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Society cannot ignore surrogacy

Exploitation and dehumanisation are being normalised to a disturbing degree

Artillery Row

When I talk to people about surrogacy, I am usually met with a rather blank expression. “Oh, I’ve never really thought about that.”

What choice would she have had in such a family dynamic to say no?

Which begs the question, where do people think celebrities’ children are coming from? When you read yet another headline about a celebrity who has had a child “via surrogate”, do you think about what that means? Do you think about the mother, or the child? Children, as those of us who are parents know, do not grow on trees, nor get delivered by stork. What thought do you give to who the mother might be, and what becomes of her, in the arrangements so popularised by Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Elton John and David Furnish, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas?

Monitoring cases of surrogacy, surrogacy agencies, and accounts which promote the practice, I am used to seeing shocking images every day. Women are referred to as “gestational carriers”; surrogate mothers refer to themselves as “microwaves”, “ovens” and “extreme babysitters”. Notable for their absence is usually any mention of the rights and needs of children, to say nothing of the societal implications for all women if surrogacy can become to be seen as something you can just ask a woman in your social circle to do for you.

Along with other campaigners, I have known for a while of several cases where grooming of the surrogate mother, and downright coercion, came into play in inducing the woman to carry a child for another couple. These instances are in the UK, where we supposedly have an “altruistic” model of surrogacy.

Yesterday, following a week of revelations which included a controversial YouTube influencer revealing he and his partner have had twins with a surrogate mother, I was left lost for words when I read an account in the Guardian’s US edition, about a woman who had embarked on a “surrogacy journey” via the “gracious” help of a friend.

The “help” had not been proffered by the woman in question. She had been put forward by her own husband. Written in the article, in black and white, were the following words: “the woman who graciously became our surrogate had been offered up for duty by her husband, a friend of my husband’s, hastily and without her knowledge.” The commissioning couple would later sell their home to be able to afford the mother’s surrogacy fees.

One does not have to be a specialist in coercive control to understand the dynamics of the situation. A man saw an opportunity to make tens of thousands of dollars, and he took it. To hell with the physical, emotional and mental cost to his wife; he decided, in that moment, that she would do this. What choice would she have had in such a family dynamic, married to such a man, to say no? The comment was made in a feature on the fertility treatment experiences of black women — more than 40 per cent of whom in the US, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, experience intimate partner physical violence in their lifetimes.

The article featured four women, all talking directly about their various fertility treatments. No analysis was offered by the paper of the comments, and no rebuttal provided by the journalist behind the piece, nor challenge made. How anyone could safely assume after reading that piece, that commercial surrogacy is always an arrangement women willingly enter into, is beyond me.

This is what frequently happens in surrogacy, and nobody says a word about it. Children are conceived as embryos in one country and taken to another to be implanted into a surrogate mother whom they will likely never see again after birth, before being removed to their commissioning parents’ country of origin. We know of one case where an embryo was created in Ireland, frozen, shipped to Ukraine then, when war broke out, flown to the US to be implanted into and born to an American woman, before the child was taken “home” to Ireland. The child’s name “meaning ‘leaping water’ representing the many trips to many countries she made as a tiny embryo”.

She gave heartbreaking testimony on being born to a surrogate mother

Ireland, coincidentally, stands on the cusp of ratifying the most liberal legislation regarding importing of children born through commercial surrogacy in the European Union. That well known bastion of women’s equality has apparently found a modern way to take children from their mothers and hand them over to wealthy couples. Whilst commercial surrogacy will still be banned in the country, bringing a child in Ireland through commercial surrogacy will be endorsed. Something that is apparently (and rightly) unacceptable to ask of Irish women, is fine for poorer women abroad to be expected to endure.

The changes include allowing for a system of pre-approval for international surrogacy agreements, meaning the commissioning parents are recognised as being their parents’ children by the Irish State before they are even born or in the country — making it far harder in practice for a mother to change her mind. Little attention appears to have been paid to the risks that women are coerced into surrogacy arrangements, or how much the women’s own poverty may act as a motivator. The perniciousness of the issue is further compounded by the fact that Senator Mary Seery Kearney, who is championing the legislation, herself had a daughter with a surrogate mother in 2015. The surrogate mother lived in India, where the practice was later banned for foreigners in 2019.

Scrutiny in the Irish press appears lacking; questions which are asked only appear to come from the perspective of those who wish to have children this way. But for the opposition voiced by a small handful of women’s rights groups, these changes will apparently pass into law, effectively unopposed.

This is far too important an issue to go unnoticed by the wider public anymore. We stand on the cusp of a future public scandal, akin, in my view, to forced adoption. The adult children born of surrogacy are already speaking out. Last month, Olivia Maurel, a French woman born to a US surrogate mother, addressed a meeting of the Czech parliament. She gave heartbreaking testimony on the life she has led in the shadow of being born to a surrogate mother. In the US, others are beginning to do the same.

When the Guardian and other papers publish articles that specifically show how women can be pushed into surrogate pregnancies, regardless of whether they want to be, nobody can say any longer that this issue is “hiding in plain sight”. It isn’t hiding at all. It’s in sight.

Enough: it is time for society to speak out against this trade in human children, and exploitation of women’s bodies. What say you?

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