High price tags and ugly secrets – how surrogacy preys on poor women

Women from a poor demographic have become an increasing interest in the multi-billion dollar surrogate industry, with most mothers being forced or coerced into volunteering as a surrogate.

“Surrogacy depends in many cases on the exploitation of poor women, because it’s the poor who have to sell and the rich that can afford to buy,” Christopher White told CNA July 23.

White, who serves as the Director of Research and Education at the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, said that frequently in countries from the developing world like India and Thailand, where the surrogacy market is booming, the women hired as surrogates “are forced into the practice due to patriarchal structures.”

“They are given very little consent in the matter, or these women feel as if it’s their only choice and one of the few ways they can contribute to their household income. So they go, very often hesitantly and unwillingly, and enter into this practice.”

India and Thailand are among the most common international destinations for couples seeking surrogacy due to low costs and loose regulations. White also named Mexico, Nepal and Ukraine as other countries where the market is growing.

Attention has mounted the past few days over a recent surrogacy case in Thailand in which a surrogate mother refused to allow the American couple who hired her to take their child out of the country when she found out that they were homosexual, Reuters News reports.

Although the woman in the case, Patidta, is not the child’s biological mother, under Thai law the birth mother is recognized as being the mother of the child, and commissioning parents have no automatic legal rights over the child born.

Apparently Patidta believed she would be giving the baby to a heterosexual couple, but only learned they were homosexual when the couple came to pick the child up. She then refused to let them take the baby.

Such a lack of transparency in the surrogacy industry is not uncommon.

Alana Newman, founder of the Anonymous Us Project, told CNA July 24 that “there is definitely enormous deception being used from every angle.”

“Egg providers and surrogates are being lied to about the health consequences of the hormones they take. They are being sold a fantasy that every intended couple that walks through the doors of fertility clinics will make loving, wholesome homes when in fact there are no incentives whatsoever for fertility industry professionals to vet and reject customers with troubling profiles.”

Newman’s project gathers stories of individuals who have either willingly or unwillingly participated in reproductive technologies such as surrogacy, with the goal of fostering truth and transparency in the industry.

She said that as far as surrogacy goes, there is no guarantee of integrity of the gamete providers, and that sperm donors “can and do say whatever they think the woman wants to hear – just like they would at a bar.”

“There are pedophiles hiring surrogates and egg donors. There are gamete providers and fertility industry workers lying on paperwork about donor profiles to sell more specimen.”

Keeping such anonymity, she said, “lets them maintain a warm fantasy.”

The controversy is the latest in Thailand after numerous cases surfaced last year, including accusations that an Australian couple abandoned their Downs Syndrome baby, leaving him with the birth mother and taking only his healthy twin sister back home.

Surrogacy laws in Thailand have changed following last year’s scandals, banning foreigners from receiving surrogacy services. However, the new law doesn’t go into effect until July 30 of this year, making the couple’s request legal.

The American couple that hired Patidta have another child born through surrogacy in India, but went to Thailand after India changed their laws last year allowing only heterosexual couples to seek surrogates.

White explained that although the majority of couples looking for a surrogate mother are currently heterosexual, recent years have seen a spike in the number of homosexual couples looking for assisted reproductive services.

He said the recent push for marriage equality has also given rise to the idea of “family equality,” in which the couples insist on their right to form their own families “without any type of restriction, and should be granted access by insurance benefits and other means to acquire the family of their desires.”

Although concrete statistics on the exact number of homosexual couples now seeking third party reproductive services are hard to find, White said it’s enough to go to any surrogacy website and look at their marketing.

On any major surrogacy site “you’ll find that they are particularly marketing toward the demographic of gay men,” he said.

“These agencies have special programs for gay men, they have special conferences such as ‘Families through Surrogacy,’ (and) ‘Families by Design,’ all targeted toward this population.”

White also noted the various health risks associated with surrogate pregnancies, for both the woman and the child.

Due to surrogacy’s high costs and the desire for brokers and agencies to boost their success, usually numerous embryos are implanted in the surrogate mother, which White said can lead to an increased risk of cesarean sections and longer hospital stays.

The child born through surrogacy also faces greater risks, he said, including the increased chance of low birth rates, pre-term births, fetal abnormalities and high blood pressure.

Emotional and psychological health is also a concern due to the severing of the mother-child bond that is usually encouraged during pregnancy, but which is cut off in cases of surrogacy.

“It’s a human rights tragedy,” White said. “The entire practice just shows the way in which we’ve commodified the human body.”

“It subjects these women and children that are born by this practice to risks that are unnecessary, but we’ve commercialized the body. It undermines both these women’s health and their dignity.”

He explained that women who serve as surrogates are frequently disregarded after the birth of the child, and that it’s rare to see a surrogate mother come back to do it again.

Instances of war or natural disaster can complicate the situation, such as in the case of Ukraine and the recent earthquakes in Nepal, White observed.

“Any time there’s a stressful situation or heightened drama around the surrogate pregnancy, what’s quickly revealed is the fact that these surrogate mothers are looked upon simply as employees of the agencies rather than mothers or patients,” he said.

Rather than being treated the same as a mother delivering her own child in the hospital, these women “are being monitored and supervised because someone’s dollar value is on the line. There’s a price tag attached to that transaction.”