Two competing pictures of surrogacy vie for our support. The surrogate as a sweet lady, already a mum, who kindly has a child for a family who can’t have their own. Media stories follow this line – like the ‘Happy Hooker’ stories that sanitise prostitution. On the other hand, surrogacy portrayed as a big, expanding, hugely profitable international industry. One which exploits women in poor countries to meet western demand for designer babies.
Which is true? Look online at the masses of agencies, lawyers, and clinics worldwide waiting and wanting to bring you to surrogacy. Even neutral-sounding Surrogacy UK pushes the agenda, rather than interrogating it. Eventbrite invites you to learn more and even meet potential surrogates at an event near you. Soon. Often these are paid events, but free to potential surrogates, who are increasingly to be found in foreign countries, particularly poor women in poor countries. Inevitably it is the rich who pay and the poor who have to sell. What possible problems could there be?
Huge inequality between payer and payee creates consent problems – it’s under-informed if not downright uninformed. How can an illiterate woman in India who can’t even sign her name consent to a complex contract drawn up by and for the benefit of others? Coercion (by agencies or relatives), minimal pay and poor health care are common. Even in the West, pregnancy and childbirth carry high risks (higher in less developed countries): the woman may endanger her own health, life and/or ability to parent her own children by being a surrogate.
Standard risks just from taking fertility medications include: Ovarian Hyper Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS), ovarian torsion, ovarian cysts, chronic pelvic pain, premature menopause, loss of fertility, reproductive cancers, blood clots, kidney disease, stroke, and, in some cases, death.
Women who become pregnant with eggs from another woman are at higher risk for pre-eclampsia and high blood pressure. Is it really justifiable to put poor women through this? What are their rights? Not so easy to find out.
Children born of surrogacy technologies face known health risks including: preterm birth, stillbirth, low birth weight, foetal anomalies, and higher blood pressure. No child can consent to be surrogated and no child should be subject to such completely unnecessary risks for any reason.
Fertility drugs often create multiple pregnancies, yet only one baby may be contracted for. If twins result, one of them will have to be chosen for destruction, taking into account the gender preference of the commissioning parents. We are all for the women’s right to choose abortion, but this is a customer choosing to destroy another woman’s baby. Isn’t it abhorrent to deliberately create multiple babies only to ‘destroy’ those that are unwanted? What about the emotional effects on the mother and the rest of her family? And what about gender selection?
The emotional side of surrogacy is usually overlooked, but anyone who has carried a baby will know the close bonds that build up between mother and baby over the nine months of pregnancy. Western professionals do all they can to encourage and build on this for a calm and happy parenting experience – except with surrogacy, where it is completely disregarded. The biological link and physical closeness between mother and baby has been shown to promote healing and well-being after the trauma of birth, and the ongoing benefits of breast feeding bring long-lasting advantages. Professor Antonio Damasio has shown that you cannot make good decisions without emotion, and yet emotional trauma is being not only sanctioned but deliberately inflicted. Dr Sue Gerhardt has shown that you cannot grow a flexible brain without good attachment, and Dr Nick Duffel has studied the harms of Boarding School Syndrome as suffered by those sent away to school. How can it be right, in the face of all we know to the contrary, to deliberately and harmfully sever these critically important mother-baby links for the benefit of a third person? Even worse, where commercial surrogacy is legalised, as is currently proposed for New York State, these harms will constitute institutionalised abuse.
Hard cases make bad law, but given what we have heard so far, we must ask: are proper safeguards in place? What about the man who fathered 13 children with surrogates but was extremely rich and could pay for childcare? Is paying for childcare the same as parenting? Don’t we owe the children we create our personal time, attention, love and support as well as meeting their physical and educational needs? What about sexual abuse? Babies born ‘imperfect’ are routinely rejected and handed back to the mother who will not be paid for her ‘work’ and now has an additional, disabled child to care for.
Many countries have banned surrogacy following reports of women being exploited and kept in poor conditions, sometimes practically imprisoned, with little healthcare and no freedom of movement. Two thirds of the industry is said to operate underground, with women ‘treated like cattle’. In fact they are being farmed.
Surrogacy is also hugely profitable, costing at least $30,000 in a poorer country or upwards of £80,000 in the USA. All the agencies, clinics and law firms advertising online are businesses, not charities. Their motive is profit.
No, there are no safeguards. But there should be.
It’s time to lay down some Uncommon Ground Rules. In surrogacy one thing is certain: a child changes hands and money changes hands. A child is not an object, commodity or product, s/he is a human being, a person, and although helpless at birth and unable to consent or object to anything, is entitled to the same human rights as any other.
Since a child is not an object, no one has a right to possess one, whatever their sexuality, status or wealth. It is wrong to airbrush out the downside of surrogacy in order to fit it into a neoliberal capitalist outdated market business model for profit.
Children born of surrogacy experience psychological problems as they grow up. Those who are told their origins may feel lost, unsure of who they are, and yearn for the lost parent who brought them into the world. Those who are not told are often devastated when they find out, losing trust in their supposed parents and suffering feelings of loss, betrayal and uncertainty. Many become Donor Detectives, seeking to find their birth mum. Why, they wonder, do adopted children have the right to know who bore them, but they do not. If they find out that they are one of dozens of children fathered by a sperm donor, they may feel unvalued, unimportant, a product not a person. No child can consent to this and no child should be subjected to it.
The UK government recently consulted the public prior to reconsidering our law on surrogacy. Like many countries, the UK does not currently allow paid surrogacy – you can only offer someone who carries a child for you reasonable expenses. Surely the government consultation would have considered the basic questions about surrogacy: is it a good thing, is it open to abuse, are everyone’s rights protected, what can go wrong?
The UK government consultation asked none of these questions. It unilaterally assumed that surrogacy is acceptable. The rights of the child were not even mentioned. The customer is always right.
These are just a few of the problems with surrogacy. Sadly it is so profitable that dissenting voices are usually silenced. To find out more, come to the only UK Surrogacy Conference to focus on the rights of women and children on Sunday 22nd March in central London. Hear an international panel of experts including Kajsa Ekis Ekman from Sweden (where surrogacy is banned) explore the grim underbelly of surrogacy.
Make up your own mind. Learn more at the UK’s first ever Surrogacy Conference to focus on the rights of women and children.
Janice Williams is the Chair of OBJECT