Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Surrogacy, Class, and Conservatism

This topic is pretty late in blog terms, but it's still worth discussing. Two weeks ago, Doug Merrill (of A Fistful of Euros fame) called my attention to the discussion about Alex Kuczynski's first-person article on surrogate motherhood in the New York Times Magazine taking place over on Matt Yglesias's blog. Matt actually brought up the piece twice over there, both times posing what seemed to me to be basically the same question: it's one thing to understand (even if one doesn't agree with) the social conservative objection to surrogate motherhood, but what to make of conservative objections which highlight the inegalitarian nature of these transactions? Doesn't that expose some inconsistency there, or at least some misunderstanding of the global reach of the income inequality which creates incentives for actions which social conservatives deplore?

I wouldn't disagree with either of those accusations, but that's an old point for me. The advancement of socially conservative goals is and ought to be linked, as far as I'm concerned, with a serious concern for social justice, meaning fair distribution and opportunity, and economic and civic equality. By the same token, the attainment of social justice cannot elide the importance of respecting, conserving, and sometimes even promoting traditional attachments, of both a communitarian and a moral nature. But this Christian democratic point of mine is one I've made often before, and I no more expect to find a lot of company in sharing it than I did when I first started sketching it out over five years ago. So Matt's head-scratching response to some of the confused snarks at Kuczynski's piece didn't surprise me.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised at the appearance of a new favorite blogger of mine, "Hector," in Matt's comboxes. Hector's a graduate student whose focus is agriculture and botany rather than the social consequences of the behavior of oblivious rich New York liberals (and feel free to read the whole piece--you may find some sympathy for Kuczyski's blight, but her inability to do more than gesture in the direction of the moral and class dilemmas involved in employing a surrogate mother for one's own child, before rushing back to her money-soaked lifestyle portrait is grating in the extreme) but his grounding in, and international perspective on, the whole range of natural law and Christian socialist thought makes him a good interlocutor in regards to the intersection of morality and liberal individualism, as I discovered in some of the discussions about Proposition 8 on Hugo Swchwyzer's blog. Certainly he handles himself in the comboxes than some others who have stumbled into this latest iteration of the argument over surrogate motherhood. I'm thinking here of Erin Manning, a smart and capable commenter who recently took over at Rod Dreher's blog for a stint. She highlights the questions posed by a couple of pieces which appeared in the Wall Street Journal; the first, Thomas Frank's take on Kuczynski's self-indulgent piece (the fact that it's a leftist like Frank attacking what Manning calls the "new secular morality" ought to have drawn her attention), and the second, a hand-wringing bit of reportage about how the upper-middle classes may have to let the domestic help go in these bad economic times, especially if the choice is between employing a nanny and getting Botox treatments. Erin recognizes, to her credit, that there is a real linkage between these two pieces, but she seems unable to fully articulate it. The common theme she names capably: "this has to do with our culture's acceptance of the notion that we can outsource our children's upbringing [or their birth] to temporary workers without this damaging our children [or family relationships] in any way." What is needed there is some good old Marxist rhetoric, such as Hector's Christian socialism provides: rhetoric like alienation, or better, commodification. In other words, this is a matter of how modern economic life and modern technology can potentially commodify that which ought to, somehow or another, maintain an essential connection to the natural, the personal, the intimate. To lose that connection is to--not always, but often--lose our ability to draw upon the traditions, roles, and associations which are sustained by those natural grounds, and hence to be that much more at a loss when we try to figure out how to be parents, employers, caregivers and neighbors, and so much more. Take it away, Alasdair McIntyre.

Manning's almost-but-not-quite formulation of the linkage here is emphasized by her refusal to see this as a "mommy wars" issue. Now I don't know exactly what she has in mind while speaking of the mommy wars, and no doubt a great deal of harmful and false judgments are thrown about in the midst of that debate. But nonetheless it is a real debate, and asking questions about how the rich vs. the poor, or the SAHMs vs. the professionally working mothers, or the traditional parents vs. the egalitarian parents, choose to--or are able to--prioritize or re-organize such impossibly basic things like having a baby, feeding a child, cleaning a house, or playing with one's children, is an intensely important debate, one involving difficult choices and heavy judgments. (Laura McKenna has been my preferred guide to these arguments for years now; check out this blog conference she held a few years back as good a place to start.) Perhaps those judgments seem too often to result in unfairly pitting women against one another, but I see that as primarily a function of people and perspectives which begin the arguments by remove economic and structural issues from consideration, meaning that the majority of those who get to set maternal and paternal leave policies, those who develop and drive and advertise on behalf of lifestyle choices and technological enablers of such, get a free pass. And that's not the way it should be.

Other smart conservative commenters who get into this debate, like James Poulos, seem to make the same mistakes. In James's case, he figures that surrogate motherhood will never be particularly common (though one of his fellow bloggers disagrees) if only because there will be "something" that will leave the majority of those involved in said transactions feeling vaguely guilty and uncomfortable. And if that turns out not to be the case, then he reserves the right to criticize those who choose surrogacy simply as a way of avoiding the messy, painful, dangerous, natural work of pregnancy, as "a greater inconvenience than they feel their child is worth....unless, of course, she was earning millions for doing something that for some reason required she not grow and birth me, and then she gave me enough of those millions, etc., etc." There are a lot of difficult questions here, questions about the opportunities which globalization and technology have thrown into the laps of many (though mostly into the laps of the super-rich like Kuczynski); eschewing or being cavalier about the economics which put these socially conservative considerations before our eyes in the first place is not the best way to answer them.

5 comments:

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Forget "conservatism," please. It has been Godless and thus irrelevant. As Stonewall Jackson's Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

"[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It .is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth."

Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).




John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com
Recovering Republican
JLof@aol.com

Red Cardigan said...

Mr. Fox, thanks for writing this.

Some of my inability to articulate fully the connection between the two articles in question is simply my own lack of background in some of the basic works of conservative thought (among other educational deficiencies); I'm still getting through Zimmerman's "Family and Civilization," for instance, a book which wouldn't even have come my way without Rod Dreher's recommendation of it at Crunchy Cons.

To explain what I mean by "mommy wars" I'm going to have to be a little less politically correct than is generally accepted these days. The fact is that when matters of child-rearing get brought up, frequently people become too emotionally invested in defending their own choices and thus incapable of stepping back and seeing the bigger picture--and by people, I mainly mean women, though there are exceptions to every rule.

I hoped to be able to draw readers into a consideration of their own as to the connection between these two pieces, because to me at their core they both involve the idea that motherhood is something which can be reduced to a commodity, and then divided further and parceled out to various substitute mothers--surrogates in the fullest sense--to be accomplished. The woman who is paid to bear someone else's child is only a degree further down the same path as the woman paid to raise the child, and the underlying notion is that a mother can turn over all of these things to other people whom she has hired to substitute for her without losing what is intrinsic to her role of motherhood.

That is, I think, completely false. Yet, as you suggest in your post, some degree of aid in child-rearing may presumably be an aspect of a culture's approach to family life and motherhood without destroying the mother's intrinsic and important role, so the question becomes--where is the line drawn?

Moreover, I think that it used to be in our culture that most "outside" aid in child-rearing (except for the small number of truly wealthy families) wasn't really "outside;" that is, it was done by members of extended family and/or by the other adults in the community, whose shared social values made this possible. Some of the reliance today on paid care is a reflection of the reality that this is no longer true, and that even one's own relatives may be living lives so far removed from one's value system that it isn't desirable to wish them to be involved in any significant way in the lives of one's children.

So by avoiding a sweeping denunciation of all paid child-care, or pitting SAHMs against working mothers, or dividing the readers along the usual battle lines, I hoped to foster an opportunity for a deeper discussion having to do with our increasingly fluid concepts behind the words "mother," "father," "parent," and "child." We've turned "parent" into a verb, for instance, but as my grammar-burdened children could (probably) remember, a verb needs a "do-er" of the action, a subject which drives the verb's action toward the receiver. And children are the receivers of this particular verb's action--but what does it mean for a culture when the person who is expected to "parent" is often in no way an actual parent to the child?

Russell Arben Fox said...

John,

Well, I guess I'd have to say that Dabney was constructing an opposition between not "progressivism" and "conservatism," but rather between "radicalism" and "reaction." I think any non-reactionary, responsible (meaning, accepting of modernity) conservatism has incorporate progressive elements (and vice versa); obviously, if your preferred understanding of conservatism is a more reactionary, antimodern one, then contemporary conservatism is not merely misunderstanding of or incoherent about its proper relationship to progress, but is, as you say, godless nonsense. Not being a paleocon myself, I can't follow you there, but thanks for commenting.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Red Cardigan (nice handle, by the way!),

Thanks very much for the thoughtful comment.

The fact is that when matters of child-rearing get brought up, frequently people become too emotionally invested in defending their own choices and thus incapable of stepping back and seeing the bigger picture--and by people, I mainly mean women, though there are exceptions to every rule.

Well, your observation about people getting "emotionally invested in defending their own choices" is certainly true, and so long as women bear the great majority of childcare responsibilities--which is clearly still the case, and likely to remain so indefinitely--then you're right that it is mostly women who will feel that emotional investment. They are called "mommy wars" after all.

The woman who is paid to bear someone else's child is only a degree further down the same path as the woman paid to raise the child, and the underlying notion is that a mother can turn over all of these things to other people whom she has hired to substitute for her without losing what is intrinsic to her role of motherhood.

I don't think I would go that far, and if I did, then perhaps I wasn't thinking clearly. You could persuasively argue that there are some important category differences here; raising a child is arguably mainly a matter of human empathy and skill, rather than nature and/or biology, whereas bearing a child is obviously mostly a matter of the latter. And so the woman who biologically cannot bear a child, and who "outsources" the development of the fetus to another woman who has the biological capacity, is perhaps making an entirely different sort of choice than the woman who outsources the responsibility for raising and creating a living enviroment for a child. Still, you're not wrong to discern that I see some real, susbtantive similarities here, even if I would allow that the ethics involved can vary greatly. And I agree with you that, in either case, feeling that the role of "motherhood" is so abstract and intentional as to be unchanged by any such outsourcing is simply wrong (even if we could argue about just how or how much it would have been changed).

I think that it used to be in our culture that most "outside" aid in child-rearing (except for the small number of truly wealthy families) wasn't really "outside;" that is, it was done by members of extended family and/or by the other adults in the community, whose shared social values made this possible. Some of the reliance today on paid care is a reflection of the reality that this is no longer true, and that even one's own relatives may be living lives so far removed from one's value system that it isn't desirable to wish them to be involved in any significant way in the lives of one's children.

A good restatement/expansion of my original observation, though I would add an additional structural point: it's not just "shared social values" that aren't shared, it's quite literally shared social space. People are distant from each other; people move; people lack neighborhood connections; people communicate through blogs (like we are!) rather than getting to know the folks who live next door. Money and contracts will supposedly smooth over these distances, but of course they don't always, and what about those who lack access to either? In my experience, divisive social values truly can sometimes be real impediments to families being able to do what I think at least ought to come (arguably) "naturally," but actual structural divisions--in time, distance, and money--are far greater impediments. I'll babysit for my next-door neighbor or sister-in-law two blocks over when they're in a jam, even if I think his lifestyle is loathsome, because I'm not going to hold that against her kids; I just plain can't do the same for brother or cousin or old college roomate, no matter how much I support and agree with them, and no matter how much they need it, if they've moved to Spain.

I hoped to foster an opportunity for a deeper discussion having to do with our increasingly fluid concepts behind the words "mother," "father," "parent," and "child." We've turned "parent" into a verb, for instance, but as my grammar-burdened children could (probably) remember, a verb needs a "do-er" of the action, a subject which drives the verb's action toward the receiver. And children are the receivers of this particular verb's action--but what does it mean for a culture when the person who is expected to "parent" is often in no way an actual parent to the child?

A really wonderful statement. Obviously, we really must grapple--and be somewhat open-ended about--the way wealth and technology and modern morality have made parenthood, as you say, "increasingly fluid." I don't mean to close down such grappling by endorsing a "mommy wars" mentality that may sometimes be read as an absolute either-or; I just suspect that attempts to avoid that language often involve closing one's discussion off from a consideration of the social, economic, and structural elements as well, along with the moral ones.

Red Cardigan said...

I agree with what you've written, and would say that in saying that surrogacy is a difference of degree from hired child-rearing I was being a bit sloppy; the ethics are very different, though I think the parents who must pay someone to watch their child because of economic necessity that demands they both work are in a different place, morally, from the woman who relies heavily on a full-time nanny in order to keep beauty appointments.

I do want to clarify one thing: the issue with relatives and child care has more to do with the problem of when you don't wish your children to be left in the care of your relatives, not when you don't wish to care for your relatives' children. I would be happy to help with childcare for relatives whose lives are a mess, especially if I could be a stabilizing influence in the children's lives; but I wouldn't turn my own children over for a weekend to someone who is, say, likely to have casual sex partners over or indulge in heavy alcohol or even drug use while my children would be there.

As you point out, though, the fragmented way we live means that few relatives will be nearby in the first place, which makes these considerations moot.