Surrogacy at the crossroads: The lure of commercial baby farming

This is a transcript of a podcast interview with Anna Fisher, in which she provides a feminist critique of surrogacy and a brief overview of the proposals that the UK Law Commission put forward in its public consultation last year and the grave concerns they throw up – including the risk that the UK will become the commercial baby farming centre of western Europe.

Anna is the current chair of Nordic Model Now! and last year led the group’s project to provide template responses to the Law Commission’s surrogacy consultation with the aim of making it easier for people who were concerned to respond.


Surrogacy seems to be in the news at the moment – not least because last year the Law Commission ran a consultation on proposals for changing the law and introducing commercial-style surrogacy in the UK.

I think most people think that surrogacy is a generous and lovely thing to do. Most people’s information on the subject comes from films and TV and these invariably present surrogacy through the eyes of an infertile couple. So, there’s great emphasis on the pain and anguish of not being able to have a baby of your own and usually this media narrative presents the greatest obstacle as the risk that the birthing mother won’t hand over the baby. But we know it’s not as straightforward as that, right?

Exactly. As you say, surrogacy is overwhelmingly portrayed in the mainstream media as unproblematic and through rose-tinted spectacles. Lately there seem to have been endless stories about gay men and straight couples celebrating their new surrogate baby. Many of these stories include some quite offensive statements that seem to go completely unnoticed.

For example, earlier this year there was an article in The Guardian about a single gay man who commissioned a surrogate baby in California.

He was quoted as saying:

“As far as midlife crisis purchases go, this is the best one!”

In that off the cuff remark he reveals the truth that he did in fact buy the child. He bought the baby. How shocking is that.

But it doesn’t end there, because having got the baby home, he balked at paying the actual costs of childcare, and instead hired an au pair to take care of the child for £85 a week. Does that not make your blood run cold? He buys a baby and then hires someone, almost certainly a young woman from a poor country, to take care of it, for about £2 an hour.

This is the crudest exploitation of women’s labour on top of the exploitation of women’s reproductive capacities and the buying and selling of children. These are not unrelated issues and nor are they isolated incidents. And yet The Guardian didn’t see fit to comment at all – as if such exploitation is all women should expect. This undervaluing of women and their human rights is a direct consequence of their objectification and commodification – of which surrogacy is a just one example.

Since the coronavirus lockdown, things have changed a bit – because there have been quite a few harrowing reports of surrogate born babies being looked after in makeshift nurseries in Ukraine and elsewhere because the commissioning parents weren’t able to travel to collect them.

For example, an article in The Guardian reported from Ukraine under a photo of about 17 new born babies lined up in cots in a hotel reception room – which shows that this really is baby farming. The babies were stranded, because the commissioning parents weren’t able to travel to get them.

The article painted quite a realistic picture of the dark side of the surrogacy industry in Ukraine. There was no pretense that women are becoming surrogate mothers there for altruistic reasons and the article explains quite clearly their lack of options and how they do it in a desperate attempt to lift themselves and their children out of extreme poverty – and how easily things can go wrong, and that the surrogacy contracts protect the babies rather than the birthing mothers.

It also touches on the fact that commissioning parents regularly reject babies that don’t meet their expectations. And in fact research shows that this is much more common than birthing mothers refusing to hand the child over. So, the media trope that women often refuse to hand over the child is misleading and I would argue, that is irresponsible – because it builds up pressure to change the law to prevent something that is not in fact a common problem, while making something that is a problem more likely.

Anyway, to go back to that Guardian article, it also quotes Ukraine’s ombudsman for children, who describes the system as a violation of children’s rights and who wants surrogacy services for foreign couples in Ukraine to be banned.

But this article is more an exception than the rule. The media as a whole generally repeats a misleading one-sided narrative around surrogacy.

You mention that things can go wrong – what sort of things do you mean?

Things can go wrong in various ways. But let’s look at the medical level first. Most surrogacy pregnancies are based on ‘donor’ eggs, which greatly increases the risks of obstetric complications, such as pregnancy-induced hypertension, small birthweight, gestational diabetes, intrauterine death, pre-term delivery, and Caesarean section. These additional risks are thought to be due to the mother’s immune response to the foetus because it doesn’t share her DNA.

Another risk factor is multiple births. Implanting multiple embryos is well recognised to put both the birthing mother and the baby at higher risk and is discouraged by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. And yet in surrogacy it seems to be considered an optional extra and the Law Commissioners made no provision in their original proposals for limiting the numbers of embryos that could be implanted.

The medical costs alone of managing such high-risk cases were quantified in a Californian study. It found the costs of donor egg pregnancies were several times higher in all cases, but 26 times higher for twins and 173 times higher for triplets.

Any significant increase in surrogacy in the UK, as will inevitably follow should the Law Commissioners’ proposals become law, will therefore lead to considerable additional pressure and financial burden on the NHS.

And because of this and the increased incidence of major complications, already overstretched resources will be diverted away from other labouring women, and even general surgical patients.

We’re actually seriously alarmed that the Law Commissioners don’t appear to understand the very real risks to women’s health and well-being that surrogacy poses and that they didn’t propose any measures that could reduce these risks – such as allowing only a single embryo to be transferred, introducing upper age limits for ‘surrogate’ mothers, and limiting the number of surrogate pregnancies that are allowed.

Even female dogs get better protection than the Law Commissioners are proposing for women – the Kennel Club restricts the ability of commercial dog breeders to exploit female dogs by a strict age limit and allowing no more than four pregnancies. How shocking is that? More protections for female dogs than for women in the UK! More protections for puppy farming than for human baby farming.

And there can also be profound emotional and psychological impacts on women, can’t there?

Absolutely.

The surrogacy industry promotes the misconception that the birth mother is a passive, impersonal, interchangeable incubator. This is reflected in much of the terminology – for example, in the US, the birth mother is called the ‘carrier,’ as if she is a plastic bag.

But far from being a passive, interchangeable incubator, the mother is in an active symbiotic relationship with the developing foetus and this takes place on the emotional and psychological level as much as on the physical level.

In a successful pregnancy, there’s a synchronised dance between the hormones produced by the mother and those produced by the placenta, which is the first foetal organ to develop. The mother constantly adapts to the growing foetus and provides it with nutrients and a waste disposal system, meaning the process is two way. Recent research has shown that the developing foetus physically changes the birth mother and even passes stem cells to her if she has a heart attack.

So, pregnancy is a huge investment of the birth mother’s biological and psychological resources, and a bond develops between her and the child – regardless whether she actively wishes this or not, and whether the egg was hers or provided by a donor.

Some researchers refer to the months immediately after the birth as the fourth trimester of pregnancy. Separating the mother and baby during this period has a profound impact on both of them, even when all their physical needs are adequately met. This can cause lifelong consequences for both.

Although surrogacy is not identical to adoption, there are many parallels and similarities. Studies of women who gave up babies for adoption found that they tend to suffer chronic grief for the rest of their lives and have heightened susceptibility to depression, anxiety, sleep and appetite disturbances, loss of self-confidence, feelings of rejection, and even suicide. This seems to be true even when the women voluntarily decided during the pregnancy to give the baby up for adoption.

Studies of adopted children have found that they too are susceptible to depression, anxiety, emotional and behavioural problems, relationship difficulties, and suicide and homelessness – even when their adoptive parents were loving and their basic needs were well met.

Many researchers put these difficulties down not to adoption per se but to the separation of the mother and baby – which they describe as a primal wound. There is no reason to expect the outcomes for ‘surrogate’ mothers and children to be significantly different from adoption outcomes, although so far there has been little independent and long-term research on this, partly because surrogacy on the scale we’re now seeing it, is a relatively new phenomenon.

Unfortunately, here in the UK, health authorities are under no obligation to keep accurate records of ‘surrogate’ mothers and children – making it hard, if not impossible, to conduct long-term studies of the outcomes for all the parties.

Is there not something abhorrent about encouraging women to undertake a pregnancy with the deliberate intention of giving up the baby to someone else – when the natural biological process works to create a powerful lifelong bond? This requires that she dissociates from all her natural instincts. To ask that of anyone is a violation of her fundamental human rights and it can cause enormous psychological problems.

Studies of the effects of separating primate babies from their mothers at birth suggest there is a biological basis for the negative consequences for both the baby and the mother. We meddle with these processes at our peril.

People say that the law in England and Wales currently only allows altruistic surrogacy. What exactly does that mean?

The word ‘altruistic’ means that you do something out of selfless concern for others. But even when the surrogacy arrangement is based on altruism – there’s no guarantee that it will go well.

For example, I know a woman, who I’ll call Mrs A, who became a ‘surrogate’ mother for some old family friends after her own two pregnancies had gone well, and it all went terribly wrong. She said she thought she was well-informed but in fact had no idea what she was really letting herself in for – aggressive hormone therapy prior to the embryos being implanted, emotional pressure to accept two embryos rather than one, and the very heavy toll of carrying twins from a different woman’s eggs.

She said the commissioning parents felt the unborn babies were ‘theirs’ and that they were therefore entitled to make medical decisions for her during the pregnancy and there were disagreements about how and where she should give birth and this developed into quite an unpleasant battle. The long and the short of it was, she was left with life-long injuries from the birth and severe post-traumatic stress disorder – and the relationship with the commissioning parents – who had previously been close friends – completely broke down. She now doesn’t believe any woman should ever be put in the position of being a ‘surrogate’ mother. You can find her account of what happened on the Nordic Model Now! website.

We know of other women who’ve had similar experiences – for example a young woman who was pressured by her family into being a ‘surrogate’ mother for her infertile older sister. That also all went pear shaped with the result that she’s now permanently estranged from the rest of her family.

These two cases illustrate two major problems with the reality of surrogacy – (a) how easily women are coerced into doing it, when it’s not in their best interests, and (b) that it generates a profound conflict of interests between the birthing mother and the commissioning parents, who invariably have a sense of entitlement and ownership over the foetus before it is born.

However, it becomes even more complicated as soon as money changes hands, and brokers are involved.

Under the current law in the UK, women can be paid what are called ‘reasonable expenses.’ These currently average between £12,000 and £20,000.

To put this in perspective, that’s more than a lot of teaching assistants earn in a year. And it’s considerably more than a cleaner earns who’s on £8.70 an hour and works 20 hours a week. (That works out at about £9,000 a year.)

This means that the so-called expenses can in fact amount to significantly more than many women earn in a year. Don’t tell me that that doesn’t amount to a financial incentive for many women who are struggling in poverty. Or that it won’t make people pimp out their wives or the younger women in their family for exploitation in the surrogacy industry.

So, in reality it’s not true to say that only ‘altruistic’ surrogacy is allowed in the UK. Women are already being paid significant sums to be ‘surrogate’ mothers – and in many cases, agencies are making a handsome profit – even ones that claim to be ‘not for profit.’ They’re still making a profit as that term is ordinarily understood, and they’re doing so from poor women renting their wombs, and the selling of babies – which is forbidden under international law.

How does the current law in England and Wales stand in relation to inter-country surrogacy?

Currently the legislation that governs surrogacy specifies that no payments can be made to the birthing mother other than reasonable expenses – unless the court authorises otherwise. And surrogacy cases only come to court during the application for a parental order some months after the birth of the child.

Judges are bound to rule in what they perceive to be the best interests of the child. Confronted with a baby who was born in another country in a commercial surrogacy arrangement and then brought here by the commissioning parents, judges usually approve the commercial payments even when they include a large element to a broker.

So, although it’s claimed that currently only altruistic surrogacy is allowed in the UK, in practice, commercial surrogacy has already been introduced by the back door.

The Law Commissioners claim that their proposals will make British people less likely to go abroad for surrogacy, but unfortunately, they didn’t include any proposals for banning it even when the arrangement is commercial, and involves large payments to brokers and the exploitation of vulnerable women.

We also know that foreign commissioning parents are already coming to the UK to take advantage of surrogacy here. For example, there was a case a few years back that provided shocking evidence that the COTS surrogacy agency facilitated the exploitation of British women and the trafficking of babies.

Evidence was given in court that COTS had facilitated at least 20 such arrangements for couples from abroad, mostly from countries in mainland Europe where surrogacy is banned.

The judge was concerned by the evidence and described it as the illegal traffic in babies for adoption. He said, and I quote:

“The traffic in young babies for adoption between one country and another is rightly now the subject of very strict control and is only authorised after proper and detailed scrutiny by social services and other authorities. It is therefore a matter of significant concern that COTS has been involved in these activities that have long been outside the law.” [Edited for length]

The surrogacy industry is a multi-billion dollar concern and its movers and shakers are adamant that surrogacy is completely different from adoption and so doesn’t need to be bound by the same strict rules and protections. But I totally disagree and it looks like this judge did too.

So, while the Law Commissioners proposal for what they call a ‘New Pathway’ would not officially be open to foreign commissioning parents, something like the current system would also be available for those, like foreign couples, who don’t meet the requirements for the ‘New Pathway.’ The Law Commissioners have so far proposed no measures to close these loopholes.

We shouldn’t underestimate the potential attraction of the UK as an international surrogacy destination if the proposals go ahead – particularly considering that most of our close European neighbours have a total ban on surrogacy and the NHS provides free maternity care.

Is this really what we want for Brexit Britain – Britain as the baby farming centre of Western Europe?

So, what exactly is this New Pathway that the Law Commissioners’ are proposing for the UK?

First of all, how it works at the moment is when the child is born, the birthing mother is its legal mother, and the commissioning parents must then apply to the courts for a parental order to become the legal parents of the child. Both straight and gay couples can apply for a parental order, and since 2018 single people have been allowed to as well.

This is what commissioning parents, and the brokers and lawyers hate – because it adds an element of risk – that the birthing mother will change her mind. As I mentioned earlier, this is actually not a common occurrence – in practice it is much more likely that the commissioning parents will change their minds and reject the child – but thanks to the media and the vested interests, this risk has been greatly exaggerated. And the reasoning behind the birthing mother being the legal parent has been conveniently erased from public consciousness.

Professor Hopkins, the law commissioner in charge of the surrogacy project, said on the Victoria Derbyshire show earlier this year that the key thing they were trying to achieve in their proposals was to create greater ‘certainty.’ And that can only mean certainty for the brokers and lawyers, and commissioning parents because human life and reproduction are messy. There is never certainty. There are almost infinite possibilities for things to go wrong. And their proposals do not give real protection for birthing mothers.

So, the law commissioners’ key proposal is for what they call a ‘New Pathway’ for surrogacy arrangements that fulfil certain criteria, such as:

  1. Pre-conception health and criminal record checks of the commissioning parents, the birth mother, and her partner, if she has one.
  2. Independent legal advice and what they call ‘implications counselling’ for the commissioning parents, the birth mother, and her partner, if she has one.
  3. A shallow assessment of the welfare of any child born through the arrangement. This would not include in-depth interviews or home visits such as would take place in an adoption.

Provided there are no problems with any of this, a written surrogacy agreement would then be drawn up between the commissioning parents and the birth mother, which would spell out what they will pay her. Only after that would the conception, pregnancy and birth take place.

Then, critically at the moment of birth – and the law commissioners don’t specify whether this is before or after the umbilical cord is cut – the commissioning parents would automatically become the legal parents of the child and the birth mother has only five weeks to lodge an objection to this. If she doesn’t object, that’s the end of the arrangement.

But should she object, the case will go before the court and a judge will decide supposedly in what’s the best interests of the child. But in that situation, the commissioning parents will have considerably more power, along with support from the brokers and lawyers, than the birthing mother.

Much of this is justified by the claim that one or both of the commissioning parents are the biological parent of the child because they supplied the sperm or egg.

But this notion that the egg and sperm donors are the biological parents is problematic – because it disappears the role and the relationship of the birthing mother. Without her, eggs and sperm are waste products. Most end up in the loo or wrapped in a tissue in the bin.

Why should being the source of the egg or sperm give the commissioning parents so much more power than the woman who by some miraculous process transformed them into a real live human being – when without her one way or another they would have ended up in the bin?

Why are you so opposed to this procedure that will give the commissioning parents the rights of legal parenthood at the moment of birth?

The proposed checks on the commissioning parents are to take place before the conception of the child. Not only can much change from the signing of the agreement and the child being born a year or more later but the checks are much less stringent than for adoption.

If we back up a bit, in the 1980s and 90s, international adoptions were big business. Rich people in Europe and North America sought babies to adopt in poorer countries, particularly Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Far East – where the babies are less likely to be brown or black. If you can ignore the stomach-churning racism, this might sound like a win-win situation – unwanted children in poor countries being adopted by rich people in richer countries – what could go wrong?

But in reality lots went wrong. The horror stories were endless – poor women being tricked or coerced into giving up their babies, babies being stolen from their cots, baby brokers making fortunes. In response to this reality, many countries closed their borders to international adoption and worked on developing better welfare systems and in-country adoption for children whose parents really couldn’t care for them.

And work was done at the international level. The United Nations adopted a new protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, clarifying that the sale of children is absolutely forbidden and is a violation of the child’s human rights; and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption was agreed. The UK ratified both of these conventions, which means that they are binding under international law.

The ending of the international adoption bonanza coincided roughly with the development of the big fertility industry – and the kind of people who might previously have sought an international adoption are now seeking surrogacy arrangements – and as a result the surrogacy industry is now a multi-billion dollar concern – which means that the pressure to make surrogacy arrangements legally binding are huge.

The Hague Convention is clear that the birth mother must always be the legal parent of the child she gives birth to, and that except where she is permanently unable to look after the child, any decisions about subsequently transferring legal parentage must have her freely given consent after she has recovered from the birth and be taken after full consideration of what is in the child’s best interests. This is to protect the rights of both the mother and the child.

If you think about it, in the drama of childbirth, the only relationship that is immediately indisputable is that of the mother and the baby. But the mother is undergoing an enormous biological and psychological exertion that may involve minor or major surgery. If she were not the legal parent, it would be easy for someone to take advantage of the situation and to claim a right to the baby or to override her wishes.

Anyone who has raised a child knows that it is a huge undertaking that requires enormous generosity and practical commitment. For nearly a year of her life, the birthing mother and baby exist in an extraordinary symbiosis – meaning her commitment to the baby’s well-being is already well developed when he or she is born. The presumption that the birth mother is the legal parent is therefore reasonable and just.

Removing her automatic right to be named as the legal mother of her child would not only remove an important safeguard to the child’s welfare but would also set a precedent that would inevitably impact all women down the line – because it essentially reduces the enormous biological and psychological investment of pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period to the equivalence of a man’s momentary ejaculation or a wad of cash.

And finally, as I mentioned, buying and selling babies is forbidden under binding international law. If the commissioning parents pay a woman to undergo a pregnancy and childbirth and are automatically granted legal parenthood at the moment that child is born, how is that not buying the baby? What are they paying her for otherwise? The argument that they’re paying her for a service doesn’t really wash. Because the pregnancy is of no intrinsic interest to the couple – as is evidenced by the birthing mother being called a carrier. They are only interested in the pregnancy insofar as it produces a live and healthy baby at the end of it.

The Law Commissioners claim that their proposals do not amount to buying and selling babies. But that is smoke and mirrors. Their proposals will enable the buying and selling of babies in all but name.

When we legitimise the buying of babies, it changes our understanding of a child from a unique member of a family and community, to whom we all share a responsibility – into seeing the child as the private property of one or two individuals, of no business to anyone else. This implicitly justifies society withdrawing collective resources from women and children, and the destruction of the social safety net. Commodifying children erodes the fabric of our society.

Similarly, commodifying women’s reproductive capacities reduces women to second class status. Women didn’t fight for centuries for control over their own bodies – only for a world that is so unequal that one of the few options many women have to lift themselves out of poverty is to rent out their wombs.

Surrogacy objectifies women as vehicles for the production of babies and this opens up many dangers including the exploitation of naïve or poor, marginalised, and often Black and Asian women, and creates pressures to see pregnancy simply as a means to an end product – the baby.

We should be aiming towards discouraging surrogacy, not increasing demand for it by making it easier and strengthening the legal rights of commissioning parents.

I understand that another of the Law Commissioners’ proposals is the ending of the complete ban on advertising surrogacy services. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Yes, as you say, UK surrogacy agencies and brokers are currently prohibited by law from advertising their services. The Law Commissioners have proposed totally ending this ban.

This will lead to more people wanting to take advantage of surrogacy – and even of thinking that they have a right to it – even though it includes renting a woman’s womb and what is essentially buying the baby as if it were a product.

Women who have real choices for decently paid meaningful work do not as a rule put themselves forward to rent out their wombs.

So, the rent-a-womb industry will need significant numbers of healthy young women to put themselves forward.

Young women are already bombarded by online adverts from fertility clinics seeking to harvest their eggs. Typically, the ads present a rosy picture and don’t mention the inherent risks that include premature death.

If all restrictions on advertising surrogacy are removed, Facebook, Google and similar will inevitably bombard young women with similar adverts for surrogacy – and no doubt likewise there’ll be no mention of the risks.

This will send out the message to young women that surrogacy is a reasonable way of solving their financial problems. Think what this will mean for disadvantaged young women.

Student accommodation now costs on average 73% of the funding students can receive through loans and grants. So, the majority of students need to find additional sources of income while they are studying.

Consider a young woman from a disadvantaged background in this situation. She can’t pay her rent. She can’t get enough hours in her casual job at the local supermarket that fit around her lectures and seminars. And then she sees an advert for surrogacy saying she could ‘earn’ £15,000 or more. It looks like a no-brainer. It would cover her rent for two years. She could study while pregnant. With a bit of luck, she could even have the baby in the summer holidays. Win win! And the advert says she’d be giving the greatest gift of all to an unfortunate couple.

The ‘implications counselling’ and legal advice that the Law Commissioners are proposing won’t tell her how it feels to be pregnant. The exhaustion. How it will change her. How there’s no going back. The shame when people realise what she’s doing. The connection she starts to feel with the baby. The nine long months of feeling it nestling inside her. Moving around. Making her crave oranges which she never cared for before.

And then the birth. And right afterwards, when she’s flooded with love hormones they take her baby away. Her vulva is sore and throbbing. Her uterus screaming. The bleeding that continues for weeks. Her breasts getting engorged. Yearning for the baby. The grief. The anger. The rage. The feelings of guilt. How could she have been so stupid? Her emotions are wild. She can’t study. She falls behind with her course. She flunks her exams. Her friends are no help. They say she shouldn’t have done it.

She goes home to her mum and stays in her room. She doesn’t go back and complete her course. She ends up working full time in a supermarket. She bites her lip and pretends it was good. She gave the gift of life. She won’t talk about it again. But, of course, later when she has a baby of her own, it all comes flooding back.

How can someone deal with this?

And that’s assuming it ran a good course and there were no major ‘complications’ and it hasn’t ruined her own fertility.

Do we really care so little in this country for our young women that we will put them through that? That we will suggest that this is a reasonable, safe thing to do?

We don’t allow advertising for things like smoking that carry substantial health risks. How on earth can it be justified for surrogacy – especially at this time of terrifying and increasing inequality and poverty?

So, do you think surrogacy should be banned in the UK?

I do think surrogacy should be banned, yes. I see it as a very toxic development for several reasons and I don’t think it can ever be safe for the women or the babies.

With only one or two exceptions, all countries in the world ban paying people to give up one of their kidneys for someone else’s benefit, on the basis that it’s unethical. Giving up a kidney carries substantial health risks, including premature death. It’s always the poorest people who come forward to sell their kidneys, and when money is involved in such a transaction it affects health professionals’ decision-making and risks undermining their dispassionate care of patients – not to mention that it commercialises human life itself.

The principle that it is unethical to pay someone – particularly a poor person – for a kidney in our profoundly unequal world is almost universally accepted.

So, my question is, what is the difference with surrogacy? Why are the similarities not obvious? Being a ‘surrogate’ mother also carries substantial health risks, including premature death, and in our profoundly unequal world, women are the majority of the poor.

Why would we think it wrong to pay a poor and financially desperate man for a kidney but absolutely fine to pay a poor and financially desperate woman to undergo a procedure that is just as risky, perhaps more so, and involves pretty much a year of her life?

What does this tell us about the status of women in our world?

Yes, human rights conventions give us a right to life – but that doesn’t give us the right to demand someone else’s kidney. In the same way the human right to family life does not give anyone the right to demand someone else gives them a child.

The Law Commissioners said that women have the right to ‘choose’ to be ‘surrogate’ mothers. But they don’t demand that men have the right to ‘choose’ to sell their kidneys – because they understand that people will do things that are not in their best interest when they are desperate.

To me, this is evidence that we live in a world where women are not really considered fully human in the way that men are.

Girls are brought up to put everyone’s needs before their own, to see their own value in terms of pleasing others, particularly men, and to put a brave face on things. Women are systematically undervalued and underpaid in the workplace, and single mothers and Black and Asian women are among the most economically marginalised groups in this country.

If commercial-style surrogacy as proposed by the Law Commissioners is introduced in this country many of our poorest women will be sucked into being ‘surrogate’ mothers, just as they might sell their kidneys if that were an option – because they are desperate. And for many, probably most, the consequences will be disastrous and will entrench their disadvantage even further.

Is this what we want for our country? Rich people buying babies from the poorest and most marginalised women? Baby farms for the rich?

But there are many other arguments against surrogacy. Most surrogacy now involves the harvesting of eggs from another woman. When people are looking for an egg donor, they’re presented with a catalogue, listing women with their features, skin, hair and eye colour, height, weight, sporting and academic achievements, etc.

And in an added chilling twist, commissioning parents might choose a potentially white blue-eyed, blond embryo and have it implanted into the womb of a poor Black woman.

This is eugenics – the deliberate manipulation of human characteristics. Eugenics was big in Victorian Britain and Nazi Germany – largely to justify and legitimise their appalling racist ideologies. But after the Second World War eugenics was rejected by mainstream society as abhorrent. But here it is again, celebrated by the multibillion-dollar big fertility industry.

So, do we want to legitimise something that has been condemned on human rights grounds for decades?

But it doesn’t end there, because the young woman whose egg is harvested is also at risk of significant and serious injury and damage, up to and including premature death. And again for most of them, they are doing it because they are desperate for cash. Just like they might consider selling a kidney if that weren’t prohibited.

And ultimately, however it’s dressed up, surrogacy is about buying and selling babies. That is wrong. When that is allowed, it changes society, it makes it more brutal and less human, make no mistake.

But if we ban it, what would you say to people who consider surrogacy to be the only option for having a child of their own?

While I understand the life-affirming desire for a child of one’s own, there are many reasons why sometimes that desire cannot be fulfilled naturally. But I don’t believe that renting a woman’s womb is ever an ethical solution to this dilemma. To do so is the extension of hyper-consumerism into the core of our humanity – women as means to an end, the child as private commodity. This risks hollowing out the richness of our human communities and I do not believe that it bodes well for anyone, especially not women and children.

Disappointment and frustration are inevitable parts of human life. It’s completely reasonable for society to place limits on what it considers acceptable based on the greater good. For example, we have speed restrictions in built-up areas, which restrict people’s freedom to drive fast, but contribute to the safety of other people, particularly pedestrians and children.

If we want to live in an ethical society, we need to accept that we cannot steamroller over other people’s rights. We don’t accept buying someone else’s kidney when a person needs a kidney transplant to survive. If we recognise women and children as unique human beings, not baby machines or commodities, there is no way that surrogacy can be considered an ethical option.

Sometimes in life, you know, you can’t have what you want, and really you need to grieve that and move on.

And there are many other ways that adults who are unable to have children of their own can have children in their lives. There’s adoption and fostering. Gay men and single men could consider co-parenting with a single woman or a lesbian couple. And there are many other ways to make a positive and practical contribution to children’s well-being and development, and to enjoy their vitality and beauty. There are so many ways to give and receive love that do not involve commodifying women and children.

Want to find out more?

Come along to our webinar at 2pm (UK time) on Sunday 6 September 2020.

What’s wrong with surrogacy? And should we be worried about the Law Commission’s proposals for commercial-style surrogacy in the UK?

The webinar is free, but you need to register on Eventbrite in advance.


Many thanks to Elizabeth Purslow whose research uncovered some of the information included in this piece.

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