56 babies born to surrogate mothers in the Ukrainian BioTexCom clinic for parents from China, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Bulgaria and Romania wait for their biological parents who can't reach Ukraine due to borders closures during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto)

The war for wombs

The surrogacy industry has made women’s bodies into a battleground

Artillery Row

As the Russo-Ukrainian war rages on, the casualties continue to pile up. Loss of life, destruction of buildings and livelihoods, and further fuel has been added to the culture war fire with Vladimir Putin bizarrely seeking to paint himself as a victim of “cancel culture” by alluding to an entirely-fictional common ground shared between himself — a despotic war criminal — and best-selling author, philanthropist and target of innumerable absurd Twitter hate-campaigns, JK Rowling.

Ukraine has a long and troubling history with the womb-for-rent trade

There are very few, if any, victors in war. Of course, inevitably one “side” suffers greater loss than another, but the consequences of military combat extend far beyond “just” the battlefield. It is increasingly understood that women and children are affected disproportionately during and after war, facing increased vulnerability to the most heinous of human rights abuses, including sexual violence and exploitation. One of the clearest examples of this in Ukraine, is the catastrophic consequences the conflict has had for women exploited within the surrogacy trade.

Ukraine has a long and troubling history with the womb-for-rent trade: the industry is totally legalised, and the legislation favours the “intended parents” (the couple who will ultimately take the child home after purchasing him or her). As with other industries that profit from the commodification of women’s bodies, many self-styled progressives pin their colours to the mast of industry regulation under the guise that “laws can be put in place to protect people and give them rights they wouldn’t ordinarily have”.

This tunnel-vision approach to surrogacy ignores the crushing economic exploitation that results from an industry built upon a free-market approach where women and children are both the “product” and the “factory”. To understand why exploitation should even be a consideration when it comes to the surrogacy trade, it is imperative to understand this economic reality.

Ukraine has proved to be a popular destination for intended parents who otherwise wouldn’t be able to rent the womb of a woman in an even more commercialised jurisdiction such as the United States — which has the highest fees for surrogacy in the world. Additionally, the intended parents are considered “parents in law” from the moment of conception.

The surrogate is considered nothing more than a vessel that produces a child for purchase. She has no legal right over the child, and is not named anywhere on the birth certificate. She is as anonymous as she is legally inexistent, erased from the process as if she never existed at all.

Marketplaces of human bodies pop up, where less regulation means cheaper fees

The women who carry these children often do so because of extreme economic vulnerability; they require the measly sums being paid in order to live. The wealth accumulated at the top of the economic pyramid — in places like the US, where those who “choose” to be surrogates are sometimes, although not always, rewarded handsomely — means those who wish to become buyers in what is a sanitised form of human trafficking, but lack the requisite capital, are pushed to seek out cheaper options.

Consequently, marketplaces of human bodies such as Ukraine and India pop up, where less regulation means cheaper fees, and the economic “reward” for the surrogate mothers is reduced accordingly. The women are more desperate and vulnerable, and therefore more willing, if you could even use such a term, to accept diminished payment. This in turn increases the popularity of the country as a production site for babies, which feeds into an overall increase of the market.

There have already been disastrous examples where things have not gone to plan. Whilst the heart of the progressive surely bleeds for the poor couple who have not managed to go through with the purchase of another human without running into problems, little consideration is seemingly given to the woman who has actually carried the child or, indeed, the child itself.

In the case of Re X and Y (Foreign Surrogacy), due to various legal obstacles arising at the last minute (which meant the intended parents could not travel to Ukraine to collect their children, as if they were products rattling around in a customs office) and Ukrainian law not recognising the birth mother in any capacity, “…the children were marooned stateless and parentless whilst the applicants could neither remain in the Ukraine nor bring the children home”. The woman who had carried the children had no legal rights at all, and the children were at great risk of being left entirely without a family.

This is not just an isolated horror story. The Covid-19 lockdown meant that huge numbers of children were left in similarly precarious situations. The women who had carried these children to term were faced with the emotional trauma of having to give their children away after caring for them because the intended parents weren’t permitted to travel. One mother, Liudmyla, stated: “I didn’t want to give her away, I was crying”.

19 babies were kept alive in a basement, as intended parents could no longer travel to Ukraine

In an entirely predictable turn of events, the Russian invasion has had an equally devastating effect on these women. The New York Times recently reported that the macabre story of 19 babies being kept alive in a basement by nannies, who had been charged with their welfare, as the intended parents could no longer travel to Ukraine to take them back to their country of residence. This is just one example of women and children being nothing more than collateral damage for couples who see babies as products to be bought, and the women who carry them as workplaces to be rented out.

It is difficult to envision what could be done to tackle this vile industry, as it is by its very nature international and multi-jurisdictional in its exploitation. Perhaps looking closer to home in the interim can yield results: in the UK, commercial surrogacy is not permitted, but “altruistic surrogacy” where the women who carry the children are afforded “reasonable expenses” is allowed.

The legal framework here is convoluted and contains glaring loopholes, which provides the initial impetus for couples to look abroad in the first place. We should not find comfort in constructed narratives about “women who want to be surrogates”, when this ignores the political and practical consequences of advocating for the normalisation of the industry: the most impoverished women reduced to childbearing commodities, producing children to be bought like livestock in a marketplace. The industry should be opposed and abolished on all fronts.

When the legislation governing surrogacy was introduced, it was asked: “What kind of society can we praise and admire? In what sort of society can we live with our conscience clear?”

Not one where wombs are for rent, and children are for sale.

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