By: Lisa Regula Meyer
Three ways to create a family frequently discussed on The Next Family include gestational surrogate, traditional surrogate, and adoption. There are far more other ways, but I wanted to focus on these three because it’s an area where there is frequently some confusion. As a reminder, “gestational surrogacy” is when a woman (the GS) outside of a couple carries a child that is not related to her for the recipient couple, the intended parents (IPs). The child may be the genetic child of one or two of the people in the IP couple or not, depending on how the couple goes about the surrogacy process. “Traditional surrogacy” is when a woman (the TS) outside of the IP couple carries a child that is related to herself, her own biological child and the half sibling of her own children. Usually the child is related to one of the IPs. Adoption concerns an existing pregnancy for the birth mother, and the child is placed with an adoptive family, to whom it does not have a parent-child genetic connection.
There are benefits and drawbacks to each of these methods, and finding the correct balance of benefits and drawbacks depends on the parties involved. Gestational surrogacy tends to have a more sure ending legally, and if there is a child created it is 99% likely going to go home with the intended parents, since the child was created/intended for them, and the surrogate has no genetic link to the child. Traditional surrogacy tends to be less expensive, and does not involve the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF), but is seen as riskier for the parents since the surrogate has a genetic tie to the child. The infamous Baby M case was a traditional surrogacy. Adoption is the most legally risky, as birth mothers can rescind their decision and choose to parent instead of abdicate her parental rights and responsibilities within a set period of time. The child was not created with the intent of the adoptive parents, so legally, they are typically seen as having fewer rights than intended parents. We’ve seen the outcome of this policy discussed by The Next Family writers, and it’s painful.
I wanted to address this in writing in one place here because there is an important distinction between surrogacy of either type and adoption- the matter of intent. That the child was created with the intention of the parents is crucial legally, and ends up being important in how we view these constructs socially. I’ve been both a GS and TS myself, so I have first-hand experience with those processes. I’ve often had well-meaning people call my role as TS “birth mother” because birth mother in an adoption case is more familiar than a TS is, and it’s easy for them to understand and convey to others. But being simplistic in this manner ignores intent and adds a layer of assumptions about identity that I don’t appreciate all that much. I do know some TSs that identify as birth mothers, but it’s not common and not always healthy, resulting in a blurring of lines and creating a feeling of loss that I don’t think anyone should have to endure.
Socially, we often see adoption situations with a particular lens- a mother losing or giving up her child, a child being given away or not wanted in the first place- and assuming that there is a loss in that situation. A family is created, yes, but a parent and child are separated, something that we see as a bad thing (look at the Baby Veronica case and how contentious it has become). That loss is not assumed in a surrogacy situation, because there is no family that is broken up, only a family that is formed. That’s a joyful situation and should be celebrated, however it happens. Obviously, there are cases where a surrogacy can end up hurting the surrogate as well, but from what I’ve seen it’s usually not the case, and if it does occur, the pain is due to something outside the birth of the child, the relationship with IPs, extended bed rest or stress on her own family, and other reasons.
Identity is important as it frames how we see ourselves and how the world sees us. Because of that, I think it’s important to remember the full complexity of a situation and embrace that complexity instead of trying to simplify, and it’s especially important to recognize people by their chosen identity, not one that we wish to use for them out of simplicity. Our identities take time and thought to form, so taking time and effort to recognize them correctly is appropriate.