, has too often been a one-way flow of children from poorer countries to richer ones, has attracted all kinds of unscrupulous and abusive actors, and has, as a result, seen crackdowns and limitations come shortly on the heels of broad expansion.

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The problem, then, isn’t skepticism of surrogacy. It’s the Catholic Church’s overly broad, dogmatic and extreme response to surrogacy.

The Pope seems to have given little consideration to the human beings on both ends of a surrogacy arrangement. He has approached a complex issue with obstinacy and insult instead of the nuance and concern it deserves. This is unfortunately typical of the church’s approach to many questions involving sex, gender and reproduction: Simplistic rules made by men with no actual experience or skin in the game, which largely regulate women’s behavior, see our bodies as dangers to be managed and serve to keep us smaller.

Frankly, we’d all be a lot better off if religious institutions stayed out of laws governing medical procedures and access, especially when it comes to reproductive rights and women’s lives more broadly. Surrogacy laws remain deeply divisive and hotly debated, not just in religious circles but in feminist ones, too. And I don’t know what a perfect set of laws would look like to maximize women’s agency while fully protecting the vulnerable from https://elementlagu.com exploitation and avoiding a scenario in which surrogates are treated as little more than faraway incubators. In penning these laws, ethics and morality should of course be top considerations. But a moral code developed by a profoundly misogynist male-run institution, formed in part to keep women in their roles as subservient wives and mothers, should have no place in regulating women’s rights and health.

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