Never let it be said that today’s aristocrats aren’t brave enough to break with tradition. Just recently we’ve had the Duchess of Cambridge “re-wearing different dresses and gowns on several different occasions.” We’ve had Prince Harry “petting a dog who won Britain’s Got Talent.” And now, in a move that will no doubt hasten the dawn of a new republic, Lord and Lady Weymouth have become parents to Henry, thought to be the first member of the British aristocracy to have been born by surrogacy.

It’s all ground-breaking stuff, at least for readers of The Mail on Sunday. In an interview with the paper Viscount Weymouth describes it as “a wonder of modern science that the Longleat Bath family has been completed (for now at least).” Tradition, we are informed, has been brought to “a genteel halt.” What, after all, could be more radical than this, the discovery of a new way to safeguard the lineage of the exceedingly wealthy? Time was when women of low birth could only be wet nurses; now they can aspire to offer up the whole reproductive package.

It’s a pity such wonders of modern medicine weren’t around several centuries ago. Ann Boleyn might have been allowed to keep her head, if only she’d been able to bring a son to term using the womb of a commoner. Or perhaps Catherine of Aragon would have got in there first, thereby averting years of religious and political upheaval. Alas, it’s only recently that such options have become available to those of true blue blood.

Baby Henry was born in California because, as the Mail puts it, “it has the most advanced legal system for [surrogacy]”:

“For example, it allows money to be exchanged, while Britain insists no more than expenses can be paid to the woman who will carry the child.

‘Obviously, we would have preferred to do it closer to home, but the legal system in Britain has not evolved with medical technology, so any contract with a surrogate is not binding,’ [Viscount Weymouth] says.

The choice of words here – advanced, evolved –  is interesting. It would suggest that poor old Britain is lagging behind in making it possible for the rich to make the most efficient use of the bodies of the poor. And perhaps Viscount Weymouth is right. Perhaps an expansion of this form of exploitation is just what the future holds. I’d struggle, however, to call it progress.

IVF has made it possible for women who were unable to conceive to finally have healthy pregnancies. This is a good thing. It has also made it possible to treat desperate women as potting soil for the embryos of the privileged. I am less convinced that this is how it should be used. True, not all surrogates are desperate. Some are happy to make a significant physical and emotional sacrifice on behalf of others. Nonetheless, if this were a rule and not an exception, there would be few complaints about contracts not being “binding.” When Viscount Weymouth complains that “the legal system in Britain has not evolved with medical technology,” he is saying that surrogates should not be permitted to change their minds. Yet, as Katha Pollitt wrote of the Baby M case, when a surrogate signs a contract she is “promising something it is not in anyone’s power to promise: not to fall in love with her baby.”

Viscount Weymouth would of course argue that it is not the surrogate’s baby to fall in love with. In Britain, he says, “even if the baby is 100 per cent yours (ie the sperm and egg) the surrogate still has the right to keep the baby.” Yet what does this “100 per cent yours” even mean? Why should the fact that it was your sperm or egg that helped create an embryo make your relationship with a baby any more meaningful than the relationship it has with the woman who gestated it? This is not a scientific definition of ownership; it is an arbitrary one. Moreover, such definitions can be twisted to favour the powerful (it is not so long ago that all babies were considered “100 per cent” the property of the father, with only the sperm containing the true principles of life).

There is much in the press about how a second pregnancy would have killed Lady Weymouth, as though she needs to justify not having gestated a second heir herself. I don’t think she needs to justify that at all. An end to the aristocracy treating women as brood mares for the passing down of their estates is long overdue. She does not owe anyone an apology for not having performed some archaic patriarchal duty. But someone else did have to bear that child. The glitz of scientific progress does not take away the mundane, wearing, intimate work of pregnancy and birth.

The key question when it comes to reproduction should not be “is it natural?” (what, in any case, is “natural”? What level of intervention pushes a process beyond the bounds of nature?). What we really need to ask is who is doing what to whom. Are certain individuals exploiting the bodies of other, less advantaged individuals? Are modern technology and legislation are being used to reinforce age-old, conservative principles?

Different means can be used to achieve the same oppressive ends. The day I believe this isn’t a one-sided embrace of progress is the day I see an aristocrat taking on the role of surrogate on behalf of one of us.


Image: This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.