For Gay Parents, Deciding Between Adoption and Surrogacy Raises Tough Moral Questions

Do straight parents have to worry this much?


Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane19104@gmail.com.

When my husband David and I became new parents, we thought it would be fun and perhaps even affirming to get involved with a gay dads group. As far as I could tell, the only regular event was a brunch that took place every few months. That sounded promising, a throwback to idle Sundays before the babies made it all about them. The food was always great—these are gay men, after all. But as it turned out, the event was neither fun nor affirming.

The gatherings mostly took place in wealthy suburban redoubts and were marked by a weird social division between two teams: Surrogacy Dads and Adoptive Dads. Some of this division was to be expected. Each group had war stories to share, and it was natural to break the ice with those who had lived through similar experiences. But after one or two brunches, I came to see that this kind of informal division reflected something much deeper: a philosophical debate about how we should form our families. The annoyingly named “gayby boom” has created a knot of moral questions that are impossible to avoid.

Should is a weird word to use in this context, of course. For gay men especially, bringing children into the family is difficult and challenging no matter which route one chooses. Our first instinct should be support for all families, regardless of what route each of us took to realize our dreams. Both surrogacy and adoption present daunting legal obstacles—even now that marriage equality has been achieved.

As I learned when researching a book I co-authored, surrogacy is a state-by-state legal minefield. Some states won’t recognize these contracts at all, while the law in other states is unsettled. And there is the ever-present danger that the woman carrying the child will try to renege on her commitment. Adoption is hardly more secure. The countries offering this choice to gay men are constantly changing. Domestic adoption can be fraught as well either because birth mothers change their minds, or as in our case of adoption through the child welfare system, because the process has no certain outcome.

Beyond the legal hurdles, though, there’s an undeniable moral component to whatever decision we make. Those who can pony up the money for surrogacy—which frequently exceeds $100,000, all in—are faced with the cold fact that they’re selecting an egg donor based on objective calculations of positive attributes. Lesbians do the same with sperm donors, although of course at a much lower cost since no surrogate is needed.

When a case surfaces that draws the uncomfortable selection process into the open, people are left tongue-tied trying to figure out the proper response. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for Slate about the case of a lesbian couple that sued a sperm bank for providing the “wrong” material—from a black, rather than a white, donor. As I said at the time, outraged gasps at the couple were “easy, but not completely fair. Because everyone who transacts business with companies that offer sperm and egg donation is looking for a bespoke baby.”

When it comes to the gestational surrogate, there’s the additional issue of contributing to an industry that commodifies the body in an obvious way. The ethical issues multiply when the surrogate is from a developing country, often India, where women are paid much less for their services; but such “surrogacy tourism” just highlights the uncomfortable exchange going on in all these cases.

Those thinking of adopting face internal battles, too. As required by law, case workers confronted David and me with an unsettling battery of questions about the race, age, and sex of the kids we were willing to adopt, as well as delicately phrased inquiries about whether we’d be comfortable dealing with disabled kids—and, if so, they needed to know, what kinds of disabilities did we think we could handle? Really, who knows?

For the most part, straight couples get to ignore these tough questions. Sex, baby, done. Only when infertility leads to surrogacy or to a decision to adopt, or when pre-natal testing reveals a serious anomaly, are heterosexual parents typically forced into this moral maelstrom.

But ignoring these deep issues doesn’t mean they’re not present. Even the decision to procreate the old-fashioned way is a moral one, though my guess is that most straight couples don’t think of it that way. Given the global population of 7-and-a-half billion, it’s at least fair to ask why more potential parents—gay and straight—don’t at least consider adoption rather than swelling that number even further.

I was struck by that omission when reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree. After almost 700 pages of deftly describing the remarkable lives of families challenged by children the parents never expected (ranging from deaf, to autistic, to musical prodigies), the book deflates slightly in the final chapter, where Solomon’s thoughtfulness and penetrating insight abandon him when explaining why he decided to go the surrogacy route. Although he acknowledges the problems with surrogacy (its unavailability to people of limited means, and “the aura of manufacturing that clung to the venture”), he brushes aside the possibility of adoption by dismissing critics as folks who hadn’t themselves thought of adopting. In the end, he just preferred to have his own biological child. Full stop.

So even if adoptions were much easier, I’m confident that many gay couples of sufficient means would continue, like Solomon, to prefer surrogacy. Biology, blood lines, ancestry—these imperatives have driven the human race forever.

But why not adoption? What’s so great about biology that it drives people to expensive surrogacy and chancy technologies to try and pass their flawed genome along? Most people, if they’re being honest, realize that their families haven’t exactly reached genetic perfection. Solomon is quite forthright about his own mental health issues, and most of us would have to own up to a bevy of similar concerns for any child we might be chromosomally connected to.

I’ve never fully understood this preference. Almost from the moment our twin daughters arrived, their biological provenance was of little concern to me. What mattered was the human connection we were forming, day by day, as I bathed their tiny bodies, swaddled them in warm clothes, and felt them melt into me as I fed them. Now it’s sitting in their beds, going over Spanish vocabulary words just before they drift off to sleep. It’s the accretion of those moments make them my daughters, and I their father.

In the end, we’ll all have to account for how well we parent our children—no matter their origin, and no matter what we think about the various ways we create our families.