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Surrogate motherhood: a service, or exploitation?

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Beyond raising bioethical questions, "surrogate motherhood" is a practice that lends itself easily to exploitation of women, especially those belonging to the poorest strata of society

They call it “surrogate motherhood” or “rent-a-womb”: the reproductive practice or procedure in which a woman becomes pregnant and gives birth on other people’s behalf. – The people who hire the surrogate are also known as the “intended parents,” and they can be single or couples, married or not, heterosexual or homosexual.

There are two different forms of surrogacy. On one hand, there’s “traditional” surrogacy, in which the father’s semen is used to fertilize the ovum of the surrogate mother, who therefore automatically becomes the biological mother of the unborn child; on the other hand, there’s “gestational” surrogacy, in which one or more embryos created in a laboratory using the gametes of the biological parents (or donors, if one of the two partners is sterile) are transferred to the uterus of the surrogate mother.

Proponents tend to describe the procedure as a “service.” In Canada, where free surrogacy is legal—the law only allows for the reimbursement of certain of the woman’s costs—Canadian Fertility Consulting (CFC) serves as a bridge between intended parents and surrogate mothers. One of the women currently being “helped” by CFC is 37-year-old Stéphanie Aubry. “If the birth goes well and I’m in good health, I hope to do it again,” declares the mother of two to Radio Canada. As her first experience as a surrogate mother, she is bearing a child for a homosexual French couple.

India: a preferred destination

Beyond raising bioethical questions, “surrogate motherhood” is a practice that lends itself easily to exploitation of women, especially those belonging to the poorest strata of society. This is shown by a study carried out by an Indian researcher, Sheela Saravanan, working at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

In an interview granted to FigaroVox and reported on by the Libertépolitique.com website, the author of the book A Transnational Feminist View of Surrogacy Biomarkets in India (2018) offers a glimpse of the situation of the Indian women who have decided to become surrogate mothers.

If the country has become a preferred destination today for international intended parents, it’s because in India, “surrogate mothers have absolutely no rights over the baby they bear in their womb, and not even over their own body throughout the duration of the pregnancy,” explains Saravanan, who was assisted in her research by two Indian clinics.

The reality of surrogate motherhood in India is far from the romantic image spread by some American talk shows, the researcher explains. “In India, surrogate motherhood is a flagrant violation of human rights,” which also involves “serious risks for the woman’s health.”

While surrogate mothers live for nine months (or even more, if they breastfeed the baby) in surrogate homes inside the clinics, these institutions engage in “various illegal activities,” says Saravanan: they don’t give the surrogate mother a copy of the contract, and beyond that, they falsify the birth certificates and systematically transfer five embryos into the uterus, instead of the three allowed by law, and then use selective abortion—in India, male children are preferred to females—if more than two implant successfully.

The reason why many Indian women offer themselves as surrogate mothers is economic. Preferably chosen from among the poorest strata of society, they can earn more than $4,000 USD for each pregnancy (if they bear twins, the payment doubles), an amount that allows them to buy a house, start a business, or send their own children to a private school.

“These clinics are like giant bazaars where everything has a price: the woman’s body, their maternal milk, the number of children, their weight, their sex, their health, and even the social caste or the religion of the mother,” the researcher concludes.

Surrogacy Bill 2016

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that many voices have been raised asking the government to legislate on this issue, especially after the discovery in July of last year of human trafficking of surrogate mothers.

Even though India has as of yet no law that prohibits surrogate motherhood, as explained by Diwakar Reddy, the director of an illegal clinic in the state of Andhra Pradesh, quoted in La Croix, a bill proposing to put an end to surrogacy for commercial purposes, the Surrogacy Bill 2016, is still waiting to be presented in the parliament in New Delhi.

The government ruled by the Hindu nationalist party BJP would like to limit the practice to married Indian couples, thus excluding foreigners, single people, unmarried couples, and homosexual couples. The Indian National Congress party, on the contrary, describes the proposal as being “from the Stone Age,” and a parliamentary commission has defined it as “bigoted,” according to La Croix.

The Mitsutoki Shigeta affair

In another Asiatic country—this time in Thailand—the issue of surrogacy has also been at the media’s center of attention. The case of a Japanese citizen, Mitsutoki Shigeta, in particular, has caused an uproar.

Last February 20 at a court in Bangkok, the wealthy Japonese heir obtained exclusive custody of 13 babies born from Thai surrogate mothers.

In order to justify its decision to entrust to Mitsutoki Shigeta “full parental rights,” the Central Juvenile Court of the Thai capital invoked “the happiness” of the 13 babies; it also argued that the man, who is the son of a magnate, has no history of “bad behavior,” writes Le Temps.

According to the Swiss newspaper, the case of Mitsutoki Shigeta, who has said that he always dreamed of having a large family, has shone a light on the “gray areas” of the medically assisted procreation market.

Together with the case of Baby Gammy—the baby born in December 2013 to a Thai surrogate mother and abandoned by his Australian biological parents because he has Down Syndrome—the Shigeta case moved Thai authorities in 2015 to ban surrogate motherhood for foreign citizens.

After Thailand’s “no”, the surrogacy business moved to nearby Cambodia, where, in turn, local authorities decided in 2016 to ban the practice, because they consider it to be exploitation of women.

Nonetheless, surrogate motherhood still seems widespread in the country. This is evidenced by the news that Cambodian police, last June 23, dismantled a human trafficking operation in the capital, Phnom Penh, of surrogate mothers who were carrying out pregnancies for Chinese clients. Each woman had been promised a payment of $10,000 USD, according to The Guardian.

Legal battle in France

The fact that surrogate motherhood can lead to very complicated and delicate situations that require Solomonic decisions is evidenced by a legal battle in France, revealed at the end of June by Le Parisien and covered by La Croix.

The incredible story starts in 2012, when a gay couple uses an Internet site to contact a woman who says she is willing to be a surrogate mother. Along with the payment, she accepts an “artisanal” insemination with the semen of one of the two men, Alexandre L.

However, the surrogate mother disappears without a trace a few days before the birth, and makes the homosexual couple believe that the child was stillborn. In reality, the baby is alive and well. Instead, the woman simply sold the baby to another couple, this time heterosexual.

In March 2017, a court in Dieppe, Normandy, ruled in favor of Alexandre L. and decided that the boy, who is now five years old, should be with his biological father.

This first sentence was reversed last May 31 by the Appeals Court of Rouen, which, giving priority to “the best interests” of the child, decided that he should remain with the heterosexual couple with whom he has lived since birth.

“The whole question of this case is the conciliation of two principles that seem of equal importance: that of the biological truth, and that of taking into account the child’s best interests,” explains Jean-René Binet, professor at the Rennes Law School and an expert in bioethics, speaking to La Croix.

Also in France, the newspaper Le Monde published last January 19 a declaration in which about forty experts, including Prof. René Frydman, “father” of the first French baby conceived in vitro, state their opposition to surrogate motherhood, calling it a “market selling human people,” which “hurts the most vulnerable women in the world today.”

“No one can ignore the fact that this practice is part of a wordwide procreation market in full expansion, which includes, as in California, the sale of sperm and ova,” the signitaries say. “Wherever it exists, this market constitutes a new form of exploitation of the female body.”

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