Protest against surrogacy in Paris (Photo by Julien De Rosa / AFP)
Artillery Row

Your body, my choice

The bodies of women and babies are freely traded in our dystopian modern marketplace

Long before Sarah and Abraham banished Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, the question of surrogacy provoked thorny ethical quandaries amongst world civilisations.

A fierce debate recently flared around the issue, after an academic paper went viral with the claim that “brain-dead” women might be used as surrogates. Just days before, an equally disturbing TikTok of a couple discussing tailoring their surrogacy candidates, based on specific physical attributes, also did the virtual rounds. The implication of both posts and surrogacy itself is that women’s bodies are a jumble sale of human hardware with an inconvenient human attached. 

In centuries past surrogacy would broadly consist of an enslaved woman carrying her biological child, then passing it onto a married couple following birth, usually consisting of its genetic father and an adoptive mother. 

Babies carried via surrogacy are often abandoned or forcibly aborted

Modern technology has provided more convenient options for couples or singles who do not wish to naturally conceive, or cannot. It implants fertilised embryos into a woman who will carry the baby to term, before handing it over. 

The practice has consequently boomed in recent decades, usually as busy, wealthy Western couples seek to outsource their fertility to impoverished women in faraway countries. In part due to the international nature of the industry, there are no exact figures on how many children are delivered via surrogacy, but as of 2012 the industry was estimated to be worth an estimated $6bn (£4.7bn) annually. As of 2022, this had jumped to $14 billion.

Purchasing couples can demand how their surrogate urinates, what music she may listen to and ban or force her to travel. They can say whether her life should be prioritised over the unborn child in the event of a medical emergency.

Babies carried via surrogacy are abandoned or forcibly aborted for many reasons or none at all: skin colour, weight, premature birth, physical or intellectual disabilities, sex or even because, in the case of twins or triplets, there are “too many” of them. The desperate women carrying the child(ren) will be paid less or not at all if the purchasing couple believes their demands have not been met. They can even blame the surrogate for a miscarriage. Medical staff and other middlemen are instructed to refer to the pregnant woman as a surrogate rather than a mother, compounding the dissociative charade.

Thumbnails of couples with veneer-white grins, cradling newborns, linger above thousands of headlines of celebrities and civilians alike acquiring children through the process. Unsurprisingly the exploited woman, who will often make less than a year’s salary from the life-changing process, is almost always left out of the shot. Gay and infertile couples are strewn across this pernicious lobby’s PR packs, with the implication that criticising this apparatus of exploitation is itself a genre of bigotry. 

The most popular process for couples unable to naturally reproduce — adoption — is not free from corruption or flaws. Yet adoption is different in two key ways. Firstly, it is altruistic in that it ought to provide a preexisting child with caring parents, prioritising the vulnerable over the powerful, a moral tenet that the surrogacy industry inverts. Secondly, the legal routes to adoption generally ensure an extensive list of safeguarding criteria, whilst in surrogacy cases one needs only to have enough money to become a parent. 

Surrogacy can never satisfy all parties because it is inherently predatory

In 2014 controversy erupted in Australia after the father of two twins born to a Thai surrogate — one of which was abandoned by the purchasing couple due to being born with Down’s Syndrome — was found to have 22 convictions for child sexual abuse. He remained the child’s legal parent until his death in 2020. How many such cases are playing out this minute, given the depressingly low rates of conviction for sex crimes in most jurisdictions? Is it any surprise that over the past decade, a slew of countries from India to Thailand have outlawed the industry, forcing it to shift to countries in Africa and Eastern Europe where women can be paid as little as 10,000 pounds per pregnancy?

Commercial surrogacy remains illegal in the UK, but there is a growing lobby to normalise its horrors under a flimsy veneer of altruism. 

A new report from the Law Commission of England and Wales proposes shifting the UK’s surrogacy laws in favour of commissioning parents, with apparently minimal consultation with women or regard towards surrogate mothers and children. Whilst the proposals thankfully maintain that commercial surrogacy remains illegal on British soil, they complain that purchasing parents often wait for up to a year to become the legal parents of a child obtained via surrogacy. This must change to aid the “best interests of any of the people involved”. 

The UK should instead learn from Italy’s approach. Georgia Meloni’s right-wing coalition is finally making moves to clamp down on couples who travel overseas to commission surrogates, with a draft bill proposing those who do so face a minimum of two years in jail or a heft of €1 million fine. Whilst surrogacy has been outlawed in Italy for almost two decades, the government bizarrely permits the buying and selling of wombs if they happen to be located overseas — just as Britain does.

The Law Commission seems intent on ignoring the reality that surrogacy can never fulfil the desires of all parties because the practice is inherently predatory. The Commission’s latest advice is little more than a push to strengthen the rights of purchasing parents, disguised as progress. It is high time the UK had a serious debate about clamping down on surrogacy, not expanding it.

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