Sunday, 6 October 2013

Surrogacy - feminism or exploitation?

Would you carry someone else's child in your womb for nine months, go through labour and delivery, and then expect to never see the child again?

Surrogacy is when a woman carries a baby for a couple who cannot conceive or carry a child themselves. It means placing a fertilised embryo from a couple in the womb of another woman. When the child is born, the couple collect it and are its parents.

I've been watching House of Surrogates, a documentary about the practice of surrogacy in India, which is flourishing, mainly because:
  • It is legal to pay a surrogate (this is illegal in the UK)
  • It is cheaper than other places where it is legal to pay (i.e. the US)
  • The surrogate has no rights over the child

Baby farm

The documentary focussed on a clinic run by the extremely successful Dr Nayna Patel. Couples from around the world (the US, Canada, Japan and Australia) who have been unable to have a child pay the clinic to employ a surrogate for them.

A review in the Telegraph describes Dr  Patel as a cross between 'Cruella de Vil' and an 'ethical entrepreneur', - she is very glamorous and very rich, but clearly believes in her work. To her, she is providing couples who can't have children with the child they so desperately want, and the women who act as surrogates with a way to support their families. She describes herself as a feminist.

The women in House of Surrogates live in a house together from the time the embryo is implanted until they are eight months pregnant, when they transfer to the clinic. They see their families only at weekends, when visiting is permitted.

They have little to do in the house, spending most of their time lying about, being very bored and eating - a disturbingly cattle-like process of fattening up, although they are encouraged to learn new skills, to help them earn a living when they leave.

The surrogates receive constant medical care and monitoring, and are told at the beginning, that even if they develop a cold they will immediately be given medication. Interestingly, in the UK the one time you don't take any medication for a cold is during pregnancy, whereas in the surrogate house they seemed to be chucking pills down them like anything.

The babies the surrogates carry have no genetic link to them, but the bonding that goes on is, I'm sure, no different. It was noticeable that the surrogates interviewed all referred to the babies they were carrying as 'my baby'. There was a sad scene in which a surrogate who also nursed 'her baby' for four months finally had to part with him.

Sister helping sister or the West exploiting the East? 

Is surrogacy one woman helping another to make her dream of a family come true? Or in this case, is it wealthy Westerners exploiting poor, desperate women on the other side of the world?

To see it as rich Western women exploiting their poorer sisters is to ignore the depth of heartache that many couples go through who aren't able to have children. The couples interviewed talked of journeys of at least 10 years, peppered with miscarriages.Who can blame them for trying everything in their power to build the family they always dreamed of, and just assumed that they would have?

Surrogacy does happen in the UK. The main difference is that it is illegal to pay a surrogate here, so they do it because they want to help, receiving only expenses.

In India, where surrogates are paid, the parents-to-be will interview the surrogate. There was a cringeworthy scene in which a Canadian woman interviewed her prospective surrogate, sizing her up to decide whether she would be "good and solid enough to handle".

In the UK, where surrogates are doing it to help, it's the other way around, with the surrogate looking for a couple she 'clicks with' (Surrogacy UK).

What comes through loud and clear is that the Indian surrogates do it to make better lives for their own families. One woman lives in a single room with six other members of her family. The surrogacy payments are helping them to build a bigger house. Another said she'd always wanted to do more with her life, but without an education, had failed. She hoped the surrogacy money would let her give her daughter the kind of life she'd wanted to have. Another used the money to send her children to English speaking schools, to improve their prospects in life.

Dr Patel may find helping western families rewarding, and suggests that the surrogates also feel this, but they made no mention of this - wholly focussing on the rewards it would bring for their own families. This makes me think that, for them, surrogacy isn't about women helping women, but another chapter in the struggle for survival amongst some of the world's poorest women.

Why be a surrogate? 

Personally I find surrogacy bizarre, and I suspect I'm not alone in this. For me, the fact that I would have to go through pregnancy was a serious reason not to have children. Writing this from the 37th week of pregnancy, I can say that I thought incubating a child in my body would be difficult - it has been eight-and-a-half months of hell, although not entirely for physical reasons.

But at least I know, when all this is over, I will have a daughter to show for it. Why you would go through these difficulties of pregnancy, without the prospect of a child at the end, seems very odd to me. I'm all for helping people, but this does seem the most extreme form of philanthropy. The only people who I can understand doing it are those who are desperate, like the women in House of Surrogates.

Desperate women have always gone out on the streets to sell their bodies through prostitution, and in a sense these women are doing the same - selling their bodies to help themselves and their families survive, albeit it in a medicalised context.

I don't think we should blame them for doing this, nor should we blame the childless couples who see this as their last chance at happiness. But while unpaid surrogacy seems just strange, paying women for it feels deeply unethical, exploiting the desperation of both the surrogates and the intended parents, to fund a massive money-making industry that farms infants from women's bodies like cattle.

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