Gestation as mothering

Bioethics. 2020 Nov;34(9):960-968. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12808. Epub 2020 Sep 22.


Some commentators maintain that gestational surrogates are not 'mothers' in a way capable of grounding a claim to motherhood. These commentators find that the practices that constitute motherhood do not extend to gestational surrogates. We argue that gestational surrogates should be construed as mothers of the children they bear, even if they fully intend to surrender those children at birth to the care of others. These women stand in a certain relationship to the expected children: they live in changed moral circumstances by reason of their pregnancy, and they engage in the practices said to define motherhood in the post-birth context. By contrast, ovum donors and embryo donors are not similarly 'mothers' because they do not find themselves involved in these circumstances. Not all women involved in three-parent in vitro fertilization qualify as mothers either. Given this analysis of mothering, we note that transmen who gestate children are engaged in mothering activity even if they otherwise function as a father to those children. By itself, this defence of the maternity of gestational surrogates does not confer moral title to the children they bear; gestation would not by itself override the contractual arrangements gestational surrogates have made regarding the disposition of their children. This interpretation of gestational surrogates as mothers does, however, undercut cultural understandings of these women as mere 'vessels', devoid of entitlement to respect as persons and parents. We also consider the meaning of mothering for 'brain-dead' women kept alive to give birth and for the prospect of extracorporeal gestation.

Keywords: ethics; gestation; motherhood; mothering; surrogacy.

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Female
  • Fertilization in Vitro
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Mothers*
  • Pregnancy
  • Surrogate Mothers*