Credit: Rebel Wilson via Instagram (@rebelwilson) (L) and Toro Tseleng via Unsplash (R)

Rich people renting wombs is the real Handmaid’s tale

An act of kindness towards a loving and deserving couple desperate to have a baby, or womb trafficking in action – with women reduced to being gestational vessels?

That’s the thorny question at the heart of the debate about surrogacy. This week, the practice again made headlines after Australian actress and comedian Rebel Wilson announced she had joined a long list of celebrities to welcome a child via surrogate. Wilson took to Instagram to thank the “gorgeous” surrogate, who carried and birthed her biological daughter, described by the actress as a “beautiful miracle”.

I always feel curious about the surrogate (or should we say, the birth mother?) when I read about such cases. A woman who went through nine long, difficult months of pregnancy and the physical and mental challenges that go along with it, reduced to the ‘surrogate’, unseen and unheard; without a name or a face.  

There is little attention placed on the woman who carries and births the newborn baby at her own risk. Moreover, across society today, there is vanishingly little discussion about the potentially devastating ramifications of what is, essentially, rich people renting wombs. 

In the US, where surrogacy laws vary from state to state, a largely unregulated industry sees American surrogates earn between tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. For that reason, surrogacy – with its parallels with prostitution in this context – presents an opportunity for poorer women to alleviate their financial hardship.

Whether a surrogate mother is financially compensated or not, real concerns for both mother and baby are present.

We really only hear about surrogacy in a celebratory, glowing, positive way. There’s virtually no scrutiny regarding the ethics of the practice. In Ireland, many people certainly seem ready to welcome the heralding of commercial surrogacy, but should we really be so willing?

You may recall how, in June 2022, Senator Sharon Keogan was demonised in the Oireachtas for daring to object to new surrogacy legislation currently making its way through Ireland’s Seanad. She said that surrogacy is “harmful, exploitative, and unethical”, a blistering assertion which caused such shell-shock that the committee considering the matter had to be suspended in order to allow politicians time to recover from a politician actually daring to speak up against a now universally accepted form of ‘progress’.

But Keogan is right. Do we really understand the downright dreadful realities of surrogacy, and its human cost, uncomfortable and unpopular as it may be to talk about? 

Let’s look at what the practice entails. There are two forms of surrogacy: ‘traditional’, whereby a woman is artificially inseminated and carries her own baby; and the more common method (commissioned by Rebel Wilson) of ‘gestational surrogacy’, in which embryos are taken from a Petri dish and implanted in the surrogate’s womb, meaning the birth mother and child are genetically unrelated.

In surrogacy, a woman, motivated either by kindness or monetary reward, carries the implanted embryo for nine months, during which time, some pretty awful things can happen. Pregnancy is not easy.

When the due date comes, the baby is often born via caesarean, selected in the birth plan so as to avoid creating any sort of emotional bond between the birth mother and the child. In reality, of course, the mother-child bond has already been formed, a bond which has lifelong consequences. While surrogacy is sometimes undertaken in an altruistic capacity, it is more often commercial.

The physical risks of surrogacy are rarely ever mentioned, despite evidence which shows that children born as the result of surrogacy are more likely to have low birth weights, and are at an increased risk of stillbirth. When a woman carries a child conceived from an egg that is not hers, she is three times more at risk of developing hypertension and pre-eclampsia in pregnancy.

The psychological repercussions are perhaps more jarring. Anecdotal evidence from women who have acted as surrogates for a variety of reasons, from financial need to the desire to help a family member battling infertility, paints a sorry picture when it comes to the stark reality of the practice.

Former surrogates have detailed how they were never afforded the chance to see the baby they carried and cared for, how the crying newborn was whisked away by the besotted new intended parents. All while the surrogate – the human collateral damage in all of this – is left behind in the dust to grapple with the enormous psychological and physical aftermath of the abrupt end to a human journey which will remain with them forever. We’re told not to mention the surrogate though, because the focus is always on the new parents.

When it comes to the rather horrifying concept of wealthy women using poorer women to bear their children, the story of the Handmaid’s Tale comes to mind. Marget Atwood’s 1985 novel turned wildly popular Hulu series, set in the fictional US Republic of Gilead, envisaged the United States becoming a theocratic dictatorship where, in light of declining fertility, elite couples in the regime used fertile females assigned to them as ‘handmaids’.

While celebrities and abortion activists alike tirelessly claim the book has taken on new relevance in light of abortion restrictions post Roe, to me the novel is more a commentary on the ills of surrogacy, showing the practise up as exploitation, and women’s wombs as a means to an end.

Exploitation is ripe in the hugely lucrative industry. In Ukraine, where an estimated 2,000 babies are born via surrogacy every year according to 2018 statistics, for-profit Ukrainian-operated fertility companies have opened their doors, eager to have a slice of the annual worldwide surrogacy market, valued at an estimated $6 billion USD five years ago.

The closure of markets in countries like India, Thailand and Nepal, due to human trafficking concerns, has given Ukraine the chance to fill the gap, as demand for surrogacy rises, with one company, Biotexcom, the largest surrogacy company operating in the country, currently holding 25 per cent of the entire global surrogacy market.

The industry is largely unregulated, and data on exploitation and criminal activity is widely insufficient. However, back in 2011, one foreign embassy in Ukraine sounded the alarm on fears over human trafficking, after a DNA test of a supposed surrogate baby didn’t match the client parents. As highlighted here, surrogates have also gone on record claiming that companies paid them as little as $350 USD, despite the cost to clients is between $45,000 and $55,000 USD. 

Although a booming surrogacy industry has given hope to so many desperate would-be parents, is such immense yearning to have a child really grounds to justify such obvious exploitation? Voicing opposition to surrogacy is not to dismiss the very real, heart-breaking pain of infertility, something which has impacted someone we all know, but surrogacy itself has its own aching and heart-breaking pain which is never discussed.

Surrogacy presents an abundance of ethical and moral difficulties which we must address, but which Irish lawmakers won’t. The practise, heralded by the LGBT lobby as a kind of miraculous evolution finally allowing gay men and gay women to be parents, shatters family structure, and denies the child the right to a mother and a father, despite the elementary fact that two parents are involved in the creation of every child.

The truth, which many LGBT advocates of surrogacy will stringently deny, is that the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ just cannot be erased.

Surrogacy rejects the concept that the mother-child bond is sacred. We all know that little babies cry out for their mums in ways they don’t for their dads. It’s worth pointing out that even in the context of animals, this bond is reflected in Irish law, which dictates that a puppy must be at least eight weeks old before they may be separated from their mother.

The reason being because we recognise the importance of motherhood even when it comes to newborn animals. But if this bond matters this much for puppies, how much more does it matter for human children? A child, unlike a dog, is a person, and his or her rights must trump all else, specifically the right to a mother. Whether we choose to accept it or not, having a mother and a father is simply the biological prerequisite to existence. 

Many will celebrate the fact that surrogacy has created a world where two men, for instance, can welcome a baby who will be deprived of a mother. We readily welcome such a reality in the name of diversity and progress, despite the glaring issues along with an expansive body of research which points to the traumatic repercussions of maternal deprivation. In all of this, I can’t help but ask, ‘what about the child?’

Should we consider the baby at all? What will they think when they get older? Will the child long for a parent removed on day one, or wonder if that parent longs for them? Will they question whether they were the result of love, or a business transaction?

In the midst of all of this, surrogacy has created a culture where many believe there is a right to have a child: there’s not. Children are not commodities to be bought.

For all these reasons, it’s somewhat surreal to me to see women crying ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ in reaction to abortion bans being enacted to protect unborn life, while seeing surrogacy as a moral good. Surely, the real Handmaid’s tale is the outsourcing of pregnancy by the wealthy to vulnerable women wooed by the possibility of making thousands by acting as a surrogate.

In Ireland, at present, women can’t be rented and motherhood can’t be sold. We should choose to keep it that way — because surrogacy has no place in a civilised society.

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