Jewish Surrogate Motherhood

Rabbis across the denominational spectrum question the morality of surrogacy, but some believe that these concerns can be allayed.

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The following surveys some of the moral issues with surrogate motherhood, offering the author’s own conclusions. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The major argument in favor of surrogacy, of course, is that it enables infertile couples to have children with the gametes of at least one of them. Not only is surrogacy thus a response to the pain of infertility for the couples involved; it is also a way for that couple to fulfill an important Jewish value and hope. 

Social and Economic Concerns

Those arguing against surrogacy on moral grounds (rather than, or in addition to, the American legal and psychological issues) have raised several objections. Some, like the Orthodox rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, find it inherently demeaning: “To use another woman as an incubator…for a fee…[is a] revolting degradation of maternity and an affront to human dignity.”

surrogate mothersIn like manner, the Conservative rabbi Daniel Gordis holds that surrogacy is degrading because it involves a “commodification” of the surrogate woman’s body, that is, a transformation of the woman’s reproductive abilities into a commodity that can be traded on the market. Further degradation comes from the limits imposed on the surrogate: Gordis cites feminist Carole Pateman as pointing out that “since surrogacy contracts typically limit a woman’s sexual activity after insemination, govern the drugs and foods she can consume, and have attempted (in some cases) to remove her option of abortion, surrogacy verges on the enslavement of women.”

Rabbi Gordis also worries about the social effects of surrogacy. Surrogacy will, in his view, accentuate the social and economic differences between the relatively rich couple and lawyer as against the relatively poor surrogate mother. A New York Times article he cites reported a typical surrogacy agreement in 1987 that provided $10,000 for the surrogate mother, $10,000 for the lawyer, and $5,000 for the medical expenses involved and for maternity clothes. (Surrogacy has become more expensive since then: the cost for a typical ovum surrogacy in 1994 had risen to $42,000.)

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.

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