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Artillery Row

Miriam Cates is right about surrogacy

It is a fundamentally dishonest and exploitative practice

Much ado in Westminster this week, following the revelation by Miriam Cates MP, in a wide ranging interview in The House Magazine, that, like Pope Francis, she supports a ban on surrogacy. 

“Anger as top Tory MP and mum of three Miriam Cates calls for surrogate baby ban”, screamed a Daily Mail headline. And yet, looking at the responses to Ms Cates’ mild assertion that “to deliberately bring a child into the world in order to separate it from its mother at birth … is just ethically not acceptable” I didn’t see much anger, more indifference, if anything. 

If this all seems a bit left field, or you’re coming to the issue of surrogacy afresh you would be forgiven for wondering why Ms Cates is exercised by it, or why it’s suddenly loomed in to focus in the media in recent weeks. 

Surrogacy is illegal in most countries in the world, in all forms. Commercial surrogacy, where a woman is paid for surrogacy and adverts can be placed for surrogate mothers, is banned in the UK in favour of a so-called “altruistic” model. Surrogacy is only legal in a handful of US states and countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Georgia and Ukraine. It’s certainly not a standard global practice to which everyone concurs with the view of it being “just another way to have a family”, whatever its champions may tell themselves. 

Responding to Ms Cates in the Daily Mail, Chairman of the surrogacy agency Surrogacy UK, Alan White, said “surrogates don’t see themselves as mothers, they see themselves as extreme baby-sitters or looking after someone’s baby and doing that wonderful thing of doing the part of having children women or gay men can’t do for themselves.” 

Only a man could call pregnancy and childbirth “extreme babysitting”. In one sense though, Mr White may not be entirely wrong on the point of how some surrogate mothers see themselves; not as the mother, but as to use the phrase common in US surrogacy, the “gestational carrier”; doing “something amazing” for someone else, usually a someone else who just happens to be older and richer. One surrogate mother previously referred herself to me as “just the microwave”. Another in an interview with BBC’s World At One described her baby as “nothing to do with me”. The mother of one celebrity’s children said of herself “I’m basically an oven”. And it struck me to what extent surrogacy grooms women out of understanding they are the mothers of their own children. When you’re faced with hundreds of surrogacy agencies telling you you are merely a gestational carrier, or a host, doing something ‘wonderful’ for a couple or individual who longs for a baby, why wouldn’t you believe them? After all, it’s not as though many Governments or organisations around the world make much of an attempt to challenge that narrative. 

But of course, a woman is not a microwave, or an oven. Without the mother, an embryo would remain just that. A woman’s uterus is not a neutral environment, one woman’s body is not interchangeable with another’s. During pregnancy, through the process of microchimarism, cells between the mother and baby flow from one another, remaining in each other’s bodies for decades. Epigenetics determines the development of the baby in utero; meaning the environment of the specific woman’s body can encourage or inhibit the development of certain characteristics that may emanate from the genes of the commissioning parents, but that her body ultimately decides whether or not to enable to develop. This reality makes the claim that a mother is just a “gestational carrier”, or “host” all the more galling. To continue the analogy if I must, microwaves and ovens don’t generally lose parts, stop working or shut down completely while they’re baking a cake. Women in pregnancy and childbirth can, and do, die. Maternal mortality data gathered by the Oxford institute MMBRACE and released last month, showed maternal death rates in the UK have increased to levels not seen for almost 20 years. Not something you’ll see on the bright and smiley adverts for most surrogacy agencies, either here or abroad. Lexi Ellingsworth is co-founder of Stop Surrogacy Now UK, a women’s rights group concerned with the growth of surrogacy at home and abroad. She said to me “we see all the time women reduced to nothing more than body parts, wombs for hire; we hear MPs talk about the need for ‘access to surrogacy’, without remembering there’s a living, human woman involved in this process; to say nothing of the impact of being handed away at birth on her child”. 

The view that surrogate mothers are nothing to their children is all the more pernicious when you consider how many surrogate mothers in the UK use their own egg in the pregnancy, getting pregnant usually via artificial insemination. One study in 2015 featured a survey of surrogate mothers and showed that over 30 per cent of respondents to the survey had used their own egg in their pregnancies. One young woman I’m aware of in the UK at the moment is in her twenties, on her second surrogate pregnancy, and has used her own egg on both occasions; seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is planning on literally handing away her own genetic child in the process. And why wouldn’t she be? She’s been told by the agencies, and indeed, by a society at large which sanctions surrogacy, that she’s not the mother. Her child will probably be taken away from her in the delivery suite, and handed to the waiting commissioning parents, outside the oversight of social services or adoption frameworks. If this strikes you as being a glaring gap in public policy on child safeguarding, you’d be right. 

Perhaps we might look to our institutions here for some relief or a counter view? It would appear not. This month, the Royal College of Midwives will host a webinar with surrogacy agencies My Surrogacy Journey and Surrogacy UK, at which they’ll examine how the law might be eased on surrogacy (a move which this Government have already said they won’t be pursuing), and will see people who support removing a child from their mother at birth given a platform to lecture midwives on why this is acceptable, and in no way harmful to mother and child. 

You lie to a woman that she’s not the mother of her own child

If perhaps the idea of women carrying a child not genetically related to them is more tolerable, let’s consider the alternative. “Gestational” surrogacy is more common in US commercial surrogacy arrangements and involves a woman carrying a child created from an implanted embryo. Lest you think this idea is more palatable, last week I discovered that among the cocktail of IVF medications a woman must inject to sustain the pregnancy, one of the key drugs she’ll take is lupron. The drug is more famously known as the puberty blocker handed out to teenagers at the Tavistock clinic; a drug known to cause horrendous side effects, and lasting damage. And it dawned on me, just what a con this whole sorry show is. You lie to a woman that she’s not the mother of her own child, you put her through the strain of IVF so you can suppress her menstrual cycle, artificially replicate the conditions of pregnancy using strong synthetic hormones, effectively rent her body off her and potentially raise her cancer risk in doing so, then you put her through childbirth and remove the baby, often to never see her again. It’s not even uncommon in US surrogacy for women to pump breastmilk for their babies after birth, then have the milk shipped across the country. So the woman has been turned into a machine, and a milk parlour, all in one go. But it’s ok, because she’s being paid. And remember, she’s not the mum. 

Surrogacy might just be one of the biggest cons ever played against women. Convincing women that the child they grow from their own body and blood isn’t theirs, not theirs to bond with, not theirs to mourn; using their bodies for babies and milk, before leaving them behind without another thought, might just be the cruellest trick of the last fifty years. 

Miriam Cates isn’t wrong to condemn this practice. The question is, why aren’t more of our MPs joining her?

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