History leaves its mark on geography; t
hat much is obvious.
Less obvious are its echoes in our
opinions and attitudes, which can
be heard, unwittingly repeated,
in modern form, whenever we talk
about politics or values.
The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch
has observed, for instance, that
the former Protestant strongholds
of southern France, which suffered
horribly under the persecution of Louis XIV,
were among the most radically anti-clerical
during the French revolution.
The region later became a hotbed of
French communist resistance to the Nazis,
"and even in the late twentieth century
they were still delivering a reliable vote
for French Socialism."*
It's odd how often oblivious we are to
the fact that our opinions form inside
an invisible framework, which History constructed.
Yet there are the Southern French,
voting socialist, in part because of something
Louis XIV did.
Ideology is all around us and we don't
notice it, shaping our views, and our toilets.
The French Senate has already signaled
that some tightly regulated form of surrogacy
may be allowed in the 2010 draft
of the bioethics law.
Calls for its decriminalization have been
on the rise here, in part because
of the plight of a few French parents,
who have been unable to win legal recognition
for their children conceived abroad
in countries where surrogacy was legal.
As hubs of commercial surrogacy make plain,
like the town of Anand, in the Gujarat state
of India, gestational surrogacy
has become a global industry.
Many in France still harbor reservations.
And in a way, surrogacy is like a cultural
Picking through the ethical dilemmas it raises,
as the French see them, is as good
a method as any for understanding
what makes the French tick.
To start with, there's the issue of exploitation,
where already French and American
Anytime someone provides a service out
of desperation or for lack of an alternative,
they can't be said to have entered
into the transaction freely.
This is the main reservation that Americans
tend to have about surrogacy.
We worry whether individuals are free
to act as they choose.
So long as a transaction isn't immoral,
often in some religious sense,
we tend to think people should be
free to do as they choose.
Many view prostitution as immoral,
for example, but even if you set aside
religious objections to it, it may still be
since it is not often entered
into willingly, except maybe in Nevada.
In France, by contrast, safety is not
the overriding concern regarding surrogacy,
though it does figure in the debate.
Nor do they worry whether the transaction
can ever be fair in a contractual sense.
Quite the opposite—the exploitation,
according to the French view,
lies in the indignity of the transaction itself.
In fact, one thing advocates and opponents
alike can agree upon is the corrupting
influence of money.
Both would like to see it taken out
of the equation altogether.
Last May, for instance, the Conseil d'État,
France's highest administrative court,
strongly advised against altering
the bioethics law to allow gestation
And the essence of the problem
for them, likewise, was money.
It is a fundamental principle of French law
that the human body is inviolable,
and no part of it can be treated
In its decision, the Conseil d'État reasoned
that since altruistic surrogates usually
receive some form of stipend,
and since the nature of the relationship
between the intended parents
and the birth mother is necessarily
contractual, then, in essence,
surrogacy is a transaction,
which treats the child like
an object and the surrogate
mother's body like a commodity.
This is a concern echoed by other
French critics, such as
philosopher Sylviane Agacinski,
who view the practice as degrading,
"To solely use [a woman's] belly is
contrary to dignity," she told
the left-leaning website Rue89,
"even if no money changes hands,
because it places the very existence
of one human being at the service of another."
The issue is whether, as the American
philosopher Michael Sandel has argued,
certain goods or social practices
can be degraded if bought
and sold for money, or "marketized."
Often Americans tend not to perceive
how the voluntary commercial exchange
of objects may diminish them
or tarnish them.
Though often we are unable to imagine
the things we truly hold sacred ever being
bought and sold.
But consider the reaction if folks somehow
learned that John Roberts had purchased
the office of Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court in a backroom deal (which obviously
he hasn't, so don't take this out of context.)
The point being, it's easy to see how
certain transactions, in and of themselves,
can corrupt an institution,
just by virtue of turning it into something
that can be bought or sold.
What is truly ironic is how close this
all brings the rabidly secular French
to that group of Americans with
perhaps the strongest sense of the sacred,
that is, fundamentalist Christians,
who also happen to be deeply divided
Of course, American Christians
who do object to it tend to do so
on explicitly biblical grounds.
They just don't sublimate their
quasi-religious view of the womb
beneath a Marxist term
Yet ultimately, surrogacy is likely to win
out in France.
And the reason why is because
telling hopeful parents that they can't have
children seems cruel, especially when
richer parents can afford to pay
for the procedure outside of France.
As a woman in the French journal L'Express,
whose sister bore her child,
wrote in a letter in response
to Sylviane Agacinski:
Yes, we need a legal framework
to prevent abuses and scams.
But bearing children is not
It's a gift of love between
sisters and friends.
It's normal to reward someone
who comes to our aid
and improves the quality
of our life.
In our consumer society, money
is the only way to compensate
someone so that they
too can live better.
Emotional politics, indeed. What's more,
charges of inhumanity carry a lot
of weight in France.
So, in all likelihood, surrogacy
will be decriminalized, if not legalized,
by next year.
Perhaps it's for the best.
After all, the moral of 20th century French history
is that rigid ideology serves
no good end, when it's inhumane.
"Reformation : Europe's House
Divided, 1490-1700." Penguin
Books Ltd, September 2004.
Special thanks go out to Dr. Eileen Servidio,
President of the American Graduate
School of International Relations
and Diplomacy, for her invaluable
help with French law.
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