A Biblical Case for Surrogacy? image

A Biblical Case for Surrogacy?

While teaching on ethics in the US recently, I repeated the observation that surrogacy is akin to slavery. In the current political climate of the States this was deemed too controversial and we decided to edit it out of the video footage of the sessions.

So how about approaching the subject from a different angle? Rather than simply opposing surrogacy ( this statement summarises reasons for doing so) is there a biblical framework that might cause us to endorse it?

Central to the Old Testament narrative is the essential place of having children. This really is essential because the generation of offspring is the way by which the covenant was enacted. Without offspring there could be no inheritance of the land and no holding onto the promises. This is why instructions and examples are given about family members stepping in to bear children for those who were themselves unable to – either because they had died or due to infertility.

Levirate marriage (described in Deut. 25) prescribes how a man is to marry his dead brother’s wife in order that she may bear children in the dead man’s name. Does this provide us with a positive model for surrogacy? Probably not: if anything it provides us with a framework for polygamy! The first born son of such a marriage ‘belongs’ to the dead man but the biological parents of the child are married (there is no adultery), and the child will be raised by them (there is no maternal separation), and there is no donation of gametes from a third party (again, no hint of adultery). So this really doesn’t provide a model for contemporary surrogacy.

What of cases where an infertile woman nominates a surrogate to bear children on her behalf? The obvious example of this is Sarah ‘giving’ Hagar to Abraham; and we might also consider the fertility arms race between Rachel and Leah and their two servants.

This is the closest we get to a parallel with some contemporary examples of surrogacy. We might compare it with a sister who becomes pregnant by her brother-in-law in order to provide them with a baby. If a biblical ground for surrogacy is going to be developed this could be the strongest plank in the argument.

Even here, though, there are some considerable issues to navigate. One is that this surrogacy strategy never ends happily. In the result, Sarah turns against Hagar in a brutal way, and the relationship between Leah and Rachel is dysfunctional, to say the least. Having a baby is a deeply emotional as well as physical reality so it is unsurprising if it carries significant potential for interpersonal rifts. Should we encourage this kind of potential?

Also, in both these examples, the ‘surrogates’ were servants: in fact, it would perhaps be more accurate to think of them as slaves. There is no indication that either Hagar nor Bilhah or Zilpah had any agency in the decision to make them available to, respectively, Abraham and Jacob. As members of Abraham’s and Jacob’s households they were effectively chattels of the patriarch who then became a kind of wife to him once they entered sexual relations with him. Moreover, they were expected to remain within the household and raise their children themselves. Again, this is more argument for polygamy than surrogacy and it is unlikely that a contemporary surrogate would be prepared to enter a similar arrangement.

A final biblical example that has been suggested to me is around the conception of Christ. This is very dangerous – and sacred – territory but was it a form of surrogacy when the Most High overshadowed Mary (Luke 1:35) and she conceived? Without getting into the deep Christological issues here it should be obvious that the incarnation was of a completely different order from what we see in modern surrogacy. A key, practical, aspect is that Mary herself raised Jesus – he was not snatched away at the moment of birth to be raised by others. Rather, Mary willingly submitted herself to the Lord’s purposes in conceiving and raising her son (Luke 1:38).

It is worth us teasing out these biblical examples as governments around the world increasingly legislate in favour of surrogacy. Christian couples will undoubtedly be caught up in the cultural tide and consider whether this is an appropriate way for them to overcome infertility. I hope that we might be able to withstand that tide.

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