The Sad Tale of Baby Donna and Her Three Mothers

Solomon in all his wisdom settled a dispute between two women about a child whom they both claimed to be theirs. He did so by appealing to natural law, knowing that the true mother would rather relinquish her claim to the baby than harm it. Now, however, we are living in different times, an enlightened age where wisdom of Solomon’s kind is regarded as backward and natural law has been abolished. The Belgian and Dutch courts are being pressured to solve a dispute about baby Donna. Two women are claiming they are little Donna’s rightful mother by virtue of a deal with the baby’s real mother.

The story is that of a would-be “surrogate” mother (the Dutch word draagmoeder translates literally as “carrying mother”). An Blomme (32, unemployed and a mother of three) is a Belgian married woman who agreed to carry a child to term on behalf of a couple of “parents by volition” (wensouders translates as “longing-to-be parents”) after artificial insemination with sperm from the “father by volition” (wensvader). The “mother by volition” (wensmoeder), one Geertrui Praet (41), a Belgian schoolteacher, longed to give Bart Philtjens (32), a fellow schoolteacher nine years her junior and her second partner, a child “of her own,” but could not do so as she had had herself sterilized after deciding she had given her first partner, whom she divorced, enough children of her own (namely three) in a former marriage.

Surfing the internet Geertrui Praet found An Blomme willing to carry a child through pregnancy for them. A sample of Bart Philtjens’ sperm was sent to her. Everything seemed to go smoothly until the sixth month of An’s pregnancy, when the two couples quarrelled and An no longer wished to relinquish the child. First she claimed the child’s father was her own husband, saying that she had not used the sperm. Later she told the “volitional parents” that she had lost the baby. The latter was a lie, however, and the baby was born on 26 february. An Blomme and her husband were officially registered as its parents and the little girl was handed over right away to a childless couple from the Netherlands, whom An had found willing to adopt the baby when she was in her seventh month. The foster parents gave baby Donna her name and are currently going through the normal procedures to become Donna’s adoptive parents.

Meanwhile, however, Geertrui Praet and Bart Philtjens, the “volitional parents”, have lodged a complaint against An Blomme. Last Friday, a Belgian juvenile court judge ordered the baby to be brought back to Belgium and handed over to them, arguing that this is “in the child’s interest.” Baby Donna’s Dutch foster parents refuse to do so and intend to keep the baby. “Only a Dutch court can decide the matter,” says their lawyer.

The Belgians have seen the whole story unfold in the press and on TV through regular interviews with the surrogate mother (who is also the biological mother) and with the volitional mother, and since last Friday also with the Dutch adoptive mother.

The story coincides with debates in the Belgian Parliament, where I am a member, about a bill which aims to legalise the adoption of children by homosexual married couples (adoption by singles of any sex or sexual predilection is already legal in Belgium). It emerged that in her search for adoptive parents after falling out with the “volitional parents,” An Blomme had offered the baby for adoption to a pair of Belgian homosexuals before deciding to let the Dutch couple have it.

As the story unfolded, proponents of adoption by homosexual couples, who originally held that no government action was needed with respect to “surrogate” pregnancies and births, changed their stance and are now clamouring for government regulation which would make it impossible for those who agree to be “surrogate” mothers to change their minds about relinquishing their child in the course of their pregnancy and after giving birth.

Bizarre Aspects
One of the most striking aspects of the debate is the degree to which all these bizarre attitudes and situations are treated as normal, while attitudes and behaviour that have always been regarded as rightful and natural are denied recognition:

  • A judge pleads the case of a third party who have no legal claim whatsoever to interfere in the life of a child whose natural parents are officially registered and whose foster parents are following the legal procedures for adoption. Apparently the fact that they wanted the baby and that it was at one point promised to them is sufficient to make them the rightful parents;
  • A woman is denied her natural claim to motherhood of the child she has conceived, carried and delivered, while the claim of a couple who has no legal or actual relationship with the mother or the child, apart from the fact that the man donated the sperm which may have caused her pregnancy (though the latter fact is still under dispute), is regarded as a rightful reason to disrupt the life of the child and go against the wishes of its mother. This precedence of the claim of the male third party, whose sperm may have been used, over that of the natural mother is all the stranger when one considers the fact that otherwise sperm donation in Belgium is always anonymous, excluding any possibility of claiming biological fatherhood and having a say in the lives and destinies of the children begotten from this sperm. Its anonymous sperm banks make Belgium a favoured destination for foreign lesbian couples seeking motherhood without male involvement;
  • A woman volunteers to carry a baby through pregnancy for an unknown other woman whom she meets through the internet, but the only thing that shocks the Belgian press is the fact that she is doing it for money. Apparently it is perfectly acceptable that both women, though mothers themselves, can regard pregnancy and birth as impersonal technical procedures that are not influenced by, and have no influence on physical, mental, emotional or psychological conditions of themselves or their families, both during pregnancy and birth and in the years to follow.

As the debate starts up in parliament and the various political parties are being forced to adopt positions, it is clear that most party leaderships share these bizarre attitudes. When the topic was brought up in my own group the women present (all mothers) were told that the fact that we were women, and our experience as mothers, should not be allowed to “distort” our views. The party’s official position was determined by a handful of men who decided to speak out against “commercialization” but sympathise with any reform that would “help” people who wanted children to get them free of cost through the services of “surrogate mothers.” We women were not given the opportunity to point out that this position entailed expecting women to go through pregnancy and birth on behalf of strangers for charity, no matter how their own lives were affected.

Most commentators and political parties seem to agree that the government should have the right to separate the would-be “surrogate” mothers from their unborn babies should they dare to bond with them and change their minds about giving them up in the course of pregnancy and birth. In the coinciding parliamentary debate on adoption rights for homosexual couples proponents reiterate that there is no reason to assume that the latter would not make “good parents” and that many “biological” parents (the general term for natural parents in these discussions) are not really “good” parents at all. These false arguments dominate the debate, and the logical conclusion, that some government body should decide who will be granted the right to bring up children, has already been put forward in all seriousness by various spokesmen, including formerly conservative christian-democrat newspapers and politicians.

A lonely few attempt to put forward more fundamental arguments against condoning the legalisation of “surrogate” motherhood. Legal recognition would entail the denial of the importance of pregnancy, birth and motherhood for women’s identity, the denial of the significance of pregnancy and birth in defining a woman’s motherhood, and would essentially reduce women to the status of breeding machines, purely functional and replaceable. One would expect violent protest from the normally vocal women’s lib organisations about the latter aspect of legally regulating “surrogate” motherhood, but they have remained silent. The erstwhile feminists campaigned for decades for the recognition of women’s so-called reproductive rights: no man (husband, father, doctor or whoever) was to interfere in the decisions a woman makes concerning her own womb. Now these organisations seem to be on the side of the stranger who, by virtue of the sole fact that his sperm was involved in the conception, treats the baby as his property and the “surrogate” mother as a disposable nobody without any rights. Proof perhaps that the real concern of the feminists was never women’s rights but the destruction of traditional family values and morality. In that case we have now come full circle, from the so-called denigration of women by husbands whom the feminists claimed treated them as mere breeding machines, to the general acceptance of a practice where women are sought to function and be treated as mere breeding machines.

What is "natural"

I didn't follow the issue in the media, since I don't have a working TV. But let me comment on some general issues. The question is what is "natural" and what is "unnatural". It's largely a question of semantics, and the "naturalists" aren't short of internal contradictions either, just like the "bizarre" "unnaturalists".

There are probably more bad natural parents than there are bad adoptional parents, but that's a statistical artifact, since natural parents are the vast majority anyways. When there is a conflict about a biological parenthood and an adoptional one, it's wise to apply Solomon's paradigm. When both can present equal chances to the child (not in the materialistic sense), it's wise to prefer the biological parent. Of course, this leaves out the father. A substantial amount of "natural" fathers are actually investing their energy in some other guy's genes. We call it "adultery" now, but it's part of our "natural" fabric, over cultures, ages and other primate species.

"In the coinciding parliamentary debate on adoption rights for homosexual couples proponents reiterate that there is no reason to assume that the latter would not make “good parents” and that many “biological” parents (the general term for natural parents in these discussions) are not really “good” parents at all."

A fact of life that has also been corroborated by most studies.

"These false arguments dominate the debate, and the logical conclusion, that some government body should decide who will be granted the right to bring up children, has already been put forward in all seriousness by various spokesmen, including formerly conservative Christian-democrat newspapers and politicians."

Why false? It is a sad but inevitable fact of life that State mingles in many of our personal decisions. In pre-law cultures, this issue was solved quite empathetically and by common sense. In those societies, even marriage didn't exist, nor "rights" for children, nor taboos about children brought up by gays. It just happened. But if our State wants (and is allowed) to regulate monogamous marriage and legal rights of parents, of children, of their right to support, - it's inevitable that those rights should be extended to "bizarre" situations too.

I just have the impression your problem isn't that much about heterosexual adoption, but about the legal possibility of gays to adopt children. If your definition of "natural" is "biological", you might be surprised. Most pre-law cultures are very tolerant about upbringing by gay family members of extra children that the biological parents are unable to take care of, as long as they perceive that the child is well. If your claim is to exclude gays from legal adoption rights under the pretext of law, you should as well abolish the monogamous civil marriage since it's not "natural" either. It's a legal construct to preserve material assets. It's a cultural construct.