HuffPost called it “cheeky.” Tan France’s viral announcement photo is nothing of the sort. It is, to use a current buzzword, “erasure.”
Holding an ultrasound fetchingly over his belly, France immediately telegraphs the news that a surrogate mother is bearing a child for him and his partner. But his gorgeous male body does not contain a uterus, and never will. His taut man’s abdomen will not swell and bear stretch marks.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan of the stylish Tan France and TV’s whole Queer Eye crew of makeover artists. I wish him and his partner a blessed journey. But even with his acknowledgement of the “greatest gift/help of the most wonderful surrogate,” they are erasing their child’s mother with this social-media coup, whether the egg was from the surrogate herself or another donor.
The Body of Another
The child in the picture is growing in the body of another — in the body of a woman perhaps now coping with morning sickness — A woman who was paid to undergo the risk and labor of carrying, birthing, and then surrendering this child to two affluent men. So this is a rather bad joke, from a celebrity who usually projects nothing but compassion and zeal for social justice.
We erode the dignity of women, and children, and yes, even men, by treating gametes and wombs as property to be commodified: rented, bought, sold, and donated — even when we do so with apparent respect and even affection, and even when happy families result. It’s an ethical tradeoff with which we have refused to engage now that the horse, as it were, is out of the barn.
We erode the dignity of women, and children, and yes, even men, by treating gametes and wombs as property, to be commodified, rented, bought, sold, and donated.
It is one thing to believe that one can offer a child conceived through “assisted reproductive technologies” a full and loving life; thousands of parents are managing it. But it is quite another to let the fundamental reality of biological parenthood vanish into a mere transaction.
When the acknowledgment of our dependence on the natural order of creation is erased, individual humans can start getting erased, too. Tan France’s “wonderful surrogate” is invisible here — the precise cognitive distortion that people accuse pro-lifers of making regarding pregnant women, as mere vessels. The mother of his child has obviously consented to her role, and been financially remunerated for it, and may even wish to remain anonymous.
Not Mere Surrogate
But she is not a mere “surrogate.” She (or the egg donor, if a different woman) is a biological parent. If she is a “rented womb” for a child conceived with the donor egg of another, then there are two invisible women in this picture of a man and his child, both inseparable from the creation being celebrated.
Nor are mothers the only ones at risk of erasure in the brave, no-longer-new but expanding world of custom babies. Biological fathers, too, may be “not in the picture,” usually by design. Their anonymous contribution is even easier to dismiss, compared to the nine-month drama of the surrogate mom. Indeed, it’s the stuff of ribald jokes.
Biological fathers are also at risk of erasure in the brave, no-longer-new but expanding world of custom babies. Their anonymous contribution is even easier to dismiss, compared to the nine-month drama of the surrogate mom.
But the jokes turn sour when the children of these invisible men grow up and seek their genetic identity. Some have learned that their generous “donors” have fathered dozens or even hundreds of half-siblings, who may be at risk of meeting in regional dating apps.
Both fatherhood and motherhood are vastly more than DNA, of course, and may flourish authentically with no biological link at all. But without biology — or, to put it another way, a Creator, who loves us into physical existence from the very stuff of our parents’ bodies — there is no parenthood. The Monty Python troupe famously sang that “every sperm is sacred.” In the world of custom childbearing, the sacredness of every sperm, and every egg, can be gauged by their cost. (Eggs cost more. A lot more.)
It’s all a bit too much to fathom, so we’ve been winging it on the ethics, making them up as we go along, creating a shadow army of invisible biological parents whose rights and responsibilities are a legal patchwork. Even amid the joyous birth announcements, something is silently lost.
As America heads towards the sentimental gushings of Mother’s Day, let’s remind ourselves that, as the old TV commercial said, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” The child that Tan France and his partner have paid an unseen woman to engender will have a biological mother, whether she is involved in her child’s life or not. Men, not even the “Fab 5” of “Queer Eye,” can’t do everything by their fabulous selves, not even in 2021. Neither can women. At least not yet.
Brenda L. Becker is a writer and medical editor living in Brooklyn, New York.
Cover image by Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images. The picture of Tan France is taken from his Instagram page.