Morality and personal choices

A recent opinion piece posted on the New York Times Web site highlights how the growing business of surrogate motherhood in India serves as a good example of the conflict between morality and personal choices.

In a Jan. 3 post of her Domestic Disturbances blog, Judith Warner describes the new flourishing industry -- currently estimated as a $445-million-a-year business -- in which poor Indian women from rural areas are recruited, impregnated through in vitro fertilization and then kept in medical facilities during their pregnancy for constant monitoring. Once the baby is born, he or she is turned over to the biological parents.

The author criticizes the practice, stating that it, “feels like a step toward the kind of insane dehumanization that filled the dystopic fantasies of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’”

She affirms that “Images of pregnant women lying in rows, or sitting lined up, belly after belly, for medical exams look like industrial outsourcing pushed to a nightmarish extreme.”

After that grim and accurate analysis of the facts, she notes the financial benefits these women receive --$6,000 to $10,000 -- which she says is equivalent to 10 to 15 years salary for a rural family.

Then the article explains how also for the couple seeking a child, this may be the best available solution as adoption is often a difficult endeavor.

Warner ultimately concludes that “maybe when more substantive steps are taken to improve the health, status and education of women world-wide, it’ll be easier to say with a clear conscience that what feels like callous exploitation really is just that.”

Warner is reluctant to fully condemn the practice of surrogate motherhood because of the desperate circumstances that both the couple and surrogate mothers find themselves in.

It is true that desperate circumstances can lead individuals to make immoral choices. What remains to be discussed is if there are objective criteria to define the morality of an act beyond the personal needs and choices of individuals.

In the case of surrogate motherhood, as much as poor women may materially benefit from their involvement, they are being dehumanized and degraded by becoming a biological machine for the benefit of wealthy customers. That is inhuman and should be banned. It is objectively an act of exploitation and the competent authorities, both in the U.S. and internationally, should oppose it.

As for the couples seeking a child, it is well known that the experience of remaining childless is one of anguish and despair. Still, trying to accomplish a good by immoral means is always wrong and ultimately defeats the purpose. Also, in this case the governments should work to improve the procedures for international adoptions, a process through which many couples are exploited.

The same kind of reasoning can also be applied not only to surrogate motherhood in India but, for instance to sex tourism in South East Asia or to the painful and delicate procedure of obtaining eggs for stem-cell research for a fee.

Degrading and inhuman treatment of individuals is never moral.