“A lovely gay couple are desperate to have their own child. I love being pregnant and have offered to carry their baby. What is wrong with me making that choice?”
This was a question put to me recently, in the course of a live debate on the rights and wrongs of surrogacy, by a woman who runs a surrogacy brokering service in the United Kingdom – a service that connects so-called “commissioning parents” with potential surrogates in countries where commercial surrogacy is legal.
My answer was: “Women are conditioned to be ‘nice’ and to sacrifice ourselves for others. Pregnancy is a major endeavour, and surrogacy can cause complications and carries health risks. Why do so many believe that it is a ‘right’ for anyone to have their own biological child?”
My opponent at that debate, who is an active participant in the surrogacy business, clearly believes in that “right”. But is being able to have a baby via a surrogate – even when the surrogate is fully consenting, properly compensated and cared for – really a human right? Could the surrogacy industry, which is built on the commodification of the female body, ever be truly free of exploitation?
The short answer, based on the testimonies of countless surrogate mothers I interviewed over the years, is no.
In places where for-profit surrogacy is legal, from California and New York to Ukraine and Mexico, disadvantaged women are being turned into wombs for hire with no consideration for their human rights.
In these jurisdictions, where surrogacy is seen as a simple business transaction, the surrogate mother is often required to sign an agreement which gives “commissioning parents” pretty much complete control over her life and body throughout the entire pregnancy. These women are left to deal with any pregnancy-related health issues alone after the baby is born, and often find themselves settling for far less money than what was originally agreed, especially when there are complications, or if a miscarriage occurs.
Some may say while a lax legal framework and a lack of oversight by authorities could lead to abuse in the commercial surrogacy industry, in places like the UK where women are not allowed to carry babies for monetary compensation, this is not really an issue.
But bans on commercial surrogacy never fully eliminate the coercive, commercial element inherent to this practice. In countries where commercial surrogacy is against the law, surrogate mothers who volunteer to carry and birth a baby are still paid “expenses” by “commissioning parents” – up to £15,000 ($18,000) in the UK, for instance. While this sum may appear inconsequential to some, for many women, who are destitute or in desperate need of more financial independence, it can be life-changing. This means there is always a coercive element to surrogacy, even in places where the practice is not officially commercialised and only women who volunteer for the job are allowed to become surrogate mothers.
There is also never much consideration for how a surrogate mother (either financially motivated or volunteer) may feel when the time comes for her to hand over the baby she just birthed. Perhaps commissioning parents assume that the surrogate mother is completely detached from the child she grew in her womb for nine months because she signed an agreement to give him or her up.
How utterly naive and devoid of compassion.
While many women enter into surrogacy arrangements convincing themselves that they would merely be carriers, they eventually found themselves traumatised and devastated by having to give the baby up.
One of the saddest stories I came across while researching this topic was of a surrogate mother who gave birth to twins for a wealthy American couple in Ukraine. As is usual, her contract stipulated that she was not allowed to hold the babies after they were born, and must give them up immediately. But the couple was held up in transit, and she was asked to breastfeed the babies in hospital until their arrival. Unsurprisingly, once she got to spend some time with them, the mother’s bond with the babies grew stronger. When the commissioning parents finally arrived to collect the babies, she was so distraught at the prospect of giving them up that she tried to escape from the hospital with them.
More and more people around the world, from gay couples and heterosexuals with fertility struggles to well-off women who simply do not want to be burdened by pregnancy, are choosing to pay for surrogacy services as a way of accessing parenthood. With “my body, my choice” feminists enthusiastically embracing surrogacy as an act of empowerment and inclusion, the abusive practice of outsourcing pregnancy to underprivileged and marginalised women is becoming widely accepted, and even mainstream.
In public discussions about surrogacy, the hypothetical surrogate mother is always a healthy, happy, young woman who enjoys being pregnant and finds joy in helping an infertile couple have children. She gives birth to a healthy baby without any complications, hands the baby to its “legal” parents without any distress, and goes on her merry way.
Real life is rarely, if ever, this straightforward.
I’m sure there really are women who carry babies for their relatives, friends or even strangers without expecting anything in return and find the experience rewarding.
Yet the overwhelming majority of women who sign up to become a surrogate mother, including those in jurisdictions where commercial surrogacy is illegal, do so because of poverty – the surrogacy industry, in its entirety, is nothing but a reproductive brothel.
Supporters of surrogacy, just like supporters of prostitution, claim that monetary incentive does not equal coercion and that “womb work” is work like any other. But could growing new life in your womb, birthing that life with great risk to your own wellbeing, and then handing it over to the person who commissioned it ever be considered just another type of “work”?
Is the inside of a woman’s body really an acceptable workplace? Can a few atypical examples, where everyone, including the surrogate mother, gains from the experience, allow us to overlook the grave consequences of the commercialisation of wombs, for society in general and women in particular?
Some years ago, during a research trip to California, I met a woman called Jayne.
She told me she once agreed to be a surrogate for a wealthy couple because she was trapped in an abusive marriage with a man in the army, and was desperate to earn some money and leave the house they shared in the military barracks. Treated appallingly from the outset, Jayne was banned from riding a bicycle, having sex, or attending medical appointments alone. She was told what to eat and drink. All of this was written into a legal contract which included an instruction to give up the baby immediately – without ever even holding it. Jayne was also required to undergo a caesarean birth so that the child could be delivered on a date convenient to the commissioning parents.
“I felt like a cow on a farm,” she told me. “My body was not mine, it belonged to them. I honestly had never felt so powerless in my life.”
I met so many women, just like Jayne, who have been severely traumatised by their experience as surrogate mothers. Unfortunately, we rarely hear from them. The surrogacy industry and its many supporters focus their attention on the feelings and desires of “commissioning parents”, and fail to pay any attention to the suffering of the women who make it all possible.
People defend those renting wombs saying everyone has a “right” to parenthood. They ask, how can gay men have biological children if not through surrogacy? Wouldn’t it be homophobic to take this opportunity away from them? Also what about women who cannot carry a pregnancy to term for whatever reason, should they never experience motherhood?
Well, for everyone who has the means to pursue surrogacy, including gay couples, adoption is also an option. Nobody has the right to a biological child, regardless of their sexuality or sex. The use of impoverished women’s bodies for the benefit and convenience of those claiming parenthood as “their human right” is anathema to women’s liberation.
Whether it is altruistic or for-profit, surrogacy is exploitation – it turns the female body into a commodity for hire. Those gushing about the joy surrogacy brings to the lives of commissioning parents, and claiming it is a “human right” to have a biological child, should take some time to consider the many wrongs being done to the women used as surrogates.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.