Media outlets are stumbling over themselves to criticize Nicole Kidman’s description of her surrogate as a “gestational carrier”. Ominous headlines in newspapers have included “Language reflects a dark side of surrogacy” while the breathless reporting has included comments such as: “In those last two words, the woman whose body nurtured this child for nine months is stripped of humanity,” to “The term is eerily reminiscent of the language used in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale. Yet another paper wrote, “While it may be emotional survival on Kidman’s part to refer to the woman who nurtured her baby for nine whole months, by any name other than mother, it is both cruel and inaccurate.” Do a Google search and you will find an incredible 1,456 stories about this manufactured controversy.
Seriously, this is one of the most ginned up controversies I have ever had the misfortune of having read. What Ms. Kidman said was not only technically and legally correct, it was the most accurate description she could have used. Of course, many in the fringe media have little patience for things like accuracy or balance. Exacerbating the situation further are the strident opponents of assisted reproduction who are capitalizing on this fleeting media moment to promote their own anti-surrogacy platform.
Setting aside whatever newsworthiness existed when Ms. Kidman and Mr. Urban announced the birth of their child, the story itself probably warranted 1-2 news cycles given past celebrities who have had children. Clearly, when operating under an agenda that is not constrained by journalistic principals, another hook is needed to keep a story alive. Hence the hysteria over the term “gestational carrier.” Earlier this month, we saw similar frenzy over a baby’s cradle gifted to Elton John and David Furnish after their baby was born by a surrogate.
The etymology of the word surrogate dates back to the first reported case of surrogacy involving Abraham’s son, Ishmael. According to the biblical accounts, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, offered her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham because she was incapable of bearing him a child. The child born by Hagar was the first reported surrogacy delivery in history. It is critical to note that this “surrogacy” arrangement and all that followed until the late 20th Century, involved women who were genetically related to the children they delivered. With the advent of IVF, it became possible to separate the genetic mother from the birth mother. And, with Doctors Steptoe and Edwards’ IVF medical breakthrough, came the need to redefine the term “surrogacy” to distinguish between a woman who was genetically related to the child she delivered for someone else and the woman who carried a child created entirely outside the womb without use of her eggs.
For decades, professionals in this field have made the distinction between traditional and gestational surrogate arrangements. While the term surrogate is often used generically (much like Ketchup, Scotch Tape, Coke or Xerox) to describe any woman who carries a child for another person, it is not an accurate description though its use is ubiquitous because it is so easily understood.
One emerging trend I have noticed over the past decade is the use of the term “gestational surrogate” to describe a woman carrying a child not genetically related to her for Intended Parents. I believe this term strikes the right balance while accurately describing the nature of the arrangement. Over time, I suspect that the nomenclature in this field will evolve and the use of “traditional surrogate” and “gestational surrogate” will ultimately be the descriptions of choice. For now, however, Ms. Kidman’s choice of words was accurate and in no way insensitive. In fact, the only callousness being displayed here is by those in the media that are creating a controversy out of whole cloth and, in the process, diminishing the relationship that was forged between Ms. Kidman, Mr. Urban and their gestational carrier.