City University sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman is one of the last people we would expect to find arguing against a woman’s right to become a surrogate mother. Like Lori Andrews, a lawyer, journalist and leading advocate of surrogacy, Rothman is a feminist who takes pride in having successfully worked toward social liberalization: Supporting “Roe vs. Wade” by arguing that women are capable of making informed reproductive decisions; suggesting ways for gay and lesbian households to become “alternative kinds of family,” not merely “alternatives to the family”; contending that divorce does not “have to ‘break’ families, but can sometimes blend and extend them.” Surrogate mothering only follows in step with these liberalizations, one might argue, offering a recourse for the growing number of women in their middle to late 30s who have found that fertility passed them by while they were pursuing education and careers.
Though she doesn’t admit it in “Re-creating Motherhood,” Rothman did once support surrogacy. In a 1982 article for Ms. magazine, she called it a promising new form of “reproductive communism, with each giving according to his or her ability.” Since then, however, Rothman has become convinced that surrogacy will only diminish our appreciation of the most primal human bond, that between mother and child, encouraging us to view childbearing not as a spiritually significant relationship, but as a form of labor. Rothman’s dreams of a “communistic” surrogacy have thus faded behind nightmare visions of “baby farms” where “the Third World women in America,” “the women who are now pushing white babies in strollers, will be seen carrying white babies in their bellies.” Rothman sometimes allows her visions to carry her arguments to almost comic extremes, suggesting that babies might one day be bred and marketed like “chickens at Holly Farms.” The analogy is powerful, suggesting that surrogate children are commodities, but Rothman offers no evidence that surrogacy will exploit them or cause them to be any less loved by their families.
While Andrews argues reservedly, standing behind testimonials and polls showing that Americans support surrogacy by a 2 to 1 margin, she does suggest a workable solution to current anxieties about surrogacy: A bill (now vegetating in the New York state legislature) that permits surrogacy after psychological and medical testing of all parties and that allows the surrogate mother to make all medical decisions (including abortion) during pregnancy. “Re-creating Motherhood” remains the more powerful and heartfelt book, however. While questionable for its call to ban surrogacy, it is eloquent in defending the dignity of motherhood and in showing how it has become devalued. Rothman writes of billboard ads, for example, that showed two newborn footprints, one from a full-term and one from a premature infant. Asking, “Guess which baby’s mother smoked while pregnant?,” the ads presented “mothers as ‘bad workers’ producing ‘flawed products,’ ” Rothman writes, adding that she looked “in vain for the ad that says ‘Guess which baby’s mother tried to get by on welfare?’ . . . ‘Guess which baby’s mother didn’t get prenatal care?’ ”