Compassion or compassion?
by Linda Kracht
Recently I attended a debate arguing for and against surrogate motherhood — the act of contractually renting out one’s womb for to-be-parents. It takes about a split second of thought to realize that this newest way to technologically intervene/assist in the making of babies and parents is highly exploitable by one or all parties involved including the lawyers writing new statutes; the surrogate mother and/or the contracting parent(s). While compassion is used to argue for and against the procedure, clearly one side uses the term too loosely. So, let’s explore the topic from the perspective of Compassion vs compassion.
Let’s begin with the actual definition or meaning of compassion; it is the feeling that wells up within someone when confronted by another person’s suffering. But it’s more than just feeling sorry for someone’s plight. Compassion makes us want to help relieve the unfortunate sufferer’s condition. The virtue of compassion is too often interchanged with altruism or empathy but the three are stand alone virtues; altruism is the “kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.” And empathy is our ability to ‘feel’ someone’s pain because we identify with or understand another person’s situation or feelings. In reality all three can stray far from virtuosity if/when actions taken [including motives, thoughts, feelings or what we identify with] are impure, immoral or self-centered. Most of us felt compassion for the young, captured Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by ISIS but few of us could do anything about it. For some, the feelings boiled over into feelings of outrage prompting acts of revenge /retaliation towards others. All of these different reactions blurs compassion and altruism and the virtuous-ness of our feelings.
So what does Compassion vs compassion look like? Jesus has given us many examples and instances of what Compassion actually looks like. Jesus wept before springing Lazarus from his rocky grave; he cured the little girl after consulting with the parents; and he blessed the prostitute (sinners) before exhorting her (them) to sin no more. In each instance, Jesus actions combined Compassion with altruism and empathy to show us how to love those who suffered beside him. He is our model for Compassion - with the capital C.
Compassion - lower case — is the human rendition of Compassion; it often veers off-course as we let our human thoughts, feelings, judgements, and desires interfere and distract. Other times, it gets pretty close. Thinking right now of Saint Maximillian Klobe, who traded his life for another in Auschwitz; then there is Miep Gies who hid Anne Frank and her sister during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Mother Teresa is also a great example of just Compassion for the poor and impoverished of the world.
Did you know that feeling Compassion is good for us and good for those who suffer? For instance, social scientists tell us “when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the bonding hormone oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which facilitates the desire to approach and care for other people.” But it does even more than that. By being mindful of other people’s suffering, we actually “feel safer around them, facilitating even more compassion within us.” Compassion also makes it more likely that we will learn how to cooperate with the suffering people rather than work against them. Compassion makes us feel good. Compassionate acts activate pleasure circuits in our brain… Having compassion for others allows us to feel happier in both the long and short term. But we have to keep in mind that feelings of compassion are not designed for self-centeredness but ought to garner more self-less and other-centered behavior and thoughts. If we are not gaining other-centeredness, perhaps we are merely feigning compassion. The whole point of feeling Compassion is to help relieve suffering among those we love or don’t even know. Ironically, studies which study the effect of compassion on the compassionate person seem a bit mis-guided don’t you agree? Nevertheless, the results help explain how natural law works… the more humanely we act, the better we become — morally, spiritually, mentally, and physically. But that should not be the reason to be compassionate, is it?
Why is the lack of compassion introduced as one of the primary arguments for codifying/allowing/regulating the surrogacy experience? The proponents for surrogacy are quick to argue that the rest of us lack compassion — for the surrogate, the contracting parties, the legal teams trying to make surrogacy fair and ethical, etc. The case made for the need to have compassion the evening of the debate went something like this: “I am as Catholic as anyone in this room … but I believe that it is unjust to allow adoption (which effectively removes a baby from its biological parent and forces the baby into a home absent of the biological parents) while the Church argues against the Surrogacy Experience which unites biological babies [born to surrogate mothers] with their biological parents. This is wholly unfair. Besides that, the technology is here to stay so let’s make it as legally binding and protective of both the surrogate and the biological parents as we can. That is my role in this whole thing. And yes, there are many potential problems with surrogacy so we have to make just laws which protect all the parties involved. And yes, let’s help prevent the exporting of the Surrogacy Experience to third world countries where results can get complicated very quickly. And yes, when someone introduces morality, I lose the argument. And yes, renting out one’s womb is akin to babysitting for someone’s kids for a short while, so why not get paid for the service?”
Here, here said the 17 surrogate mothers in the audience. Hold on there said the other attendees who may not have been able to cogently explain why the Surrogacy Experience is wrong but they just knew it to be wrong in their hearts.
Both sides had plenty of time to present their case and of course the lawyer arguing against surrogacy made the most logical and ethical sense in my opinion. But she lacked compassion according to the other side. Did she really? She introduced facts such as: all in-vitro fertilization procedures create hundreds if not thousands of fertilized embryos that are left in a sort of limbo. In this state, they are not given a chance at life — at least not yet. Nor are they given an immediate death sentence — at least not until they have served out their utilitarian purpose which is to be ready and waiting if / when the parents decide they want more implantations with a surrogate mother at some future point in time — or not. The embryos in waiting lives are suspended within artificial, sterile and cold (cryogenic ) tubes awaiting a life or death sentence based on feelings.
Isn’t this alone an assault on the dignity of that new little person’s personhood? Where is the Compassion for their existence? How can one call for compassion for the infertile couple or the surrogate mother willing to rent out her womb for hire while ignoring the plight of the embryo in limbo? What’s more, does anyone display Compassion, if they pick and choose what/who/when to be compassionate about the frozen persons lying in-state? If the contracting parents set up conditions for who they will/will not give life to, why should the rest of us feel any compassion for their condition of infertility? Why should we care about their inability to have any children when they assert their right to deliberately ignore or select the best of the frozen ones? The facts are that every case of surrogate placement creates tens if not hundreds of fertilized embryos that are misplaced, destroyed, or forgotten about. Did you know that most surrogates — the womb for hire nannies — are expected to sign a clause agreeing to having an elective abortion for a less than perfect pregnancy? For example, if at some point in time the fetus is determined to have Spina Bifida or some other anomaly, the surrogate mother agrees to have an abortion. Where is the Compassion in that decision and agreement? It is abundantly clear to me at least that the contracting parents expect to have a near perfect if not blue ribbon baby after paying $35,000 — $65,000 or they don’t want it and neither do they want anyone else to raise this little imperfect him or her. That is conditional love at best and why should we be forced to feel compassion about such a contradiction?
Shouldn’t the contracting parents be concerned about the health and wellbeing of the surrogate mother? Of course they are and that’s why they add clauses about not using drugs, alcohol, etc., during the pregnancy! In reality how does that clause prove concern for - the surrogate or the pregnancy outcome? What about the health of the contracting mother who has to endure super-doses of hormone treatments for purposes of harvesting an abundance of healthy eggs? The proponent for the Surrogacy Experience flippantly said that women naturally have more eggs than they can ever need or use — so pre-gathering eggs is never a problem. This man clearly fails to understand the female reproductive system. Women enter menopause in large part because she has run out of viable eggs — and sometimes that occurs prematurely creating all sorts of problems. When a baby girl is conceived, she will have several hundred million eggs but even at her birth, she will only have one or two million eggs left in her ovaries. By puberty, the number has dropped precipitously to just a few hundred thousand; and by her mid 40’s she will have few left. The egg follicles degenerate over time due to a process call atresia. Factors speeding up the rate of atresia include illness, disease, genetic factors, environmental, and more. So to presume that women have plenty [have more than they need] is asinine at best. Furthermore, the unnatural order of harvesting eggs is sure to put a wrench on the natural-pace of atresia.
And then there are the spiritual and psychological effects to be considered for both the mother and father to be who treat the collection of their sexual reproductive cells, the in-vitro fertilization technique, and the making of their baby as just one more utilitarian activity that will get them what they want! Both collection processes (masturbation for the male and egg harvesting from the mother) render the making of a baby into a commodity that can be bought and sold for a price. And then there is the surrogate mother’s spiritual and psychological makeup to consider. Her sense of compassion for the infertile couple is completely blurred by the exchange of money for her womb for hire services which was previously stated as ranging from $35,000 to $65,000 / baby.
My compassion runs short when called forth by those who profit from things such as the Surrogacy Experience. It makes perfect sense for advocates of surrogacy to use the compassion trump card now. The ordinary facts are too easily refuted. So, it makes sense to employee a battle plan that has worked for other social movements [ gay marriage, abortion, divorce]. This plan tries to engender compassion for the infertile couple/individual while also diminishing all objections to any technological methods used to assert a person’s right to parenthood. But when was that right [to parenthood] established and by whom - other than God? Lots of loaded words from the ‘other perspective’ show put us on alert that something else is going on other than lack of compassion.
Furthermore, my compassion tank runs out of gas even faster when I hear a surrogate mother suggest:“I have no emotional ties what-so-ever with the baby. It is a business transaction”. Yet Saint John Paul ll reminds us that motherhood itself “implies from the beginning a special openness to the new person: and this is precisely the woman's 'part.' In this openness, in conceiving and giving birth to a child, the woman 'discovers herself through a sincere gift of self. '(MD §18)
My compassion tank runs empty when hearing a mother whine about having to make a decision about the 5 embryos left in cryogenics after claiming she has enough live birth children. And that was my personal experience with the In-Vitro Experience. One day I had taken our daughter to speech therapy and in walks a mother with three precious young boys — a set of twins (about 4 years old) and a two year old. Yes, they were rambunctious little cowboys! As we talked, the mother revealed that they were the result of in-vitro fertilization. The twins were born after implanting 5/12 embryos — natural selection left her with twins rather than quintuplets. She added that the first pregnancy took a toll on her [that kind of fell on deaf ears since I was there with our seventh child; sorry that seems to be my lack of compassion talking again]. Anyway, the mother horrified me by complaining about the having to undergo a second pregnancy just to use up a few more embryos — although she did admit that she felt a bit guilty about having 7 in Limbo. Not wanting another set of twins, she specified that no more than 3 embryos be implanted knowing that if more than one survived the transplant, she would have elected to have a reduction pregnancy abortion. Lucky for her, only one embryo made it to term and his name was Jimmy. The mother went on to state that she did not want to have another pregnancy but was conflicted about the embryos still awaiting her decision. So she asked me what to do. Seeing my horrified expression and hearing no response, she said “Well - what do you expect me to do?” If she had asked my opinion 10 years ago, I could have given her many answers. That day, I was too dumbfounded to come up with anything remotely compassionate or sensible or ethical.
We have arrived at a time in history whereby we create contradictions that have no ethical solutions. We completely fail in Compassion at the right times. I thought of this song written in 1969; it is entitled In the Year 2525 which seems to describe much of modern day thinking.
“In the year 2525, if man is still alive
If woman can survive, they may find
In the year 3535
Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie
Everything you think, do and say
Is in the pill you took today
In the year 4545
You ain't gonna need your teeth, won't need your eyes
You won't find a thing to chew
Nobody's gonna look at you
In the year 5555
Your arms hangin' limp at your sides
Your legs got nothin' to do
Some machine's doin' that for you
In the year 6565
Ain't gonna need no husband, won't need no wife
You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too
From the bottom of a long glass tube
In the year 7510
If God's a-coming, He oughta make it by then
Maybe He'll look around Himself and say
"Guess it's time for the Judgement Day"
In the year 8510
God is gonna shake His mighty head
He'll either say, "I'm pleased where man has been"
Or tear it down, and start again
In the year 9595
I'm kinda wonderin' if man is gonna be alive
He's taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain't put back nothing
Now it's been ten thousand years, man has cried a billion tears
For what, he never knew, now man's reign is through
But through eternal night, the twinkling of starlight
So very far away, maybe it's only yesterday