As the United States celebrates Mother’s Day, a certain materialistic buzz around the importance of buying the right gift, dining at the proper restaurant, or selecting a fitting card has been in the air.
Believe it or not, it wasn’t always supposed to be this way.
The holiday, established just over a century ago in 1914, was the result of a campaign by Anna Garvis, a West Virginian woman who originally hoped it would be a simple occasion for individuals to spend more time with their mothers and perhaps to attend Church together.
Yet only a few years later, Garvis was dining at a Philadelphia department store and noticed a “Mother’s Day Salad” listed on the menu. She ordered it, and, upon its arrival, tossed it on the floor and stormed out.
Mother’s Day—as she had intended it to be—was not to be commercialized, and she would later go on to fight to abolish the holiday in its entirety.
Fast forward to today, and we see another tragic commercialization of mothers that strikes at the heart of what it means to be a mom. The rise of the global industry of surrogate motherhood has forever changed the idea of motherhood, by slapping a price tag on it and pushing it to the market.
Beginning in the late twentieth century, surrogacy became an increasingly popular option for infertile couples seeking to have children bearing biological links to one spouse, same-sex couples, or those simply looking to outsource their pregnancy to avoid the physical strains of childbirth.
The practice has since evolved into to global multi-billion dollar enterprise, where eggs, sperm, and wombs can be placed for sale, and science can replace sex.
In the United States, there’s a patchwork of laws surrounding the practice: in some states it’s sanctioned, in others it’s illegal, and in most the law is silent. While many European countries and Canada have bans on the practice, areas in the third world have emerged as hot-spots for westerners to outsource their pregnancies at a fraction of the cost.
The result is a generation of children who have serious questions about the circumstances that brought them into existence (while, of course, still being grateful to be alive). The entire practice relies on women who often choose to act against their best interests, due to financial incentives to carry another woman’s child for nine months and then to surrender it.
Despite the fact that the medical profession strongly encourages mother-child bonding as healthy and necessary, surrogacy intentionally severs that bond, often to devastating effect for mother and child alike.
For these reasons, many are skeptical of the practice. When asked to review legislation on it, New York State’s Task Force on Life and the Law concluded that surrogacy “could not be distinguished from the sale of children.” The European Union added that it is “an exploitation of the female body and her reproductive organs.”
At a general audience last year, Pope Francis praised mothers, declaring, “Motherhood is more than childbearing; it is a life choice entailing sacrifice, respect for life, and commitment to passing on those human and religious values which are essential for a healthy society.”
He went on to add: “To be a mother is a great treasure. Mothers, in their unconditional and sacrificial love for their children, are the antidote to individualism.”
Yet this is precisely what the practice of surrogacy is buttressed upon: a reduction of motherhood to the act of childbearing. and an act of individualism where the intended parents are more concerned with their desires for the child than his or her potential needs.
There is a deep and natural longing that most individuals have to become parents—and this is something to affirm and celebrate, as indeed Anna Garvis thought when she first set out to memorialize Mother’s Day.
But this cannot come at the cost of abusing the human rights of other women and children, and you don’t have to be a woman to recognize that every child should have the opportunity to know his or her mother.
The excessive profits to be made from surrogacy and the resulting harm for women and children alike have been placed on display in places such as India, Thailand, Nepal, and Mexico, where surrogate-conceived children have been abandoned after being born with disabilities.
Surrogate mothers in those nations have been forced to act against their will in patriarchal communities, and in some cases have had their own health needs neglected—even resulting in death.
In December 2014, Pope Francis joined religious leaders from around the world who met at the Vatican to pledge to work together in the fight against modern slavery, defined as “human trafficking, forced labor and prostitution, organ trafficking, and any relationship that fails to respect the fundamental conviction that all people are equal and have the same freedom and dignity.”
Similarly, the practice of surrogate motherhood is too often built on asymmetrical relationships, where it is the poor who have to sell and the rich who can afford to buy. It’s created a market for motherhood, which diminishes the great sacrifice of life and love that is intrinsic to it.
Perhaps this Mother’s Day, in an effort to reject a culture of consumerism, we might want to renew our efforts to disavow any and all attempts that seek to undermine the great gift of motherhood—one on which no price tag can, or should, ever be placed.