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Commercial surrogacy: A global market for babies?

“It’s an amazing gift. The BEST gift”. This is how actress Rebel Wilson described surrogacy in an Instagram post announcing the birth of her baby earlier this week. What Wilson failed to realise, however, is that a gift, by definition, is “a thing given willingly to someone without payment”. Thus, this misrepresentation of the surrogate mother’s role is an inherent contradiction, one that deliberately overlooks the large financial sum involved and the plethora of ethical concerns associated with commercial surrogacy. 

This is not an attack on Wilson specifically; she is just another in a recent series of rich women jumping on the trend of renting out another woman’s womb to satisfy their apparent entitlement to a baby.

Surrogacy as a global market is expected to be worth $27.5 billion by 2025, a striking figure that indicates the prevalence of the trade. But what is being traded if not the bodies of women, who become currency in the transaction in which the purchase is a human child? This is an industry that predominantly targets poor, disadvantaged women; Ukraine, for example, has become a target for international couples seeking a surrogate as many young women in the country turn to surrogacy to escape poverty. 

The Heritage Foundation and the Center for Family and Human Rights demonstrated multiple cases of women who had been trafficked into surrogacy, as well as those who had consequently been rendered infertile or died. Think about it – how many wealthy women do we hear of giving the “gift” of surrogacy to a poorer one? It is almost as if commercial surrogacy is not a “gift”, but rather financial coercion in which a clear power dynamic emerges between the wealthy parents who believe a baby is their inherent right, and she who allows her body to be temporarily bought whilst gestating and birthing the child that is, ultimately, the product.

Aside from the fact that relative risks to health in general all increase during pregnancy, there are also clear concerns associated with surrogate pregnancies specifically. A surrogate carrying another woman’s egg (gestational surrogacy accounts for the vast majority of cases) is three times as likely to suffer from hypertension and pre-eclampsia, as well as having an increased risk of gestational diabetes. Michelle Reaves, a mother of two from California, tragically died giving birth to a surrogate baby in January 2020. No sum of money could make up for the death of a woman that was a direct result of this trade.

Commercial surrogacy is illegal in various countries globally, including the United Kingdom. To an extent this is a positive, but it leads to health tourism through which couples from these countries seek surrogates from countries like Ukraine and India where it is legal. A police raid of a fertility clinic in Chennai discovered a group of 47 surrogate mothers living in “terrible conditions”, huddled in one room with only one bathroom between them, and a woman from Ukraine compared the treatment of herself and other surrogates to that of cattle. Women are not cattle, nor are they baby factories to be rented out for the convenience of rich western families. So why do we allow them to be treated as such?

Altruistic surrogacy – that is, surrogacy arrangements in which no money is exchanged bar practical costs for the surrogate mother- is legal in the UK. But unsurprisingly, finding a woman willing to carry and birth a baby that is not hers, for free, is far more difficult than agreements in which she is paid to do so. Additionally, the legalisation of altruistic surrogacy increases the demand for surrogacy as a whole – a demand that can surely only be filled by the commercial surrogacy industry. Certainly, there are some cases in which women genuinely agree to be a surrogate, with no financial caveats, simply to help two people become parents. But it would be incredibly naïve to view this as an accurate reflection of the global surrogacy market as a whole.

The commercial surrogacy industry is a minefield of commodification and exploitation, the surface of which I have only briefly skimmed. Nevertheless, what is eminently clear is the imperative need for a recontextualization of surrogacy. Infertility is a devastating predicament for any couple who desires to have children, whether due to issues with health or same-sex couples who cannot reproduce biologically; I would never aim to detract from or undermine the grief felt by those in these situations. But while it may be a hard pill to swallow, a baby is not an intrinsic right simply because one wishes to be a parent. 

Surrogacy, at its core, is a women’s rights issue. Promoting surrogacy as the perfect solution for people who want children disregards all the risks associated with surrogacy and the fact that the commodification of the uterus gives way to exploitation and trafficking by those who see commercial surrogacy as a business venture.

Naturally, I hope that Rebel Wilson’s baby grows up to have a happy and healthy life and wish her family all the best. However, the glamorization of this harmful industry by celebrities, from Wilson to the Kardashians, needs to stop. Children and women are not commodities to be bought and sold. Can bodily autonomy and willing consent truly exist within the commercial transaction of surrogacy? I struggle to see how it can. If we want to live in a world in which the female body is truly liberated, bringing an end to the commercial surrogacy market is a key step.

Rebel Wilson” by Eva Rinaldi Celebrity Photographer is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.