Pope Francis and the ban on surrogacy: Viewpoints from other faiths

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Pope Francis and the ban on surrogacy: Viewpoints from other faiths

Pope Francis called for a global effort to ban surrogacy. Will adherents and leaders of other faiths join him or push back? Read on to find out.

In an address marking the beginning of 2024, Pope Francis reflected on the many issues that threaten global peace.[1] Amongst the concerns he discussed were the familiar and devastating conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as the burgeoning migrant and climate crises facing many parts of the world. Yet, the pope also took a moment to highlight smaller-scale issues, ones which rarely – if ever – are the focus of headlines. One such concern for him is surrogacy. In a rather sharp rebuke, he referred to the practice, in which a woman carries and bears a child on behalf of a couple or individual often because they cannot themselves, as “deplorable.”[2] [3] 

According to the pope, surrogacy “represents a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child, based on the exploitation of situations of the mother’s material needs.”[4] Hoping to eliminate the exploitation and ills he believes underlie the practice, the pope called for a global ban on surrogacy. This article explores the extent to which other religious communities agree or diverge from the pope’s aims.

Christianity and surrogacy bans

While Pope Francis’ denunciation has made headlines, his hostility towards surrogacy is not surprising or unexpected, given the Catholic Church’s historic teachings. For years, voices within numerous Catholic communities have decried surrogacy, describing it as a problem of “human dignity”[5] that ignores the voices of infants.[6] Other Catholic figures quickly echoed Francis’ sentiments.[7] That said, not all Catholics agree with the pope’s concerns, with some fearing his language went too far.[8] [9]

Official figures across other Christian denominations have also expressed concerns over surrogacy. For instance, in a 2017 article, the Baptist pastor Joe Carter claimed that most Christian bioethicists “agree that most forms of surrogacy are theologically and morally problematic.”[10] In August 2023, a dispute over surrogacy at a Lutheran Protestant Church in Brunswick, Germany, led one church musician to lose his job.[11] The musician wished to enter into a surrogacy agreement, leading church officials, who denounced the practice, to fire him.[12]  Similarly, other Christians have echoed calls for an end to surrogacy, establishing organisations such as Them Before Us to aid their cause and combat what they see to be the problems resulting from surrogacy decisions.[13]

Despite this, not all Christians downright condemn the practice. Some acknowledge its risks yet view it as a practice that can still be rewarding and religiously sound.[14] For instance, Grace Yao, a professor of ethics at the Claremont School of Theology, has written an entire book detailing her own experience with surrogacy and how it can be religiously sanctioned.[15]

Islam and surrogacy bans

Like many Christian denominations, formal Islamic teachings discourage and forbid surrogacy, often with as much – or even more – zeal than their Christian counterparts.[16] [17] In fact, many Muslims view surrogacy as a fundamental violation of Islamic law– a form of zina, or unlawful sexual conduct.[18] [19] By that reasoning, surrogacy is as impermissible or acceptable as adultery.

To justify this viewpoint, several Islamic scholars cite, amongst other sources, surah 58, verse 2 of the Quran, which discusses a form of divorce. The verse reads as follows: “those who pronounce ẓihār among you [to separate] from their wives – they are not [consequently] their mothers. Their mothers are none but those who gave birth to them. And indeed, they are saying an objectionable statement and a falsehood.”[20] The italicised sentence serves as the root for many who decry the practice.[21]

However, to treat Muslims as uniform in their beliefs would be inaccurate and a disservice to the heterogeneity of the religion. As such, there are some Muslims who disagree forcefully with the traditional reasons underlying the bans on surrogacy – especially when a couple has fertility issues – and view the Quranic passages, like the one above, to be taken out of context.[22] [23] Though far from fully adopting these views, the Iranian government has legalised surrogacy for married, but infertile heterosexual couples.[24]

Judaism and surrogacy bans

Judaism, the oldest of the Abrahamic faiths, also appears to be the most open to surrogacy. This openness, which is by no means universal, nonetheless comes with extensive caveats and regulations to mitigate potential harm and align with Jewish law.[25] Nonetheless, the extensiveness of the regulations speaks to the broader acceptability of the regulated practice. Additionally, Israeli law – albeit far from synonymous with Jewish law – allows for gestational surrogacy (whereby a surrogate receives the implant of and carries an already fertilised egg).[26]

As with many controversial issues in the Jewish tradition, there has been extensive scholarly debate on the matter, with rabbis expressing differing opinions. Rabbi Professor David Golinkin has provided an overview of the differing rabbinical viewpoints.[27] To him, there are two broader schools. The first accepts surrogacy, using as its basis the biblical story of Hagar bearing a child for Abraham and his wife Sarai and by addressing the positives that can come from surrogacy. The second is more sceptical, believing surrogacy may only be appropriate on rare occasions and fearing the social harms that it can cause.[28]

Adoption as an alternative

While there are notable exceptions across each faith, especially Judaism, many religious leaders align with Pope Francis, viewing surrogacy with scepticism and disapproval. To those couples and individuals who cannot conceive, these leaders would propose adoption instead. In fact, regardless of one’s opinions towards surrogacy, all three of the faiths tend to view adoption, whether instead of surrogacy or not, as both morally sound and praiseworthy.[29] [30] Adoptions can come with religious requirements and guardrails, too, but the overall practice is often encouraged.[31]

Despite this encouragement, adoption does not provide a perfect or ideal answer for every couple.[32] Understandably, therefore, Pope Francis’ statements are likely to serve as the basis for debate for months – if not years – to come.

Tyler Mikulis

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[1] Pope Francis calls for a universal ban on surrogacy. He says it exploits mother and child.

[2] Pope calls for universal ban on surrogate parenting, calls it ‘deplorable’.

[3] Pope Francis calls for a universal ban on surrogacy. He says it exploits mother and child.

[4] Pope calls for universal ban on surrogate parenting, calls it ‘deplorable’

[5] Surrogacy: A Problem of Human Dignity

[6] The Voice Not Heard in Surrogacy Is the Child’s

[7] Surrogacy is an Injustice to All Involved, Bishop Barron Says in Support of Pope Francis

[8] Irish families fear surrogacy slur

[9] Pope Francis’ comments on surrogacy prompt stir outrage and sadness among advocates

[10] Basic Bioethics: What Christians should know about surrogacy

[11] Church musician departs after surrogacy affair

[12] Church musician departs after surrogacy affair

[13] Christians need to say no to surrogacy

[14] Wombs for rent: Can Christians really support surrogacy?

[15] Review: My Body, Their Baby

[16] Taking surrogacy seriously in the Arab world

[17] Ethics of Surrogacy: A Comparative Study of Western Secular and Islamic Bioethics

[18] Islamic Law and the Surrogate Mother

[19] Taking surrogacy seriously in the Arab world

[20] Surah 58, ayeh 2 – Quran.com

[21] Islamic Law and the Surrogate Mother

[22] Islamic Law and the Surrogate Mother

[23] Permissibility of Surrogacy in Islamic Law

[24] Infertile Couples in Iran Find New Hope in Surrogacy

[25] Surrogate Steps – Jewish Surrogacy

[26] Surrogacy in Israel

[27] What does Jewish Law Have to Say about Surrogacy?

[28] What does Jewish Law Have to Say about Surrogacy?

[29] Wombs for rent: Can Christians really support surrogacy?

[30] Pope Francis on adoption: ‘Every child that arrives is God’s gift’

[31] Adopting and fostering a child in Islam

[32] Pope Francis called surrogacy ‘deplorable’ – but the reasons why women and parents choose surrogacy are complex and defy simple labels