Surrogacy: Human right, or just wrong?

Julie Bindel

Julie Bindel
“A lovely gay couple are desperate to have their own child. I love being pregnant and have offered to carry their baby. What is wrong with me making that choice?”

This was a question put to me recently, in the course of a live debate on the rights and wrongs of surrogacy, by a woman who runs a surrogacy brokering service in the United Kingdom – a service that connects so-called “commissioning parents” with potential surrogates in countries where commercial surrogacy is legal.My answer was: “Women are conditioned to be ‘nice’ and to sacrifice ourselves for others. Pregnancy is a major endeavour, and surrogacy can cause complications and carries health risks. Why do so many believe that it is a ‘right’ for anyone to have their own biological child?”

My opponent at that debate, who is an active participant in the surrogacy business, clearly believes in that “right”. But is being able to have a baby via a surrogate – even when the surrogate is fully consenting, properly compensated and cared for – really a human right? Could the surrogacy industry, which is built on the commodification of the female body, ever be truly free of exploitation?

The short answer, based on the testimonies of countless surrogate mothers I interviewed over the years, is no.

In places where for-profit surrogacy is legal, from California and New York to Ukraine and Mexico, disadvantaged women are being turned into wombs for hire with no consideration for their human rights.In these jurisdictions, where surrogacy is seen as a simple business transaction, the surrogate mother is often required to sign an agreement which gives “commissioning parents” pretty much complete control over her life and body throughout the entire pregnancy. These women are left to deal with any pregnancy-related health issues alone after the baby is born, and often find themselves settling for far less money than what was originally agreed, especially when there are complications, or if a miscarriage occurs.

Some may say while a lax legal framework and a lack of oversight by authorities could lead to abuse in the commercial surrogacy industry, in places like the UK where women are not allowed to carry babies for monetary compensation, this is not really an issue.

But bans on commercial surrogacy never fully eliminate the coercive, commercial element inherent to this practice. In countries where commercial surrogacy is against the law, surrogate mothers who volunteer to carry and birth a baby are still paid “expenses” by “commissioning parents” – up to £15,000 ($18,000) in the UK, for instance. While this sum may appear inconsequential to some, for many women, who are destitute or in desperate need of more financial independence, it can be life-changing. This means there is always a coercive element to surrogacy, even in places where the practice is not officially commercialised and only women who volunteer for the job are allowed to become surrogate mothers.

There is also never much consideration for how a surrogate mother (either financially motivated or volunteer) may feel when the time comes for her to hand over the baby she just birthed. Perhaps commissioning parents assume that the surrogate mother is completely detached from the child she grew in her womb for nine months because she signed an agreement to give him or her up.

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