May 29, 2023 - 3:00pm

Khloé Kardashian has revealed that she struggled to bond with the baby she procured via surrogacy. Having paid someone else to gestate for her, the reality TV star reports that “I definitely buried my head in the sand during that pregnancy” and “didn’t digest what was happening”. Kardashian says that “when I went to the hospital that was the first time it really registered.”

The segment in the latest series of The Kardashians sees Khloé acknowledge that in effect she bought a baby, calling it “such a transactional experience”. And, centrally, that none of this was in the baby’s interests: “it is not about him”. No, indeed. Surrogacy often is, as many of its critics point out, more about the needs of the adults than those of the baby. 

A baby’s needs are fundamental and unchanging. A newborn cannot survive on its own. This isn’t just about physical care: a considerable body of research shows that maternal attunement plays a crucial role, from birth, in laying the foundations of healthy psychic development. In other words, Donald Winnicott said, ‘There is no such thing as a baby”, for “a baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship”. 

Some argue that it’s a patriarchal myth that mothers possess an extra capacity to be attuned to a baby. After all, dads and adoptive parents also love their children. From this perspective, why should a surrogate mother not be just as good as a birthing one? Well, it’s true that there is some evidence that non-birthing caregivers become similarly attuned to their baby. But (and from the perspective of a newborn, it’s a big but) research shows that while non-gestating parents undergo similar neurological changes to a pregnant woman, this takes longer, and comes via contact with the baby. In contrast, the physiological process of pregnancy doesn’t just create a baby; it also creates a mother, priming the pregnant woman for attunement to and devoted care of her newborn. 

So we can’t simply say that because some babies need adoptive parents, the relationship between birth mother and baby is of no importance. Adoption involves a baby who is already there. For such a baby, the choice is between a non-maternal caregiver or not surviving at all. Humans’ ability to develop loving attunement to non-related infants means more babies are able to survive, and be raised in loving homes. Unless we’re returning to the Roman practice of exposing unwanted babies, in these circumstances a non-maternal caregiver is clearly better. 

But babies who must be adopted will inevitably suffer some measure of attunement deficit, until their caregiver develops the same level of attentive devotion through contact and caregiving as would normally be primed by pregnancy. And while this is better than nothing for an adopted baby, gestational surrogacy involves conceiving a child in the full knowledge that he or she will experience this rupture of a fundamental bond, and subsequent deficit of attunement. 

Khloé Kardashian tacitly acknowledges the harm this does, saying, “I felt really guilty that this woman just had my baby and I take the baby and go to another room and you are separated”. Her choice of phrase is telling: she says “my baby”, but also “you are separated”. In other words, there was a “you” — a mother-baby dyad that did not include her, and that had to be destroyed in order for the baby to become “my baby”. 

But while this might have been transactional, Kardashian says, “it doesn’t mean it is bad or good. It is just very different.” Actually no, Khloe. It’s not “just very different”. Surrogacy bakes mother-loss into a baby’s earliest experience — and inflicts this loss on a profoundly vulnerable infant, in the name of adult desire. Parents have a duty to put their children’s needs first. This is an inexcusable inversion of that duty.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.