Surrogacy is the practice in which a woman's womb is 'rented' – she is paid to become pregnant (via artificial insemination of sperm, or implantation of a 'donated' egg), to follow rules during the pregnancy (such as aborting foetuses which do not meet the buyers' wishes) and to then give up her baby to the 'buyers' when it is born.
Surrogacy is similar to prostitution in that it commodifies women's bodies as objects available for purchase. In the case of prostitution, women's bodies are purchased for sexual abuse by men; surrogacy is the purchase of women's bodies to exploit their reproductive function.
Both of these industries rely on the concept of a woman's body as an object that is somehow separate from the woman herself – the idea of a split self, or mind/body disconnection. A woman is required to disassociate in order to allow others to treat her body as an object. We OBJECT.
“Like the prostitute who says “my body is not myself,” the surrogate says “the child is not mine.””
- Kajsa Ekis Ekman (2013) Being and Being Bought. pp. 172.
The Harms of Surrogacy
Poor women in poor countries are often used as cheap 'wombs for rent'.
“Lakhsmi, 29 years old, has two children and an alcoholic husband, and debts totaling 4,000 USD. For her, the ‘choice’ was either to sell a kidney or become a surrogate. A doctor advised her to opt for surrogacy: “[W]ith a single kidney left, I might live for a shorter time. I have a daughter. I have to get her married ... I prefer to be a surrogate.””
- Kajsa Ekis Ekman (2013) Being and Being Bought. pp. 168-169
Exploitation of 'Altruism'
So-called 'altruistic' surrogacy – for example, where a woman 'rents her womb' and gives away her baby to her sister – is also harmful. Women are exploited through their desire to be 'altruistic' and fulfill the 'feminine' sex role of serving others, endangering themselves and ignoring their own feelings in order to meet the demands of their family, friends or community.
A woman interviewed on the Australian TV programme Insight described her experience of being a 'surrogate' for a 'friend'. Her husband argued with her when she wanted to take a pregnancy test, claiming that she should not be allowed to do so without permission from the 'baby procurer'. This woman was eventually coerced into having an abortion against her wishes – the foetus had a genetic defect and the 'baby procurer' didn't want it. En route to the abortion clinic, the mother told the 'baby procurer' that she “wouldn't want to go through with it” if it was “[her] baby.” However, she felt that the decision wasn't “morally” hers, even though it was legally. Despite the mother's words and body language during the interview, she doesn't acknowledge that she was exploited – she even says she is still 'friends' with the woman who pressured her to have an abortion and who subsequently took away her baby.
The documentary Wombs For Hire tells the story of Sandra, 29, who gave birth to a child for an infertile couple. Although she was paid for the surrogacy, her main motive was 'altruism'. She was enamoured with the idea of helping a couple have a child. Her motivation seemed to stem from lack of self worth. She had recently left a relationship and said she wanted to “give a meaning to her life.” She revealed her disassociative state, saying, “I needed to make this gesture to prove that I really exist.” After giving birth to her child, Sandra almost died and lost her uterus due to medical complications. The infertile couple in whom she sought 'worth' and validation simply stole away her baby, with no regard for the woman they'd exploited. Sandra wanted to be allowed to visit her child regularly, but the couple moved away from the area. The couple refused to even speak to the documentary team at all after Sandra lost her uterus (and her baby).
Young women are targeted by adverts inviting them to 'donate' their eggs in order to 'help' infertile couples have 'their own' children. Large sums of money are offered to entice students who may naively think this is a relatively harmless way of earning extra cash. The industry exploits the 'altruism' of young women, claiming that by 'donating' their eggs they are helping others 'fulfill their dream' of having a child.
The harms of egg 'donation' are poorly researched. According to a report by The Centre For Bioethics and Culture Network (2011), there is “little to no peer-reviewed medical research on the long-term safety effects of egg procurement on the health of the young women who provide their eggs.” However, the health risks of egg retrieval are known to include “Ovarian Hyper Stimulation syndrome (OHSS) due to superovulation, loss of fertility, ovarian torsion, blood clots, kidney disease, premature menopause, ovarian cysts, chronic pelvic pain, stroke, reproductive cancers, and in some cases, death.” (ibid.)
Trailer for a documentary produced by The Centre For Bioethics and Culture Network on the egg 'donation' industry:
Throughout the pregnancy, the demands of the 'baby buyers' and the wishes of the mother may be at odds. When this occurs, the desires of the 'buyers' will often supersede those of the mother, particularly where the mother is financially dependent on the 'buyers'. This means the mother may endure unwanted abortions and medical interventions (such as a caesarean section).
Once the baby is born, the mother must give it away to the 'buyers', along with her right to ever see or know her own child.
In cases where the baby is conceived via a sperm donation, the 'surrogate' mother is genetically related to the child and may retain some rights. This has resulted in custody cases where the birth mother changes her mind and decides she wants to keep her child. For this reason, 'gestational surrogacy' is becoming a popular alternative in the surrogacy industry. This involves the implantation of a fertilised 'donated' egg into the 'surrogate' mother's uterus. This means the 'surrogate' mother is not genetically related to the child and has no legal rights whatsoever over the child once it is born – the mother's name does not even appear on the birth certificate.
The practice of surrogacy involves baby trafficking – the buying and selling of babies. The act of separating a baby from it's mother immediately after birth causes trauma to both parties. When the child is grown, he or she may learn that he/she is a 'product' of exploitation and was purchased from their mother. Proponents of surrogacy ignore the right of a baby to know and to be with their own mother.
This short video on 'The Harms of Surrogacy' summarises the harms that occur to a child who is born as a 'product' of surrogacy, and portrays the reactions of mothers upon having their newborn babies stolen away:
Those who buy babies are able to demand the abortion of babies who do not meet their specifications, or to withhold payment. The advent of 'gestational surrogacy' allows 'baby buyers' to use poor women of different ethnicities as incubators, while not having to worry about having a child 'tainted' by another race's genes.
“With traditional surrogacy, the industry had been limited to the Western world. An Indian mother would have meant a child with Indian features. But suddenly, through the miracle of modern technology, it became possible for an Indian woman to give birth to a white child.”
- Kajsa Ekis Ekman (2013) Being and Being Bought. pp. 128
Additionally, egg 'donation' adverts often specify donor requirements such as a particular ethnicity, an 'attractive' physical appearance, height, IQ score over a certain threshold, good physical fitness and health etc.
Recommended Books on Surrogacy
Ekman, Kajsa Ekis. (2013). Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self.
Klein, Renate. (2017). Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation.
To read OBJECT's latest blog posts on Surrogacy, click here.