This month, Americans celebrated Mother’s Day.   While we like to think about motherhood as one of those realities that transcend polarization and division, that’s hardly true.  Motherhood has been under attack in the United States for half a century, and that attack is accelerating.  That it has been incremental just means we have greater challenges to connect the dots.

What, specifically, about motherhood is under assault?  The attack is primarily against motherhood as a reality, specifically, a physical reality.  We have two concepts of motherhood vying for cultural ascendancy: motherhood as physical reality and motherhood as state of mind.  (I’d argue that the latter is essentially gnostic, motherhood as concept amputated from any physical reality.  More on this later).

The Start of the Assault

The first, and most damaging assault on motherhood has been the abortion license imposed by Roe v. Wade.  Based on refusing to face scientific fact, Roe feigns ignorance about just when a woman becomes a mother.  By pretending that pregnancy is some kind of epistemological terra incognita, we withhold (at least legally and culturally) from a pregnant woman the name “mother.” 

This legal no-woman’s-land has had political ramifications.  Abortion came first, in 1973.  Reproductive technologies starting appearing about five years later and legislators approached their implications by taking a hands-off” approach: no need to saddle ourselves with a new abortion-like controversy.  That’s why Jennifer Lahl of the Center for Bioethics and Culture—a dedicated opponent of surrogacy and gamete donation—has characterized the United States as the “wild West” on these issues.  It’s also why lots of foreigners come, especially to surrogacy-friendly states like California, to obtain babies. 

The mother-child link has rightly been seen throughout history as embodiment and expression of the most intimate, tender, and caring bond: there should be no safer place for the beating heart of a child than beneath his mother’s.  Every day that Roe corrupts the law of the land, it erodes that truth.

In linguistic doublespeak, one never uses the word “abortion.”  One speaks of “choice.”  That linguistic legerdemain, however, means that maternity is increasingly unanchored from biological reality.  One is not a mother because one carries a baby.  One is a mother because one has “chosen” that appellation.

The Final Attack: Beyond Choice

That “choice” mentality ramifies far beyond abortion.  It goes through artificial reproductive technologies, like IVF, which introduce a split between genetic and social maternity.  Genetic maternity is depreciated: the biological mother of a child is renamed a “gamete donor” and considered nothing more than a parts supplier.  “Motherhood” is reserved to the woman who “chooses” to raise the child.  This gnostic mentality is very evident in modern bioethics, where—in contrast to adoption, where the right of a child to knowledge of his biological heritage is increasingly acknowledged—there are growing arguments that a child has no “right” to know his biological roots or his biological mother or father and that law should not “privilege” biological ties.

“Choice” took its next step with surrogacy.  The two-way division of maternity IVF introduced now became a three-way fissure: in addition to the “gamete donor” and the “social mother” came a gestational mother.  Sometimes she was also the biological mother; sometimes not.  The truly amazing fact is, however, that the language alchemists have managed to hoodwink society into calling a woman who labors to carry and deliver a child a “surrogate” while the woman who contracted for the baby (who may or may not have any biological relation to her) is now called “mother.”  Indeed, a further indication of the devaluation of the physical as it relates to maternity is evident in states that have legalized surrogacy: New Jersey, for example, now calls the “surrogate mother” (itself a false term) the “gestational carrier.”  But, as Roe started teaching us, “motherhood” is a matter of choice, so we can choose to carry a baby, give up a baby, traffick in a baby, or buy a baby and we’re never a “mother” till we pick that term.  And while we pretend that “the law should get out of the bedroom,” most of the same advocates of that position have been sponsors of legislation to afford “sanctity of contract” to surrogate deals.

The ultimate consummation of “choice” mentality is the ongoing effort to dissociate sexual differentiation from parenthood.  There is still enough realism in the public mind to at least raise an eyebrow (if political correctness mutes our voice) about “men becoming pregnant,” but if everything is “choice” and one is a mother is not something one is but only what one says, then of course we can also be a “man” or “woman” on the same voluntary basis.  And if it can all be that elastic, isn’t “motherhood” and “fatherhood” inherently discriminatory?  So, instead of a child having a right to a “mother” and a “father,” the child might now get “parent one” and “parent two,” whose biological nexus to the child may be absolutely none, but whose legal relationship is legally protected.  So, children need not necessarily have to have a “mother.”  And so, just as sex-selective abortion supposedly “liberates” women by primarily killing girl fetuses, so the new “parenthood” achieves it by making mothers and fathers optional extras—options for the contractors, not the child.  Once upon a time, deliberately setting out to make an orphan deprived of his biological parents would have been considered barbarism, but that was so yesterday.

The whole root comes back to the prophetic truth of Humanae vitae, which recognized sex as a physical reality between sexually differentiated persons that had an inseparable relationship to unity and procreation.  Having allowed that Humpty Dumpty to fall (or rather, pushing him off the wall), we have spent the last 52 years reassembling the shards at will.  Unfortunately, however, we do it at the expense of real motherhood and certainly at the expense of real children.