Is Paid Surrogacy Ethical? 3 Different Viewpoints

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Justice" by Michael Sandel. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is paid surrogacy ethical? What are some ethical issues associated with surrogate motherhood?

While surrogate motherhood allows infertile and non-heterosexual couples to experience the joy of parenthood, it also brings a host of ethical concerns. Some people go as far as saying that there is no such thing as ethical surrogacy.

Let’s explore the ethics of paid surrogacy by considering three contrasting perspectives on the matter.

Is Paid Surrogacy Ethical?

Paid surrogacy is a process where a couple unable to have a child implants their egg and/or sperm into a surrogate who then carries and delivers that child. According to Sandel, transaction increasingly occurs between relatively wealthy couples in Western nations and much poorer surrogates in countries like India or Thailand.

In his book Justice, Michael Sandel examines the morality of paid surrogacy through a utilitarian and libertarian lens, then offers his own criticism:

Utilitarian view: Sandel explains that a utilitarian wouldn’t necessarily object to consensual paid surrogacy, as it’s mutually beneficial—if a surrogate needs money and a couple wants a baby, then paid surrogacy would create happiness for both parties. 

Libertarian view: Sandel explains that libertarians have no issue with paid surrogacy—as long as it involves people freely choosing to enter into a contract, then it’s moral. 

(Shortform note: Paid surrogacy often involves developing a zygote outside of the womb, a practice that creates another ethical dilemma: “designer babies” genetically edited to have certain traits. From a utilitarian perspective, genetically editing reproductive cells to alter a baby is moral—getting rid of hereditary diseases or adding in genetic benefits can reduce the child’s pain and add utility with no negative consequences. A libertarian would likely also support designer babies, since banning them would limit the freedom of parents to “raise” their child how they wished and would also limit the economic freedom of fertilization clinics to provide these services.) 

Alternative view: Sandel argues that the utilitarian and libertarian views both fail to acknowledge a significant moral concern—that paid surrogacy devalues pregnancy and childbirth by making them a monetary transaction. Sandel suggests that pregnancy and childbirth have inherent value as crucial and intimate parts of the human experience. Paying for a child ignores this value, treating a surrogate as just a baby “factory.” This example informs Sandel’s larger criticism of both utilitarianism and libertarianism: He contends that there are things we shouldn’t quantify—either through utilitarian measurements of happiness and pain or through libertarian free-market economics.

(Shortform note: In his later work What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel further explains how utilitarian or free-market quantification damages important emotional experiences. He uses the example of gift-giving to show this: From a utilitarian perspective, giving someone cash as a gift is best, as it assures that the gift giver spends exactly as much as they want and that the recipient can get exactly what they want. A libertarian agrees, praising the freedom that a cash gift offers instead of its utility. However, Sandel suggests that cash is impersonal by design, while a specific gift has far more emotional value—it shows that the giver knows and cares about the recipient enough to find them something they’d really appreciate.)

Is Paid Surrogacy Ethical? 3 Different Viewpoints

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  • A philosophical look at the goal of our society and its laws
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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