Empathy and altruism in surrogacy

Katy Fulfer

This presentation is an initial foray into thinking about what a philosophical account of empathy might contribute to clarifying ambiguity around “altruism” in surrogacy.

Although payments for surrogacy are criminalized in Canada in the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, Health Canada is in the process of clarifying what sorts of reimbursements are legally acceptable. In the What We Heard Report, which summarizes feedback received through their 2017 public consultations, some responders point to the need, and the difficulty, of acknowledging and valuing emotional labour performed by surrogates and intended parents. This difficulty has a tendency to lead to discussions about payments for surrogates, and to controversies around payments. Indeed, the report indicates that financial transactions in surrogacy are still contentious amongst some Canadians.

If regulation is going to meaningfully provide ethical protections (see section 2 of the AHR Act), then we need a better conceptual tool for thinking about power and vulnerability in surrogacy, especially in relation to vulnerabilities relating to emotional labour. I suggest that invoking altruism—either to argue for or against unpaid surrogacy—is not the best strategy. Although altruism is often invoked when describing emotional labour in this context, the concept is fraught with ambiguity. According to some, “altruism” is equivalent to saying “not-exploitative” or “less-exploitative-than-commercial-surrogacy.” Sometimes “altruism” indicates motivations women express for becoming surrogates, or refers to intangible benefits they receive from the process. Some feminist critics have interpreted “altruistic” motives or benefits as indicative of coercive forces that reinforce women’s oppression and pronatalism.

Instead, I explore whether an account of empathy might provide a more helpful way to theorize about emotional labour. In particular, I turn to the phenomenological accounts of Edith Stein and Hannah Arendt, as these theorists offer tools for appreciating embodied empathy and structural injustice. While this approach will not resolve the debate between whether unpaid or paid surrogacy is preferable, it will offer tools for analyzing power dynamics that relate to emotional labour in surrogacy—dynamics that might be present whether surrogacy is paid or not.