Lesson 6: The Free Market and Paying for Pregnancy (Sandel, Chapter 4)

Baby as ProductSandel’s second test of the approaches he has examined so far concerns paying someone else to carry your baby. He begins with the Mary Beth Whitehead case in which a couple makes a contract for someone else to bear their child. When the mother reneges on the contract, the courts have a tough time deciding which takes precedence, motherhood or contract. A lower court ruled contract; the Supreme Court bypassed the decision by awarding the child to those best able to promote her welfare.

Sandel suggested Libertarianism might support the surrogate deal, because it gives individuals the freedom to enter into any transactions they wish, and Utilitarianism might do the same if the contract benefits both parties. However, he believes most people still find this sort of deal troublesome, because it treats human life as a commodity that can be bought and sold. It degrades human life by giving too much weight to financial deals and the free market.

Another complicating moral factor is evident in a recent case where the parents asked the surrogate to abort the child after tests showed the fetus was deformed. She refused on the grounds that it violated her ethical standards. Do morals trump contracts in this case?

It gets even more complex when a group of poor women in India agree to carry babies for others in order to make money for their own children’s education. Although this first sounds like a decent arrangement, Sandel describes it as a highly supervised baby factory and suggests it approaches outsourcing goods to the lowest bidder. What if the baby factory were operated by Nazis using Jewish women from Auschwitz as surrogates? Is it easier for you to accept if a couple uses an artificial womb supervised by specialists in a laboratory?

At this place the argument could revolve around the importance of what is given up. Is the bond that develops between a mother and child during the pregnancy too important to eliminate? Do certain understandings of parenthood, motherhood, and community take precedence over individuals making monetary deals?

However, Sandel seems to be suggesting we find these situations to be upsetting, because they involve more basic ethical principles. Utilitarianism, libertarianism, and the free market are not enough. We might not be able to explain why, but we are uncomfortable hearing Judge Richard Posner argue that auctioning off babies to the highest bidder or placing a fair market value on them according to their quality is more efficient than the current adoption agency procedures. Yet we know more and more people are willing to pay fair market prices for sperm and eggs from unidentified talented people and for healthy women to carry their children.

You must have noticed we are always ending with questions rather than resolutions. Before Sandel examines what these more basic ethical principles are, he wants us to ask questions, such as “Are there some things money can’t buy?” and “Does everyone have a price?”

We can not just dismiss the situations, because they make us uncomfortable. We can not judge them all immoral because they introduce new ideas. After all, one of God’s most gracious acts is to grant children to barren women. We could even muse that the Virgin Mary served as a surrogate mother. And the Bible certainly does not preclude using new methods and technology in a caring manner to overcome our natural limitations.

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4 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    In England I believe it is against the law to pay for blood from a blood donor.

    Surrogate pregnancy is the tip of the iceberg. Most woman who can conceive normally will carry their own babies rather than use surrogate mothers. The more interesting future question is the necessity of men (other than as sperm donors) to the conception process. Marriage has been seen as an essential feature of the desirable social process for having children. This is eroding with the growth of the ranks of single mothers. Will it erode further with the ranks of single mothers (sometimes lesbian motehrs — married or single) who conceive without a male partner?

    Science is turning the world upside down. Some, like the Catholic Church, try to blunt the effects of science by doing things such as forbidding birth control. We all can see this as a failed effort. Is any control of the effect of scientific advances possible or are we all on the path to a Brave New World where science breaks the old social and moral boundaries?

    • Concordia Hoffmann says:

      We already have genetically modified food, cloned animals, frozen sperm and eggs for future use in rented wombs, When these “advances” become popularly endorsed and accepted, the majority then will rule our New World with a new set of principles, based on scientific practice and persuasion, not on humanitarian-Christian values. This would be a robotic world where any body part, or any thing at all, can be bought and sold on the free market landscape.

  2. Karen Schmid says:

    Isn’t or can’t language be devisive or inadequate? The use of word erode has me taking note. I think I need to look it up and find meaning that assigns less emotional value to this response to changing values in connection with childbirth, surrogacy and otherwise. Hmm? Thanks Bob for setting my brain in gear.

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