Money can't buy the gift of life

A message of the recent surrogate case is that couples have no right to fertility
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The ghastly game of "Whose foetus is it anyway?" has been played out in public this week by Sonja and Clemens Peters and Karen Roche, dubbed the "Surrohate" mother. The Peterses had paid Roche pounds 12,000 to be the surrogate mother of their child. Roche said earlier this week that she had aborted the baby, then yesterday admitted that she was lying.

Most of us shrug our shoulders in confusion - the prospect of womb-renting is not one that most women relish. To carry a baby to term and then give it away, we imagine, is terribly painful, though it is exactly what anti- abortionists advocate for those who find themselves with unwanted pregnancies. When surrogacy goes wrong, we use this as evidence that we must not try and outwit nature. When it goes right, as it did last week for a grandmother who handed over three babies to a couple, we read headlines such as "Our triplet gift of joy".

Karen Roche appears to be equally muddled. She has lied, saying that she had an abortion because she wanted to keep the child. She suddenly felt "terribly trapped. I had no idea how much publicity the story would get". The Peterses were paid by the Daily Mirror for their story. They are hurt and damaged; the details of this case confirm that what such desperate couples are most in need of is counselling and care. After five miscarriages and 16 attempts at artificial insemination they turned to surrogacy as their last hope.

Surrogacy, which has been described as a "uniquely distasteful form of prostitution", is fraught with difficulties. Commercial surrogacy is outlawed here. However, "expenses" may be paid, which is a way of getting around the law. But it automatically puts the childless couple at a disadvantage, as they will have no rights before birth and few afterwards. To become legal parents they need the permission of the surrogate (the woman who gives birth is treated as the mother). And the genetic father is only considered the legal father if he is married to the mother.

Even when money changes hands, the relationship has to be based on trust. Despite the Peters/Roche case, approximately 200 surrogate births have taken place in the last 10 years, without any controversy.

The grisly details of this case have focused on whether Roche had "proper" sex with Peters or was artificially inseminated. This is none of anyone's business but we are increasingly preoccupied with"natural" and "unnatural" methods of conception. Stories of lesbians, turkey basters and pickle jars frighten the horses, or more particularly, the horsemen. Virgin births, babies born to dykes on the dole and children disgustingly referred to as "jar babies" have all made the news.

The transfer of bodily fluids is all that is required for conception, but the idea of a free exchange unfettered by marital contracts is threatening. Are men to be reduced from dads to donors? Is conception without penetration an "unnatural act"? We can accept all this when it is highly medicalised in the hands of doctors, but when it is a DIY effort we are deeply uncomfortable.

If we are to legislate, the central sticky issue, so to speak, is sperm. Once sperm is donated or paid for, does that give the donor either the right to be a father or the onus to pay for the child's upkeep? Cynics might suggest that men have always been very good at denying the link between sex and reproduction, yet we shouldn't forget that the severing of that link has been an enormous liberation for women. Women of my generation have grown up safe in the knowledge that sex does not automatically lead to babies. Sex can be had for its own sake.

Reproduction is something we fit into busy schedules. Such a split is necessary for surrogacy to work at all, and yet surprise, surprise, something wholly illogical rears its head from time to time. Karen Roche wants to keep the baby that is growing inside her even though she agreed to give it away. Is this wrong? The Peterses now say: "It's hard to believe that this woman is actually a human being". I sympathise, but they are wrong. It's very easy to believe this woman is a human being. She has said one thing and done another.

The call for new laws is a call to legislate rationally over a thoroughly irrational area. Those who cannot have children have to be scrutinised in a way that those who can never are, their suitability for parenthood assessed by panels of experts. Money talks, of course, and it is taken as a sign of eminent suitability. In such a transaction, a child, or the fantasy of a child, inevitably becomes a commodity.

Our confusion is apparent in the way our vocabulary slips and slides around this issue. Children, we say, preciously, are not commodities or lifestyle accessories - they are for life, not just for Christmas. Childlessness is described as a tragedy and reproduction is spoken of as a right. Therefore, if everyone has the right to have a child, the medical establishment has an obligation to treat childlessness as if it were a disease.

I fail to see that reproduction is a "right" any more than "good health" is a right. Such talk casts childless couples as militant campaigners struggling for what they have been deprived of. How this helps do anything except line the pockets of those peddling largely unsuccessful IVF services, I don't know.

The other way of describing children is as "gifts". As mawkish as this sounds, it is perhaps the most sensible way to look at it. A gift relationship is, as we know, very different to a commercial relationship. It depends on trust, on reciprocity, on respect. We may all like gifts but we do not see them as our right. We don't ask too much about where they come from.

The Peterses thought they had bought a gift that in the end Karen Roche could not bear to part with. You cannot steal a gift nor insist that it is rightfully yours.

Such idealism is a long way from a situation in which babies are bought and sold. We cannot legislate it into existence any more than we can persuade society to value the children it has already produced instead of haggling over the ownership of those yet unborn.

Legislation is what everyone asks for when no one knows what to do, but we must think carefully. In what other area would you willingly increase the power of the state to tell women what to do with their own bodies?