Bioethics Blogs

Words Matter: “Hired womb” vs “Birth Mother”

Abby Lippman argues that the words used to describe third-party reproduction express social values and can have serious implications for the health and wellbeing of women and children — and for how we discuss Quebec and Canadian regulatory changes now underway.


Before any discussion of “surrogacy” policy and practice begins in Canada, it is imperative that we attend to the very words we use. In general conversation, a “surrogate” is a stand-in, someone functioning in lieu of another. To apply this term to a pregnant woman is to make assumptions that perhaps fly in the face of social, biological, and psychological realities.

A pregnant woman is a pregnant woman, point finale. What she does with the baby born at the end of the pregnancy may then determine what her role is and has been in its conception and gestation.

In situations where a woman has been contracted with or without financial compensation to undertake a pregnancy with the child born to be given to another, one might, perhaps, talk of a “gestational pregnancy” – one woman has had a pregnancy instead of another. But calling that woman a surrogate is not appropriate.

Moreover, even the word “surrogacy” is contested, with some people urging a distinction between “traditional surrogacy” (where the woman is genetically related to the child to whom she gives birth) and “gestational surrogacy” (where the woman is not genetically related to the child to whom she gives birth).  At the present time, both practices are legally permitted in Canada if the arrangements are altruistic.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.