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Society

Ethics Of Surrogacy: The Case Of Baby "Luna" Abandoned In Ukraine

Surrogacy is still considered quite controversial, especially in Italy where a story has made headlines after would-be parents renounced a baby born in Ukraine. The author says we must face the ethical (and other) questions rather than dismiss the practice as "uterus for rent."

Screenshot of video filmed upon baby Luna's arrival in Italy

Luna arriving at Milan's airport

TGCOM 24 screenshot
Michela Marzano

-Analysis-

ROME — The story of the surrogate child born in Kiev, and then abandoned by its would-be Italian parents, is filled with deep sadness. No child should ever be let go.

And yet, it happens. It happens when a woman decides to give birth anonymously, and the baby is then given up for adoption. Or when a child is placed in temporary foster care, but then never returns to the family of origin. It happens with some premature-born babies who, after being kept alive with the help of sophisticated therapies, will never be picked up by their parents because of a disability. It even happens with adoption: those rare occasions when the kid is returned, putting him or her through a dramatic "double abandonment."


Little is said about these stories, either because they are not considered newsworthy, or, somehow, terribly, considered not especially controversial. This however wasn't the case with the abandonment of Luna (a pseudonym), which is a story that Italy has been following closely since a foster family in Italy has now claimed Italian citizenship for the now toddler. Many Italians seen this as the obvious result of selfishness by those who are convinced that it is their right to buy children.

Surrogacy is still considered controversial. Many find it difficult to even pronounce the words "pregnancy for others," preferring to dismiss it as "uterus for rent." Of course, there is no "for rent" sign next to pictures of a womb. Nor, for that matter, can we speak of motherhood when a woman is pregnant without the intention of becoming a mother.

Rules are needed

However, before addressing this issue from an ethical point of view, I would like to start by telling a counter-story. A story beginning with C., who was the mother of three children, had a good job, a husband, was an active woman with a great desire to earn some money.

C was a strong and determined woman. She was in charge of everything in the household, and at some point decided she would start carrying pregnancies for couples who otherwise would not have the capacity to have children. It is true that C made a lot of money that way, but she was also very proud to do it — proud to help other people. After giving birth to two baby boys for a gay couple, she decided it was time to stop.

What price can be placed on that?

The two dads adored C. They even met her husband, her mother, and her children. One day, one of them articulated what it meant: "What C has done for our family is priceless. What price could be placed on the care with which C put into the pregnancy of our two children? I will be forever grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to become a father."

Considering this version of events, it might seem strange that in Belgium, Canada, Denmark and some U.S. states, surrogacy is only legal when carried out free of charge. Meanwhile, in other parts of the United States, it is legal even when paid.

Nonetheless, these states enforce strict rules to protect women and children: Women must already be mothers, economically independent and must be able to demonstrate that their choices are informed and conscious. Children, once born, must be recognized and must not be abandoned. However, in other parts of the world, particularly in developing countries, the context is quite different: the rules are so easily circumvented that it is not uncommon for women to be exploited, and for a shady trade in children to begin.

blank-and-white photo of an abandoned teddy bear

"If it is right to be horrified by stories of abandonment like Luna's, but it is totally unfair to pass judgment on surrogacy as a whole"

Boudewijn Huysmans

Comparing to organ transplants

As with many other practices, in the case of surrogacy, the ethical evaluation depends on the rules that are established and the methods that are (or are not) respected. Think, for example, of organ transplants. In theory, we all agree that it is good and right to save a person's life by transplanting a heart or a kidney or a liver. But how do we get these organs? From whom, and under what rules are they explanted? The rule is generally that of gratuitousness and anonymity. Organs are therefore neither sold nor bought, but donated.

Nonetheless, since the organs available for transplant are rare, a parallel market exists. It happens that some people — often alone, sometimes on the margins of society, sometimes prisoners — are kidnapped or killed in order to extract their organs and then sell them to the highest bidder. And some rich people survive because they can afford to pay large sums of money to organ traffickers.

If I dwell on the ethical ambivalence of organ transplant, it's because I'm a little tired of the abstract piety of those who go into battle to defend the rights of the most fragile, but then are ignorant or remain silent about the problems and abuses associated with a particular practice, railing against surrogacy by condemning it outright.

More than blood and DNA

If it is right to be horrified by stories of abandonment like the one of Luna's in Ukraine, it is totally unfair to pass judgment on surrogacy as a whole, based on the assumption that no woman can decide for herself what to do with her own body, or that every child born through surrogacy is comparable to a "package purchased on Amazon."

Parenthood has very little to do with DNA or blood, it's the bond created with the child.

Fatherhood and motherhood are always complex and, if I may say so, almost never the result of a purely altruistic act. How many people have children because they think that's the way it is, or because it just happens, or because they want a child as badly as you might want a dog or a cat? How many are aware of the fact that parenthood has very little to do with DNA or blood, but more to do with the bond created with the child when loving them, caring for them, sometimes even scolding them?

The French language, in this regard, is perhaps more subtle than the Italian one, since when referring to parenting it uses two terms: "géniteur," meaning "biological parent," and "parent," meaning "father" or "mother," even in the absence of biological ties.

It is one thing to give birth to a child; it is quite another to become their mother or father. It is one thing to have genetic ties with the living creature that is born; it is another thing to be present: to always be there, to transmit values, impose rules, build habits, share words; to listen and to love.

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At first glance, Mr L seems to be a successful man with a well-rounded life: middle management, happily married, father of two. If you ask him how he is, he responds with a smile and a “Fine thanks”. But everything is not fine. When he was admitted to the psychosomatic clinic Kloster Diessen, Mr L described his emotional life as hollow and empty.

Although outwardly he is still putting on a good face, he has been privately struggling for some time. Everything that used to bring him joy and fun has become simply another chore. He can hardly remember what it feels like to enjoy his life.

For psychotherapist Professor Bert te Wildt, who heads the psychosomatic clinic in Ammersee in Bavaria, Germany, the symptoms of Patient L. make him a prime example of a new and so far under-researched syndrome, that he calls “burn-on”. Working with psychologist Timo Schiele, he has published his findings about the phenomenon in a book, Burn-On.

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