Bryan Caplan  

Surrogacy, Egg Donation, and the Division of Labor

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The first surrogate mother contracts outraged the public.  Now, almost no one cares - except the satisfied parties to these mutually advantageous arrangements.  What happened?  Elizabeth Scott of Columbia Law School has a thought-provoking story to tell, with a strong, explicit dose of Timur Kuran

Scott's most fascinating observation: The interaction between genetic preferences and the division of labor swiftly overturned popular and legal resistance.  In early surrogacy contracts - like the famous Baby M case - the surrogate was the biological mother of the child.  Now that's a thing of the past.
Today 95% of surrogacy contracts involve IVF, and thus most surrogates are not the genetic mothers of the children they bear.  Under several contemporary laws...courts typically give intended parents' claims more weight when the surrogate is not the child's genetic parent... [S]urrogates themselves see this distinction as important in defining their relationship with the children they will relinquish. As one gestational surrogate put it, "I would feel completely different if it were my child."

The move to gestational surrogacy has facilitated the change in the social meaning of surrogacy from a mother's selling of her baby to a transaction involving the provision of gestational services... Although some have challenged the baby-selling argument all along, on the ground that fathers can not buy their own children, this objection gained little traction as long as mothers were seen as selling their children. But the gestational surrogate lacks a biological connection with the child she is nurturing and bearing, and thus her identity as the child's mother is less powerful. The conclusion that the child is not in fact her child, but rather that she is providing contractual gestational services to the child's "actual" parents resonates with many people.
Simple evolutionary psychology can explain why women would strongly prefer their own eggs.  But even when women can't use their own eggs, they almost always want the surrogate and the egg-donor to be different women.  As Scott points out, there is a legal incentive to do so.  But comparative advantage probably plays a more important role.  High-achieving women like Kerry Howley have premium eggs, but they'd want a mountain of money to spend nine months pregnant on a stranger's behalf.  Women willing to endure a pregnancy for a reasonable rate, on the other hand, rarely have eggs in high demand.

In response to these preferences and technological progress, the market splits apart three jobs joined together throughout history.  The egg comes from a young woman with great genes, the womb from a woman who doesn't much mind being pregnant, and the mothering from a woman who wants a baby.  From an economic point of view, it's Adam Smith's pin factory all over again.  To some, it's repugnant.  To me, it's not merely logical, but life-affirming.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Patri Friedman writes:

it's also amenable to outsourcing. India is a common place for doing IVF & gestational surrogacy, and if you need eggs and want a white baby, they get eggs from Georgia.

Neal W. writes:

Thanks Brian. This is something that my wife and I could possibly have a need for.

Stan Greer writes:

Bryan Caplan, I don't really expect you to understand why many people continue to believe surrogacy is wrong. Nevertheless, I'll try. The fact that there is not a substantial political movement to stop surrogacy now does not demonstrate there's not substantial opposition. Opponents recognize the political reality that stopping surrogacy through legal changes is for now an unwinnable fight. Even incremental restrictions would be virtually impossible to enact (unlike in the case of abortion).

Common sense tells us that, other things being equal, it is best to be brought up by one's natural father and mother.

When a pregnancy occurs inadvertently, adoption is a loving choice to deal with an unfortunate situation.

But deliberately bringing about the conception of a baby while intending to deny him or her the right to be brought up by his/her own married parents is cruel.

You may say, it is better to exist than not to exist. I agree. However, that doesn't mean there are no circumstances under which it is imprudent and wrong to will the conception of a baby. When you will the conception of another person, you should be ready to take reasonable precautions to ensure that person is brought up under the best circumstances you can reasonably ensure. If you and your spouse are not able to have a baby yourselves, then you do your best to adopt a baby or accept the fact that you won't be able to have children in a morally acceptable way, and won't choose a morally unacceptable one.

Do you think the law should authorize the purchase of unborn (or born, for that matter) babies? If not, it shouldn't logically be so difficult for you to understand why many people think surrogacy is wrong. However, I think you have a mental block with regard to such matters.

Stan Greer
Fairfax, Va.

Robert Johnson writes:

You're analysis of the market for eggs and wombs is fascinating, but I doubt it's the actual basis for why a woman might prefer eggs and womb from different women. I think that it's just that the woman contracting for these services simply wants know other single woman to have too large of a claim on the child.

I have no evidence, it's just my observation on human nature. So maybe you're right and I'm wrong.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Stan:

I agree that it's *conceivable* that the life of child conceived via surrogacy (or naturally, for that matter) would not be worth living. But that's so rarely the case that it's barely worth mentioning. Not being brought up under the "best circumstances" certainly does not qualify. I wasn't brought up under such circumstances. Were you? Was anyone?

As you might expect, I see nothing wrong with selling your baby - born or unborn - to loving parents.

Robert:

If you're right, why do women put such a premium on getting eggs from healthy, attractive, college grads?

Stan Greer writes:

Well, Bryan, I guess it's at least good for your readers to know that you regard people's babies, born or unborn, as property that they have every moral right to sell to "loving parents." Similar, I guess, to the way that a dog owner should be free to sell his dog, but not to someone he had reasonable grounds to believe would abuse it.

I am a regular reader of this blog, and have never seen this assumption of yours made explicit before. Perhaps you have stated it openly, but I don't recall that.

I wonder how many even of the presumably progressive, left-libertarians who read this blog agree with that premise. I doubt very many, but I've been surprised before.

I'm sure most of your readers are okay with surrogacy, but I doubt they'd want to get to that viewpoint by the same reasoning you have evidently employed, i.e., children are property, at least up to a certain age. In that limited sense, you remind me of Dr. Peter Singer.

Second, I think you owe to the children you conceive more than an existence that is preferable to nonexistence. Unlike you, apparently, I actually believe that any existence on earth is preferable to nonexistence. I know my viewpoint on that issue is not in the mainstream nowadays, but that's a subject for another discussion, another day. Anyway, I think you owe to your yet to be conceived children a reasonable effort to ensure they're actually happy, not just better off than they would have been had they never been born. That was my point. You seem to have missed it.

Stan Greer
Fairfax, Va.

George writes:

Stan, it sounds like you only read the first paragraph of Bryan's post.

Jason Malloy writes:

"Anyway, I think you owe to your yet to be conceived children a reasonable effort to ensure they're actually happy, not just better off than they would have been had they never been born."

You're trying to ground your repugnance or religious concerns into an empirical argument, and it fails, first of all, for the simple reason that the psychological measurements don't support you. Children raised by adoptive parents are equally happy and well-adjusted as they would be with biological parents. So please stop implying that the reality is otherwise.

Even if adopted children were less happy, as you insinuate, it wouldn't support your argument without unreasonable collateral implications that you wouldn't be prepared to accept. What if children raised by adoptive parents were 15% less happy, on average? If this is unacceptable, would your reproductive restrictions then apply to all household types that reduced happiness 15% below the average? This would apply to a wide range of typical, but below average, circumstances, such as simply being born to parents with below average levels of happiness (since most of our subjective sense of well-being is genetically inherited).

Steve Horwitz writes:

Bryan,

You are invoking shades of Margaret Atwood's *The Handmaid's Tale* here with your dividing of the various functions of motherhood. Of course, in her dystopia it was by force not by contract, which, as they say, makes all the difference.

And for Stan:

Common sense tells us that, other things being equal, it is best to be brought up by one's natural father and mother.

YOUR common sense may, but the empirical evidence isn't so clear, especially because ceteris is hardly ever paribus. In the real world, it's all about trade-offs and, as Bryan suggests, the real issue is finding children loving parents, regardless of biology.

Stan Greer writes:

One difference between me and many left libertarians, including Bryan Caplan and commenters on this blog, is that I do not selectively invoke unspecificed "studies" as proof that things that everyone knows from experience are true really aren't true.

If being adopted is equal to being brought up by one's natural parents, why is it normal for a child to fear he's adopted and doesn't know it, but very rare for a child to hope he was adopted and doesn't know it?

As I said before, my contention that it's better to be brought up by one's own natural parents, as a rule, doesn't mean that it's a horror to be adopted. On the contrary, it is a good thing -- but a good outcome for an unfortunate circumstance.

When you deliberately bring about the conception of a child without any intention of having him brought up by you and his other natural parent, you are doing something cruel.

This is very different from, say, deliberately conceiving a child when you can't reasonably anticipate having the resources to send him to a high quality college (like GMU!) in a couple of decades.

To say that we owe something basic like having two loving natural parents living with you in your home to the children we plan to bring into this world isn't tantamount to saying we owe them a perfect childhood.

This is a strawman offered by Bryan and at least a couple of commenters.

Meanwhile, I notice no one has jumped to defend Bryan's contention that one should be free to sell one's children to "loving parents." Interesting.

Jason Malloy writes:

"When you deliberately bring about the conception of a child without any intention of having him brought up by you and his other natural parent, you are doing something cruel. This is very different from, say, deliberately conceiving a child when you can't reasonably anticipate having the resources to send him to a high quality college (like GMU!) in a couple of decades."


Yes, the major difference is that the latter will actually have a large measurable negative impact on long-term psychological well-being and health, while the former will not.

You are weighting your moral concerns towards the introspective and superficial.

And even here you seem to be wrong. Donor children seem to view their biological parents most often with positive or indifferent emotions. Not with the longing or resentment we would associate with cruelty.

Bryan,
You say, "I see nothing wrong with selling your baby - born or unborn - to loving parents."
I don't understand your reason for the qualifier. If it is ok to sell your baby to loving parents, is it ok to sell your baby to merely "liking" parents, as opposed to loving parents? Is it ok to sell your baby to someone who doesn't want to parent the child, but who plans to use the child for some purpose, such as labor, or spare body parts for another child, or for sexual services?
I know why I would prohibit these transactions. I just want to hear your rationale.

Stan Greer writes:

It's not "superficial" to be made happy by a degree from a classy college, but it is "superficial" to be made happy by having one's natural parents' love and attention? What is/are the study/studies that compare/s the two potential sources of happiness? I don't believe J. Malloy can find even a sociologist or psychologist so nitwitted.

It is also extremely foolish to assess whether or not surrogacy is cruel based on what the children who are results of it think. (I don't trust J. Malloy to accurately characterize what such children think, anyway, but that's another story.) I'm sure many slaves thought their masters were nice guys, and would have told a pollster so, given the opportunity, but this would not mean slavery was not cruel!!!!

Good grief!!!!

This is my last comment on this blog post.

Jason Malloy writes:

Stan,

"It's not "superficial" to be made happy by a degree from a classy college, but it is "superficial" to be made happy by having one's natural parents' love and attention?"

The evidence does not support that children are made unhappy by adoptive homes. We know this by measuring the physical and emotional well-being of adopted children and comparing them to non-adopted children. You dismissed this evidence by appealing to the imagined hopes and fears of non-adopted children:

"If being adopted is equal to being brought up by one's natural parents, why is it normal for a child to fear he's adopted and doesn't know it, but very rare for a child to hope he was adopted and doesn't know it?"

I am perfectly willing to grant that adopted children might have a unique set of separation or abandonment anxieties. But without corresponding emotional manifestations (e.g. depression), these anxieties should be seen as special to the circumstances, but otherwise of low harm to the child.

In contrast, lower social status is associated with emotional problems and lowered subjective well-being, and therefore is a source of objective harm.

"It is also extremely foolish to assess whether or not surrogacy is cruel based on what the children who are results of it think."

Either surrogacy is cruel because it harms the child emotionally, or surrogacy is cruel because it bothers the child.

If you can't appeal to any sort of harm, then you won't convince anyone that something cruel is occurring.

Stan and Bryan

Would you be willing to consider what Donor Conceived People have to say about this? A couple of them are in communication with me, and sometimes comment on my blog: www.ruthblog.org.
Here are a couple of sites where they write: http://www.tangledwebs.org.uk/tw/
http://donorchild.blogspot.com/2009_12_01_archive.html
These people and their concerns deserve to be taken seriously. They are just as worthy of consideration as infertile couples, and women who want to be mothers without involving a man.

Gentlemen, I find it interesting that no one has responded to my question of December 18th, at least not on this thread. If it is ok for parents to sell their infant to "loving parents," what prevents them from selling their infant to less than loving adults? What prevents them from selling their minor children?
I'm looking for the principle here, guys.

Lauren writes:

Jennifer Roback Morse writes:

If it is ok for parents to sell their infant to "loving parents," what prevents them from selling their infant to less than loving adults? What prevents them from selling their minor children?
I'm looking for the principle here, guys.

There may not be a single overriding principle for parents' picking up the expenses in exchange for the adoption of newborns, infants, or minor children--or equivalently selling the children. However, there appear to be strong biological incentives, social customs, or religious norms that deter parents from selling their young children to less-than-loving parents.

That certainly doesn't mean it happens right in every case. In fact, when someone is trying anticipate, no matter with how much love and caring, how someone else--the child--might feel at age 3, 5, 10, 15, 18, 20, 30, or 50 years later, it makes sense that it may go awry over time. What are the right criteria when faced with such a life-developing choice for one's child? Is a 60-40 chance of the child's net happiness good enough? 50-50? At what age do we measure? How do we accumulate the net positives and negatives over the course of life? (And to be really provocative: how about an only 10-90 chance of lifetime happiness if the alternative is not being born at all?)

What donor-conceived folks have to say about their experiences growing up sounds to me like exactly the kind of feedback that parents--both on the receiving and giving ends--would love to know about before moving forward in these decisions. We have not had the opportunity for that kind of evidence or testimony until recently. Good to add that to the discussion now!

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