Anti-Surrogacy as a Totalitarian Dysgenics Movement
On a new Frankenstein monster made of the worst ideas and instincts
Though it has little traction in the real world, anti-surrogacy has become a hot topic on the online right. While this may or may not be something to worry about at this time, we’ve often seen movements fester on social media and then become part of the real world. One could argue that it is unlikely that anti-surrogacy advocates are going to have much political success, as the pro-life position has been electoral poison for Republicans, and the last thing the public seems to want is new crusades to interfere with people’s reproductive decisions. That being said, as we’ve seen with the issue of abortion, ideologues can force a party to champion a position against its own interests. Even if conservatives can’t tighten laws surrounding surrogacy, they might influence public policy enough to prevent their liberalization. I think surrogacy is a positive good, and all current limits on its use should be removed.
I find anti-surrogacy particularly unpleasant because it has at least three things I detest in a political position: it’s anti-liberty, bad in utilitarian terms, and fundamentally dishonest. Some movements have one or two of these characteristics; when you run into one that has all three you know you’ve come across something that is worth fighting. There are other things too that one might mention. Usually, when people argue for paternalism the idea is that smart people should take away freedom from stupid people for their own good. I’m usually against even that, because I believe in individual liberty. But anti-surrogacy is dumb people trying to interfere with the reproductive choices of the successful, which is another thing that makes the position particularly offensive.
The pro-life and anti-surrogacy positions are often correlated, and although I disagree with both, I can at least respect opposition to abortion and see how it in many cases reflects good intentions. In contrast, I’ve yet to find a single sympathetic impulse or plausible argument behind trying to use government to restrict people’s ability to create new life.
Of course, before dismissing a movement’s substantive arguments, it’s necessary to look at what those arguments are. In this case, as you might expect from a position that tries to translate religious dogma into secular language, they’re really bad. If you’re interested, check out Cremieux Recueil writing at Aporia, where he takes apart the main claims that anti-surrogacy advocates make, and also this report from Vanessa Brown Calder.
I wanted to see if I was possibly missing something, and I noticed on X that a lot of anti-surrogacy types were affiliated with the Heritage Foundation. So I went to their website and searched for the term “surrogacy” to see what kind of evidence they put together. My expectations were low; conservatives often produce worse arguments for their positions than liberals or libertarians, even when they’re right about something, and social conservatives are the worst of all. But I was still taken aback by how bad it was.
This article by Grace Melton and Melanie Israel is representative. They begin by quoting one anonymous blogger who claims to be a surrogacy baby who feels sad about that fact. They then go on to cite papers arguing that surrogacy pregnancies have a higher likelihood of resulting in stillbirths or low birth weight. This is at least evidence, even if chosen selectively. But the heart of their critique centers on the supposed psychological harms done to the child, and here they have little more than anecdotes. Other articles are just as bad. In what I found to be a particularly funny case of “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” here’s a guy whose main beat is anti-immigration talking about how surrogacy is bad because it involves the “outsourcing of labor.”
One problem here is that, as conservatives sometimes acknowledge in other contexts, genes are the dominant factor in how individuals turn out. Children who are born through surrogacy have wealthy, responsible parents who wanted them. When they also choose an egg or sperm donor, it’s almost certain that they’re going to be selective regarding the kinds of traits that they want. Even if being born through surrogacy involves some kind of trauma — and again, there’s no evidence for this — it would have to be really bad for surrogacy children to live a worse life than the average American. I was amused on Twitter to recently see an anti-surrogacy advocate taking the standard conservative position that people these days indulge too much in imagined trauma and victimization. I agree with this, in which case it’s weird to simultaneously argue that being conceived through assisted reproductive technology is so damaging that it’s an argument for the person never having been born.
And even if it was truly traumatic, since when do social conservatives argue that society should prevent pregnancies that have bad expected outcomes for the child? When you bring up such considerations in the context of a debate on abortion or birth control, they start screeching about “eugenics.” Look, we either take a societal interest in the characteristics of children being born, or we don’t. You don’t get to support unlimited breeding for criminals, the diseased, and the poor, and then say rich people shouldn’t be allowed to pay a surrogate because there’s a chance the kid, who is likely to be born with much more intelligence and beauty than average, might one day feel icky about it.
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Eugenics is unpopular in part because many forms of it strike people as involving extreme violations of individual rights. Those who are pro-eugenics could argue that the ultimate outcome of selective breeding is good for the future of humanity, so maybe the infringement on liberty is worth it. This is not a mainstream position now, but you can see its logic and appeal. What makes anti-surrogacy truly awful is that it involves the coercion of negative eugenics but without delivering any societal benefit, instead making humanity worse off. While there aren’t enough babies being born through surrogacy right now to significantly influence the future quality of the population, the numbers are growing and more surrogacy could potentially be a solution for both population collapse and decreasing IQ. There are a lot of women in the first world who are scared of being pregnant and reasonably don’t want to take time off from their high paying jobs, and many poor women without marketable skills who would happily carry their children for a mutually agreed upon price. This is “exploitation” in the same way every market transaction that makes people better off is. This is a standard socialist argument, opportunistically adopted by conservatives when they have a religious opposition to a practice.
Among the online right, I’ve seen desperate attempts to somehow make the anti-surrogacy position compatible with having concerns about the genetic qualities of future generations. Some have said that IVF and surrogacy allow those who are naturally unfit to reproduce. But the point of caring about the quality of future populations is that we want things like beauty, intelligence, and a lack of anti-social behavior, not the literal ability to easily reproduce. Even if you’re sympathetic to eugenics, there’s no case to be made that we should try to stop a hard-working genius from reproducing because he has a low sperm count. This is a really dumb argument, and I only mention it because I’ve heard it a lot and I think it demonstrates how creative the dissident right gets when it feels a need to reconcile trad beliefs and more hard edge anti-egalitarian posturing.
As with anti-surrogacy, one could call the pro-life position similarly dysgenic, since fetuses that are aborted are more likely to have serious diseases, come from poor backgrounds, and have parents with low levels of impulse control. But a key difference here is that the pro-life position is on the side of, as its name suggests, life. As long as you believe the majority of human lives are a net positive, which I certainly do, banning abortion might decrease the quality of the population, but add more people to the world, leading to an overall gain in happiness.
When it comes to reproductive issues, then, anti-surrogacy is unique in being so terrible on every dimension we should care about. It takes away individual liberty, diminishes the number of humans being born, and makes future people worse off on average.
Sometimes we see signs that the last effect is by design. Here’s one anti-surrogacy advocate upset that a gay couple got an egg donor who was a supermodel. I guess the argument here is that the whole process would be less objectionable if they had chosen an ugly woman. One can also hear the resentment behind the common cry of “rich people buying babies.”
Of course, despite what they say when trying to convince others, the real reason that many on the right oppose surrogacy has nothing to do with the risks of pregnancy or the well-being of potential children. There’s no study you can point to that will convince these people to take a different position, since they are driven by a religious objection to “unnatural” means of conception. Sometimes they’ll use words like “commodification,” which is just a fancy way of saying “something that involves money and feels icky to me so I want it banned.” An agenda doesn’t stop being theocratic just because you attach a secular word to it. There are some secular anti-surrogacy advocates, but they tend to be the most insane feminists, which should tell you something.
I want to be respectful to pro-lifers. I don’t agree with them, but it’s a position I can see a reasonable person taking, and their motivations are in many cases honorable. Anti-surrogacy, in contrast, is a Frankenstein monster combining the worst impulses that exist across the political spectrum. It’s a cancerous movement, and deserves unremitting hostility from all people who care about either individual liberty or the future of humanity.