The old question: "Am I a good parent?" can unsettle even the most conscientious mothers and fathers. Now it may become even more intimidating as it takes on a strange new 21st-century twist.
The first-ever research on the effects of surrogacy, conducted by a team of British psychologists, finds that couples who hire another woman to have a baby for them exhibit better parenting skills than those who bear their own children.
"Surrogacy couples are rated the best parents," a headline in The Times (London) proclaimed last week. Such families, the paper explains, "are generally closer and better adjusted than those begun in conventional fashion."
The same day, another British paper, The Independent, also carried a story on the subject with a subhead reading, "First detached study into 'renting out' wombs finds adoptive mothers more loving than those of children conceived naturally."
The Family and Child Psychology Research Center at City University in London found that surrogate families rated higher than "natural conception" families on several measures: the mother's warmth and enthusiasm in talking about her children, the emotional attachment between mother and child, and the amount and quality of time the mother and the father each spent with their children. Only in one area the mother's sensitivity to her child did those using assisted reproductive technology score the same as families conceiving children naturally.
Considering the intense longing for a baby that propels infertile couples into a surrogate arrangement, their devotion as parents is not surprising. But have we really come to the point where conventional childbearing Mother Nature's way is being upstaged by an artificial process that researchers might approvingly call Mother Nurture? Is this truly the ticket to the "best" parenting?
Ever since the word "parenting" a far more active and involved-sounding term than "childrearing" became popular in the 1970s, the race to be crowned Best Parent has intensified.
From birth and now perhaps even before birth, as expectant parents proudly show off sonograms of their fetus in the womb the pressure is on to produce the biggest, the brightest, the best, and the most successful offspring.
Parental pride is evident everywhere. A bumper sticker spotted in a Boston suburb last week read: "I love being a dad." Other cars carry such button-bursting messages as: "I'm the proud parent of an honor student at [name of school]."
What will be next? A message on the bumper reading: "Surrogate parents are the best"?
Given the growing popularity of surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies, the London research findings may be considered good news in some circles: Despite the complicated physical and emotional intermingling of families in these arrangement, researchers claim that none of the parents, babies, or surrogate mothers show signs of stress.
But like all studies, this one calls for careful examination and even healthy skepticism. The psychologists concede that the jury is still out on the long-term effects when children born to surrogates learn the facts of their conception and birth. The babies were between 9 and 12 months old at the time of this research.
The findings also raise a question: Is it really this easy for a surrogate mother to nurture a baby for nine months in the womb, and then hand it over to another couple? A seemingly triumphant headline in The Independent reads: "Surrogate mothers feel no remorse for babies."
Surrogacy marks only the beginning of high-tech procreation. The current issue of The Futurist describes a chilling array of coming reproductive technologies that will allow parents to make complex decisions at the time of conception about their children's genetics and traits.
Called germinal choice technology, this "embryo engineering" will supposedly prevent disease; lengthen life spans; and improve a child's height, IQ, and "other aspects of temperament and personality," such as beauty, intelligence, and strength.
"Parents will likely look at conception as their one chance to give their child significant health advantages a chance that will never again be available," The Futurist writes.
As surrogacy and germinal choice technology gradually redefine reproduction, they could also subtly change our definitions of what makes a good parent. In the future, will the "best" parents be those who choose embryo engineering, believing that it's the way to give their children the best possible start in life?
The reproductive genie is out of the bottle. Human germinal choice is inevitable, the magazine asserts.
If so, the challenge for families will be to resist the "freedom" supposedly inherent in this choice. The answer to the question "Am I a good parent?" lies not in a lab but in the home, where unconditional love and warmth, mixed with guidance and appropriate discipline, will always count for more than designer genes.