Surrogacy in Canada: Critical Perspectives

Monday, July 23, 2018

On May 17th and 18th 2017 the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law hosted an SSHRC funded conference exploring feminist perspectives on surrogacy in Canada. Professors Alana Cattapan of the University of Saskatchewan, and Angela Cameron and Vanessa Gruben from the University of Ottawa hosted fifteen feminist scholars from Canada and abroad.

We are about to launch a book with Irwin Law based on this conference. Watch for Surrogacy in Canada: Critical Perspectives in Law and Policy in the fall of 2018.

The University of Ottawa Faculty of Law is home to a number of active and inspiring feminist student groups. The conference organisers were fortunate to have students from these organisations working with us at the conference. The post features the last of three interviews of conference presenters by student conference participants. These interviews highlight participant's ideas, research and writing on surrogacy in Canada and abroad.

Interview 3:

Towards Ethical Surrogacy Practices: A Conversation with Christine Overall

Stephanie Tadeo

     Christine Overall has long been one of the leading feminist philosophers in Canada. A Professor Emerita and University Research Chair at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, she also writes in various areas including applied ethics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of education. Currently, some of her research centers on the need for a publicly-regulated system of surrogacy in Canada.

            During the workshop on surrogacy in Canada hosted by the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law in May 2017, I had the opportunity to speak with Overall about her concerns about surrogacy practices. She was initially opposed to the entire practice of surrogacy. This opposition was informed by moral problems she identified in surrogacy, including the exploitation women face as surrogates and the potential harm to children born from surrogacy practices. Overall provided the recent example of Melissa Cook, a woman in California who lost her petition to be declared the legal mother of the triplets to whom she had given birth. Cook sought to retain custody of the babies when her relationship with the commissioning father became contentious. Part of what was contentious was the fact that C.M., the commissioning father, specifically requested the implantation of three male embryos, and then made many statements saying he could not care for them all. Upon learning Cook was to have triplets, he allegedly asked her several times to abort one fetus (a procedure called selective reduction), a process that Cook opposed. The triplets were born prematurely in February 2016 and kept in intensive care until they were released to C.M. in April 2016. A federal judge eventually dismissed Cook’s case, giving full parental rights to C.M.

            For Overall, the Cook case provides an important example for understanding the complexities of human relationships and interactions within surrogacy practices. In the Cook case, for example, it is problematic that the minute the triplets were born, they were taken from Cook, who never had the opportunity to see them. According to Overall, the idea that providing a gamete (sperm, in this case) necessarily makes someone a parent is unjustified, and ignores the moral responsibility that women have for the child(ren) they carry and deliver. 

Over time, Overall has come to accept that surrogacy is here to stay. Now, she focuses (and urges others to focus as well) on how we can govern the practice of surrogacy with an ethics oriented to protecting all parties involved. One recommendation she proposes is to establish a minimal competency standard for commissioning parents (sometimes called intended parents), similar to that which is used in adoption procedures. She considers surrogacy to be a form of “pre-conceptual adoption”: the fetus shares a material relationship with the gestational mother, but it doesn’t share one with the commissioners. Therefore, before responsibility for and authority over a child born of surrogacy can be transferred, commissioners must be able to meet a minimal competency standard.

In short, Overall continues to lead the way in terms of scholarship on the ethics of surrogacy.  She brings to the surface important ethical questions we should be asking ourselves as we move forward with ever-changing forms of conception, parenthood and family. She demonstrates that, as we continue to accept and engage in new modes of reproduction, we need to confront tough questions about how to protect the rights and interests of all parties affected by surrogacy practices.

Designed by Rachel Gold.