THE phrase "genetic stranger" seems an inappropriate way to describe a mother's relationship to the baby she has delivered. But that is the term the California Supreme Court used recently in explaining why Anna Johnson should not have parental rights to a son she bore as a surrogate for Mark and Crispina Calvert, using their sperm and egg.
Although the couple had agreed to pay Ms. Johnson $10,000, she changed her mind during the pregnancy three years ago. The two parties have been locked in a bitter custody dispute ever since.
In ruling for the Calverts, the court upheld the legality of contracts for surrogate motherhood, rendering them enforceable. The decision, which Johnson's attorney has vowed to appeal to the US Supreme Court, gives Christopher Calvert a secure home with his biological parents.
That seems best, under the circumstances. Yet the protracted case serves as the latest reminder that surrogate motherhood is fraught with peril, sometimes placing newborns in the middle of biological and emotional tugs of war between too many loving parents. Phrases such as "gestational host," along with distinctions between "birth mothers" and "legal mothers," hint at the ways in which medical technology is changing the legal definition of maternity.
An estimated 20,000 surrogate births have occurred in the United States during the past 10 years. It has been seven years since the infant girl known as Baby M first catapulted the subject onto the front page. More recently, in another celebrated case, Arlette Schweitzer of South Dakota served as the surrogate mother for her twin grandchildren. Surrogacy has apparently become so accepted that the California high court's ruling on the Calvert-Johnson case last month received little media attention. Yet it
is far too soon for complacency about commercial and contractual parenthood. When strangers turn childbearing into a paid venture, creating varying possibilities for biological linkage, troubling legal, ethical, and moral questions arise.
The deep yearning for a child of one's own deserves the utmost respect and compassion. With or without laws, surrogacy arrangements will continue. But just because technological advances make these births possible does not mean they should be encouraged.
At a time when millions of children grow up in single-parent families, the prospect of three or four loving parents may appear to be an embarrassment of riches. But as the parents of Baby M and Christopher Calvert can attest, too much of a good thing may sometimes be worse than not enough.