What FOI requests revealed about the Law Commission’s surrogacy consultation

This is an edited transcript of Lexi’s talk at the What’s wrong with surrogacy? webinar on 6 September 2020.

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for joining us today. My name’s Lexi. I submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request to the Law Commission on 27 August last year (2019) and it concluded with an internal review that finished on 9 July this year. So, it was almost a year for the entire process.

Why Lexi submitted an FOI

I actually came to the conversation from discussions on Mumsnet. I’m really grateful to the women there who were raising awareness of the public consultation. Reading it, I had concerns that it was biased and I wanted to find out who the stakeholders were. So, I decided to submit a freedom of information request.

You can have a look through the freedom of information request on the What do they know website. All the information about the questions I asked and their responses are there.

What Lexi found out through the FOI

As a result of the freedom of information request, I found out a few interesting things. Of the 40 stakeholders involved in the preparation of the paper for the consultation, there was Natalie Gamble from Brilliant Beginnings and NGA (Natalie Gamble Associates) Law, Barrie Drewitt Barlow from the British Surrogacy Centre, Cindy Wasser from Hope Springs Fertility Law, which is a law firm in Canada, and Stonewall. I’ll come back to Stonewall a bit later.

Images from Barrie Drewitt Barlow's Instagram page

Here are some images from Barrie Drewitt Barlow’s Instagram page. On the left are some puppies with their mum – as we were discussing that earlier. He breeds prize poodles as well as making a very comfortable living through surrogacy.

The middle picture shows him talking about having triplets with his boyfriend. He’s still married to Tony Drewitt Barlow, co-director of the British Surrogacy Centre. He’s actually not expecting triplets anymore as he has had the two male foetuses terminated in the womb of the surrogate mother by fatal injection to the heart. The remaining foetus, a baby girl, is expected to be born in October.

I would recommend looking into Barrie Drewitt Barlow. He’s being sued by a surrogate mother, Megan Hoffner, for damages. There’s quite a lot of history regarding him and his surrogacy business in the UK, and overseas as well.

Information about Cindy Wasser and Natalie Gamble

Two other people I’ve mentioned are Cindy Wasser and Natalie Gamble. Both are heavily invested in surrogacy and have both families built around it

Cindy Wasser has two daughters through surrogacy from the same egg donor – that’s one woman – and two other women were involved in delivering those children – one each. Natalie Gamble had a child with her wife, and that child came about through a sperm donor.

Both of them run non-profit surrogacy agencies or what would be called matching services, and each of them also has a law firm that specialises in surrogacy and fertility law. They both very much have their lifestyles and families, and income, focused around surrogacy.

Other findings, including that 11 of the Law Commission team were men and 7 women

Other things I found out through the FOI. There was more than one meeting with these groups. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the minutes from these meetings as the Law Commission wouldn’t release them. They refused to give them under the freedom of information request.

So I don’t know what happened in those meetings but I assume the meeting with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would have been discussing the exploitation of women that happens in international surrogacy and the issue it poses for the child’s citizenship.

The Department of Education I’m a little bit confused about. I wonder whether it has anything to do with the lifting of the ban on advertising. I say this because I know that in the US there are universities where advertising is allowed and surrogacy agencies and matching services target young women who are looking to earn money.

Then there was the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and Surrogacy UK. Surrogacy UK run the All Party Parliamentary Group on Surrogacy. Whilst this is not unusual, it perpetuates the bias because Surrogacy UK are a matching service and surrogacy agency.

The Law Commission team on their 13th programme of reform, that the surrogacy project is part of, is made up of eleven men and seven women.

Why Stonewall was an interesting stakeholder

Stonewall is an interesting stakeholder. The Law Commission had a media strategy for the publication and promotion of the consultation and here are some extracts from that. The highlighting of the text is theirs, not mine. It is clear that they were targeting gay men through gay media.

In addition to this, they had national coverage in the BBC and national newspapers. All of that coverage can be seen on the freedom of information request, under the internal review at the very end.

There are no women’s magazines listed and that’s interesting because traditionally women’s media and weekly magazines have always been sympathetic to surrogacy stories. So I’m not sure if that was an oversight.

Women's groups involved with the launch of the surrogacy consultation

When the consultation was launched, there were some women’s organisations that were involved, but almost all of these organisations were centred around pregnancy and maternal health as you can see here – for example, foetal movement, miscarriage, and pre-eclampsia organisations.

They also spoke to Rights of Women (a women’s legal charity), FiLiA (a women’s rights organisation), and Rosa (a women’s poverty charity) but none of these organisations were involved in the design of the consultation like the other organisations were. They were only able to submit a response to the consultation along with everyone else.

So there seems to be a hierarchy of stakeholders around how the Law Commission approached this.

Women were an afterthought

This is a quote from the replies I got from Phil Golding, the CEO of the Law Commission, at the final, internal review, stage about contacting three women’s groups (Nordic Model Now!, EVAW and A Woman’s Place).

But in terms of the dates, the deadline for the public consultation was 11 October but these organisations were only contacted 25 days after that – nearly a month after the consultation had closed. So it was obviously too late by that stage to do anything other than to send a response.

What the Law Commission said would happen next

In terms of what follows the public consultation, the Law Commission sent this email to people who had responded to the consultation. It says that they will be finalising and releasing their final recommendations in early 2022 and there might be a draft bill. But it could also be delayed because of COVID.

Plans for raising awareness and coverage of the Law Commission's surrogacy proposals

What’s next for me? So as a result of the FOI process and getting involved in the conversation from a feminist perspective, I have found other like-minded women and we are launching a grassroots single issue campaign to raise awareness of surrogacy and what it involves, and its darker side, to challenge the media agenda and, hopefully, influence the media coverage, and possibly have some protests.

We can see an image here from France demonstrating the transactional nature of surrogacy – the dolls are in supermarket trolleys.

I think it’s reasonable to expect that people who are involved in surrogacy, who make their income from it or build their families through it, to be pro-surrogacy. That makes sense.

But it’s also reasonable to expect that our law makers and the people involved in drafting proposed laws and making recommendations to Parliament to take a wide range of views and to be unbiased in their approach so that they are include all stakeholders because we’re all stakeholders in the process of developing the laws of our country. That’s an important thing to remember.

So thank you for your time today. If there is anything you would like to know, I will leave my details so you can get in touch.

Note: If you would like to get involved with the new single-issue activist group that Lexi mentions, please contact us and we will pass on your message to Lexi and the other organisers.

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