Since the disgraceful Baby Gammy case last year, in which an Australian couple left a twin boy with his birth mother when it was discovered he had Down’s syndrome, Thailand has banned foreigners and same-sex couples from accessing surrogacy services. Now only married heterosexuals are allowed to use surrogates, with at least one of the couple required to be Thai. No one is allowed to gain financially from the transaction.
But will this shift in legislation put an end to the inherent abuse in what can be described as womb trafficking? I doubt it. In order to put a stop to this increasingly normalised practice, we need to understand the reality of what surrogacy entails.
Commercial surrogacy breeds exploitation, abuse and misery. Although the poster girl of surrogates is typically a white, blonde, smiling women who is carrying a baby in order to make a childless couple happy, the truth is far less palatable.
Women in the global south are often pimped by husbands and criminal gangs into renting their wombs to rich western couples. For women in India for example, this is a particular problem. I have interviewed rich, white British gay couples who told me they chose India for surrogacy services because it was considerably cheaper than the US (where the surrogacy business is booming), with one couple admitting it was reassuring that the women are required to live in a clinic for the duration of the pregnancy so they can be monitored by the “brokers” throughout.
Gestational surrogates are required to take Lupron, oestrogen and progesterone medication to help achieve the pregnancy, all of which treatments can have serious side effects.
Class and racial divisions between surrogates, egg donors and the intended parents are often stark. Surrogates tend to be working class and to have already had their own children, whereas the egg donor will likely be a college graduate from an upper-class background who is considered bright and attractive. They generally earn significantly more than the surrogates.
While the gestational surrogates tend to be poor women disadvantaged in many ways, egg donors are often chosen (from catalogues) for their “strong genes” and lack of mental and physical ill health in their lineage. The process is not that far removed from eugenics.
Many agree that it is unethical to buy and sell pregnancy but support what is known as altruistic surrogacy. This is where a friend, relative or kind stranger bears a child for an infertile woman or couple simply out of the goodness of her heart.
The argument goes that if we do not accept altruistic surrogacy and put measures in place to regulate it, we will drive commercial surrogacy underground. But the opposite is true. The legal sanctioning and social acceptance of this practice, even where no money changes hands, will further perpetuate the notion that the wombs of poor women can be used as a service.
As in Thailand, the law has been changed in India, another popular spot for British couples seeking commercial surrogacy. Now it is required that prospective parents looking to engage a surrogate must be a “man and woman [who] are duly married and the marriage should be sustained at least two years”.
Alongside many feminist and human rights campaigners, I wish to see an end to commercial surrogacy and a serious, honest discussion about the ethics of all forms of outsourcing pregnancy, particularly in a world awash with unwanted and neglected babies and children.
We also need to pose a challenge to the increasing numbers of gay men who think it perfectly acceptable to use the womb of a desperate woman in order to reproduce. Indeed, this method of making babies is fast becoming the number-one option for gay men, which means the practice will become more normalised, and be seen even as a “right” for those who cannot conceive in the traditional manner.
However, the Thai and Indian ban on same-sex couples from accessing surrogacy is nothing short of discrimination and anti-gay bigotry. An end to this harmful practice in all but private, one-to-one circumstances would be what true equality looks like.
QotD: “Commercial surrogacy is a rigged market in wombs for rent”