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Pope Francis says something clear … and good

We need to speak with moral clarity about the commodification of human bodies through surrogacy

Pope Francis holds his weekly general audience at the Vatican on Jan. 24. Associated Press/Photo by Medichini

Pope Francis says something clear … and good
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Once again, Pope Francis has found himself in the news for his outspoken remarks on sex and gender issues. This time, however, it has been to take a conservative stand that evangelicals should celebrate: calling for a universal global ban on the despicable practice of surrogacy, or “uterus renting” as he has elsewhere called it. Observing that surrogacy represents a form of human trafficking and a “commercialization” of pregnancy, he described it as “a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child, based on the exploitation of situations of the mother’s material needs.”

The issue is a hot-button one in Italy, which has long banned surrogacy but turned a blind eye to the increasingly common practice of Italian couples (usually gay couples) renting the wombs of surrogate mothers in the United States to bear their children. Italy’s new conservative government under Giorgia Meloni has cracked down harshly on this practice, ordering municipalities not to certify foreign birth certificates of children born through surrogacy. At the same time, however, already-liberal surrogacy laws in the United States are becoming even more permissive in many places, with the Michigan House, in one of the few states to ban the practice, recently voting to legalize commercial surrogacy.

This highlights a disturbing irony: why is it that an otherwise-progressive pope should be more principled and outspoken than many conservative evangelicals on this crucial life issue? Why is it that European countries, which we are accustomed to think of as much more liberal, should be much more conservative on the whole than most U.S. states?

In 1984, British Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan penned his masterful little classic Begotten or Made? in response to the initial appearance of surrogacy in the United Kingdom, seeking to awaken the sleepy British public to the magnitude of the bridge they were crossing. Recounting the testimony of one British medical expert who dismissed the fact that “a woman is not carrying her own child” as “a fine legal point,” O’Donovan observes, “For the first time in the history of humanity a woman is pregnant with a child which she did not engender. … [T]here are a few human beings alive today who have three biological parents. If talk of ‘making’ our progeny fails in any way, it fails only by falling short of this unplumbed chasm that has opened up in our experience of what it is to be human, a work of technique before which understanding is numb.”

Sadly, this is perhaps one area where Americans’ celebrated love of “freedom” has been our undoing.

In the years since, we have become more, not less numb. A steady stream of celebrity couples (or individuals!) resorting to surrogacy have helped normalize the practice, as has TV and film (remember Phoebe in Friends?). So thoroughly has this particular frog been boiled that last year, Christian conservatives could be found publicly congratulating political pundit Dave Rubin and his gay partner for celebrating the successful purchase of “their” child.

Again, though, this numbness seems to be an especially American phenomenon. Although we are certainly not the only country to permit womb-renting, we are certainly an outlier among developed nations; in Europe, it is generally confined to the impoverished former Soviet republics. Sadly, this is perhaps one area where Americans’ celebrated love of “freedom” has been our undoing. We might pride ourselves that, unlike “liberal” big-government countries such as France and Italy, America stands for individual liberty to make our own choices. But not all choices deserve the protection of law. It was one of the great historic achievements of Christian civilization to end the routine commodification of human bodies that was the norm in most other cultures, and it is a mark of its rapid unraveling that we have made our peace with womb-renting.

Ironically, it is Pope Francis’s deep opposition to capitalism, which has earned him the suspicion of many American conservatives, that enables him to grasp so clearly the perverse logic of surrogacy. In a world in which the market is everything, there must be a market for everything: groceries, furniture, votes, sex, organs, and babies. Only by applying firm brakes to the train of capitalism when it comes to human flesh, and ensuring that markets serve human flourishing, can we keep it from jumping the tracks and turning pregnancy too into just another transaction, like leasing a car. Francis’s opposition to surrogacy stems in part from his recognition that womb-renting is not a particularly “free” market: As with pornography, the women who engage in it are usually poor and desperate, and their exploitation by rich couples brings to mind the ancient Roman practice of purchasing slave women as breeders.

Perhaps then it is no wonder that many American evangelicals, catechized in the capitalist creed that consenting adults should be able to engage in any market transaction they wish without legal interference, have had so much difficulty in rallying to oppose surrogacy as they have opposed abortion. Make no mistake, though: Although one of these practices involves ending life and another involves making life, both embody the same godlike pretensions to subject human life to our control, our whims, and our wallets.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for 10 years as president of The Davenant Institute and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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