Since the release of my latest film, Breeders: A Subclass of Women?, and with the media attention surrounding our work to ban surrogacy, I have received many personal emails from women who want to tell us about their tragic surrogacy stories. As you might expect, I’ve also received a fair share of emails from people who either used a surrogate to have their children or were themselves surrogates with “happy endings” to their stories. It is important to hear these stories, too, and to respond to the arguments they make in favor of surrogacy.
Typically, the women who have had favorable experiences as surrogates express their love and delight in helping a couple who otherwise couldn’t have a child build a family. The people who have used a surrogate express gratitude to the women who gave them much-desired children. The comments typically make one or all of the following three claims.
First: The children born of surrogacy are all right. A mother’s womb is an arbitrary place of little to no importance, and biological connectedness doesn’t matter. What is of utmost importance is that a child is wanted and loved.
Second: Surrogacy is a wonderful option to help others. Ultimately this is about choice, reproductive rights, and freedom without government intrusion. If you oppose surrogacy, the argument goes, then don’t be a surrogate or use a surrogate mother, but let others have this choice.
Third: The surrogate is part of the family and thus is not an exploited woman. She is well-compensated, and contracts protect her. These new technologies are simply keeping up with the pace of new modern families.
Although these three claims are common, they can each be countered with a fuller picture of the realities of surrogacy and its impact on men, women, and children.
The Kids Are All Right
Here are two statements I received. The first is from a woman whose children were born via surrogacy, and the second is from a surrogate mother.
As a mother of 17 year old twins born through gestational surrogacy, my experience is the polar opposite of what was portrayed [in Breeders]. Also, my twins are happy, healthy, well-adjusted young adults who have not suffered from any “behavioral” problems from being born to a gestational surrogate.
I was a surrogate mother and it was the most wonderful thing I have ever done. I disagree with your views! Joanna plays the violin, softball, and loves riding horses. She has traveled all over the world to many places I will never get to see, because both of her parents are flight attendants. She is very smart, gets good grades in school, is very well adjusted, is beautiful, and I can’t wait to see how she changes the world in her future.
It’s easy to claim that the children are all right, but history and studies suggest otherwise. We have years of study on children who were adopted, and more recently studies are coming out on children born from donor eggs and sperm. While not all children will suffer from genealogical bewilderment or identity confusion, it is clear that many of these people feel a great loss by being separated from their genetic history and birth mothers.
It is fairly common for these children, as they grow older, to hide these feelings of loss or confusion in order not to hurt their parents. They have been told all along how wanted they were, how much trouble their parents had in conceiving them, and that they should be grateful, thankful, and happy to be alive. Challenging that narrative or questioning the way in which they were born is discouraged. But some, like Jessica Kern, a young woman who was born via surrogacy and featured in Breeders, do speak out against surrogacy. This decision has cost Jessica dearly, fracturing relationships within her family. Although it is understandable that loving parents find it hard to hear that their decisions may have hurt their children, we need to do much more to study the long-term effects of surrogacy on children in an objective way.
Surrogacy Is a Wonderful Choice to Help Others
The marketing and promotional materials for surrogacy inundate us with positive images of surrogacy. Happy, smiling couples holding cute, healthy babies abound, and the e-mails we receive echo the sentiments portrayed by these photos.
I met Bill and Paul, and we became very good friends. Homosexual men can’t adopt children, so having a surrogate is their only option.
Surrogacy is a wonderful option to help infertile couples create a family, and it should not be portrayed in the negative light that you are making it. Just because you have encountered a few women who are unhappy with the choice they made in becoming a surrogate does not mean that all surrogates should be put in the same category.
Pregnancy is not a chore one woman helps another with. It’s not something we outsource to someone else. It is wrong to ask another woman to assume the real and significant risks of pregnancy for you. One surrogate, a single mother of three who is very supportive of the practice, described her pregnancy like this:
It was a very hard pregnancy. My other 3 pregnancies were so easy, but it seemed that everything that could go wrong (with my surrogacy pregnancy) did go wrong.
Many studies demonstrate the high rates of complication due to pregnancy, labor, and delivery. One new study states that in pregnancies using egg donation, there is a threefold higher risk of hypertension, which brings risks to both the mother and the child. Almost all surrogate pregnancies today use donor eggs, yet the empirical evidence of such risks is often ignored or kept silent by the fertility industry. Downplaying this information or withholding it from potential surrogates makes it impossible for them to make an informed choice with full knowledge of the dangers they may face.
Because artificial reproductive technologies (ART) and surrogacy are costly and carry the chance of miscarriage, it is not uncommon for surrogates to carry multiple children at a time. One important new study in the journal Nature concluded:
Multiple gestations were increased 24-27–fold compared with naturally conceived pregnancies . . . Multiple births, preterm births and a higher overall rate of fetal anomalies were found in California after ART/AI for 2009–2011. Cesarean section rates, longer length of maternal stay and hospital charges among women receiving ART/AI could be lowered if emphasis on elective single embryo transfers was a higher priority among providers.
If we turn our attention to how surrogacy is practiced outside the United States, we see how small a role “choice” and “reproductive rights” play in practice. Internationally, women who serve as surrogates often are not making a free choice to act as surrogates, because their decision is driven by financial desperation. Surrogacy laws in India—which were drafted by fertility industry specialists—fail to protect illiterate women, who are often the targets of the fertility industry. These laws simply tie women to contracts that protect the agencies, clinics, and intended parents, leaving the surrogate mother without any protection if she gets sick or is harmed during the course of the pregnancy. In addition, in many cultures where surrogacy is common, the husband decides what can and cannot be done with his wife’s body, and she must obey.
Although some women in the US may feel that being a surrogate is an empowering or selfless choice, this is simply not true for the majority of women.
The Surrogate is Part of the Family
Here’s what some surrogates and some couples who have used surrogates have to say in defense of their decision:
We have remained close. They have sent me pictures of her all through her life. We talk occasionally on the phone. I have seen her twice (when she was 2 years old and 10 years old) and we had a good time together.
My surrogate and her family have and always will be an active part of our lives by choice on both sides. In fact, my children and I just came back from our annual vacation visiting with them. My twins consider them family and vice versa.
Perhaps their goal is to humanize the surrogate in order to justify using her in order to have children. But make no mistake about it: surrogacy contract pregnancies are unequal power arrangements. Demand by wealthy buyers, whether they are infertile couples or same-sex couples, is driving this industry. Children have been forced into these modern families, taking on themselves the complexities and confusion that often come from third-party conception.
I have interviewed many surrogates who went into these arrangements with the best of intentions, often between family members or close friends, only to have things go terribly wrong. One woman e-mailed me saying, “I was a surrogate for my boyfriend’s brother and sister-in-law. I wish I hadn't done it! I am willing to share my story if it will help.” Gail in Breeders was a surrogate for her brother and his partner. She endured serious complications and injuries to her health during the pregnancy due to her age, use of donor eggs and carrying twins, and an ugly custody battle ensued after her twins were born after the relationship between her and her brother and his partner broke down when she realized she had bonded with her children and they needed a mother.
It’s Time to Fight Against Surrogacy
Surrogacy is not a wonderful choice to help; it is a practice that teems with complex power dynamics, serious risks, and hushed-up harms. It is our responsibility to stop it.
Some have already begun to raise awareness of the true nature of commercial surrogacy. Kajsa Ekis Ekman, author of the new book, Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self, calls surrogacy prostitution’s little sister. She argues that all surrogacy is exploitation and, literally, baby trading. In her view, you cannot be a feminist and support surrogacy. She calls for an end to surrogacy before the industry gets as big as the prostitution industry.
Likewise, the General Assembly of the Swedish Women’s Lobby has condemned surrogacy “as a violation of women’s reproductive rights.” The European Parliament states, “women and children are subject to the same forms of exploitation and both can be regarded as commodities on the international reproductive market . . . new reproductive arrangements, such as surrogacy, augment the trafficking of women and children.” People in favor of liberal surrogacy policies, or regulated policies, believe that there exists a right to a child, and that right must be protected in our laws and policies. In fact, however, no one has a right to a child. No one has the right to insist on legalized surrogacy.
No one has the right to use another person’s body in order to produce a child. It’s time for us to work together to end surrogacy, once and for all.