Ripe for Crazy-Making


THE COURT has declared that she is not his mother, though he grew in her womb, though he came into the world down her birth canal, though her breasts filled with milk for him. Anna Johnson is now officially, legally, unre-lated to the boy she bore.

A judge in California has ruled that Anna was just a prenatal "foster parent" to Mark and Crispina Calvert's fetus. She nurtured it, fed it, housed it -- but it always belonged to them. The womb was merely rented: When her work was done, the boy-product belonged to his genetic owners. This is what it has come to, our technological "advances" in reproduction. Giving birth to a child is no longer proof that you are its mother.

In baby steps, from Baby Louise to Baby M, from test-tube conceptions to surrogate mothers, we have arrived now at Baby Christoper Michael Calvert -- created in a petri dish, implanted in a "surrogate" and awarded to the people who contributed their DNA and RNA.

I have followed this story ever since a pregnant Anna Johnson first claimed her womb-mate as her own. I have watched as the court tried to answer the question: Whose child is this? By and large, I side with the Calverts. They willed the existence of this baby. They conceived it. They chose Anna Johnson to be their surrogate. The single mother of a 3-year-old had made this deal.

Ms. Johnson's sense of abandonment by the Calverts and her growing attachment to the fetus and then the boy were tragic proof that human nature is more complex than a contract. But to have given her custody of the boy would have been akin to allowing zygote-napping, a theft of the Calverts' genes. As for the effects of shared custody on the child, I also agree with the judge. As he said, "I think a three-parent, two-natural mom claim in a situation is ripe for crazy-making."

But the questions that arise out of the business of surrogacy are themselves ripe for crazy-making. The Calverts' "miracle baby" has strengthened the entire case against payment-for-pregnancy. This was not only a tale about the importance we place on genes. It was a tale about the importance of commerce. Surrogacy for strangers is a business. However much is said about altruism, well-to-do women are rarely moved to sell their bodies. The Calverts were not wealthy when Crispina met Anna as hospital workers. But they had $10,000 to offer and Ms. Johnson had what they wanted: a womb. With the exchange of money, the Calverts became the employer, Ms. Johnson became their worker, and baby production their enterprise.

Society can ask whether such a private agreement should be allowed. We can ask whether pregnancy is just another service industry. Is the uterus a spare room available to any boarder for a price? Is the child another product we can buy? In two or three more baby-steps of change, I can imagine what some ethicists fear: a breeder class of women for couples who can't bear their own. Here at last is a job you can do in your spare time at home with little training.

It is fair to ask about the moral limits of commerce. If we let a woman rent her uterus, then perhaps she can lease any subsidiary rights that might adversely affect that fetus. The right to eat what she wants, go where she wants, even to choose her own medical care.

The judge said that Anna Johnson made a "substantial contribution" to the existence of Christoper Michael. Anyone who has been pregnant knows the "contribution" in varicose veins, sleepless nights, the lumbering takeover of one body by another. In the labor that is indeed labor.

Those who say that women are free and intelligent enough to decide for themselves if they want to "sell" this "contribution" have little understanding of the economic constraints on freedom. This is why we impose limits on our medical commerce. cannot sell a kidney. We should not be able to sell a pregnancy.

There is no way to stop a genuinely altruistic act of surrogate motherhood. But there is a way to end pregnancy as a commercial activity. Make payment illegal. Make the contracts illegal. Take surrogacy off the sale rack. Until we do that, we are guided by the laws of the marketplace. Let the buyer and the seller beware.

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