Gestational surrogacy — often presented as a win-win for all involved, particularly the intended parents who cannot conceive naturally — was painted with a decidedly different brush on Tuesday, at a New York City conference focused on wiping out, rather than tightening regulations of, the practice altogether.
“Nothing is harder than fighting the global sex trade, but [fighting] surrogacy can be,” declared Julie Bindel, a feminist activist and British journalist who has gone undercover in India to explore the global surrogacy business.
Bindel spoke at “Trading on the Female Body,” a presentation of Stop Surrogacy Now and the Center for Bioethics and Culture that was intent on exposing surrogacy as an exploitative practice that must be banned. She decried the oft-held notion that everyone has the “right” to parenthood.
“The rights of the women who are carrying their baby, who are selling their eggs, aren’t considered at all,” Bindel said. “No one has the right to a child. And there are [already] plenty of babies and children who really do need care.”
Conference moderator Jennifer Lahl, founder of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, kicked off the conference by summing up the complex web of concerns regarding surrogacy: maternal-child health, maternal-child bonding, myriad health risks for the surrogate mother, the “commodification and commercialization of reproductive bodies,” and what she calls the “callousness of the industry.”
The day was meant to highlight, she noted, how the industry treats women “as breeders.”
Lahl explained that she had called for the conference as more and more countries, particularly those in the European Union, outlaw commercial surrogacy, sending infertile and gay couples to U.S. agencies in search of a solution. “It’s trafficking reproductive tourism,” she said. “I am deeply concerned, as a feminist, as international communities shut down the practice of surrogacy, how many more people will come to the U.S.”
Gestational surrogacy — in which a surrogate mother who has no genetic connection to the baby carries an embryo or embryos created by rounds of in-vitro fertilization that are typically made up of donor eggs plus sperm from the intended father — is fraught with thorny issues for all involved. It’s particularly troubling for the woman whose womb is being “rented,” said the organizers, who noted on a conference flyer, “We believe that the practice of commercial surrogacy is indistinguishable from the buying and selling of children. We stand together asking national governments of the world and leaders of the international community to work together to end this practice and Stop Surrogacy Now.”
Recent legal cases have served to highlight the potential problems behind surrogacy agreements — including one in which the intended parents told their surrogate to have an abortion after learning that the baby had fetal abnormalities (the surrogate refused and is now raising her baby), and another concerning gay dads from Spain who battled their hired Thai surrogate in court after she decided that she wanted to keep the baby (the dads won). Another famous case revolved around Baby Gammy, the biological baby of an Australian couple who was born through a Thai surrogate; the couple took the baby’s twin sister back home with them but left Baby Gammy, who had Down syndrome, behind (they were recently cleared of abandoning the infant).
Tuesday’s conference offered up three women to highlight other problems with the practice, including Kelly Martinez, who gave birth to five babies via commercial surrogacy — twice for couples from the EU who came to this country to circumvent bans back home.
When Martinez signed her first contract, she was 20, had her own two kids, and had dropped out of high school to take care of her mother, who was undergoing chemotherapy, Lahl explained in her introduction. “You can just imagine all the issues and the problems for a young woman entering into an international web in order to help others,” she said.
Martinez kept entering into agreements, she said, because she “loved being pregnant” and is “a sucker for a sad story.” But throughout them, she said, she often felt exploited — such as when she was asked to lie to French authorities about the arrangement, was scolded for conceiving twin boys instead of a boy and a girl when the intended parents “paid extra” for a baby of each sex, and was accused of “holding on” to her pregnancy for 30 weeks so that she’d receive full payment as stipulated in one of her contracts. Meanwhile, she said, she’s been left with more than $6,000 of medical debt.
Another woman on the panel, Kylee Gilman, spoke about how agreeing to become an egg donor led her to a state of critical health in which she needed blood transfusions, suffered a stroke that left her with brain damage, and created a questionable fertility situation for herself.
Finally, there was Jessica Kern, a young woman born through a surrogacy arrangement, who now speaks out against the practice and calls herself a “product” of surrogacy. “The family I grew up with, there were so many expectations of perfection — ‘I paid money for you,’” she explained. “Even on the birth family end, you’re supposed to be grateful for how you came about. You’re not supposed to question. The majority of my birth family has stopped speaking with me, because apparently I don’t have the right to object to this industry. I’m supposed to just be grateful.”
Three experts on the topic also spoke — including Pierette Pape of the European Women’s Lobby, and author and professor Janice Raymond, who ran the audience through the history of surrogacy as an industry, pointing out how paternal rights are most often honored when cases go to court. She also explained how the “feminist critique of surrogacy” addresses the ways that reproduction technologies have involved the “use and abuse of women” through the “blasting of ovaries” and other procedures, as well as how poor women in other countries are often paid half as much as surrogates in the U.S.
However, Bindel made some of the most pointed accusations of the afternoon, noting how surrogates are “shamed hideously, told they are selling their babies,” when there is no shame put on “the so-called commissioning parents.” She focused particularly on what she found to be inhumane treatment of surrogates in India, as well as how an increase in LGBT marriage rights has given surrogacy advocates renewed vigor.
“It’s the gay couples that seem to be pushing this debate forward, because we’re all so careful and don’t wish to be homophobic,” said Bindel, who is herself a lesbian. But she went so far as to compare the new defense for surrogacy as the idea of gay men wishing to be fathers to that of “the disabled sex buyer” as the defense for prostitution. “It’s ‘Look, this poor paraplegic man … you cannot discriminate’ [his right to buy sex],” she said. “And the gay man is being held up as, ‘But how else is he going to do this?’”
The anti-surrogacy beliefs of Bindel, as well as the other speakers, elicited criticisms on Facebook, where the event was streamed live.
“So if I am in charge of my body, I get to say what happens to my body. I should get to decide if I want to carry a child for someone else and what contractual obligations I am willing to meet in that process,” wrote Valerie Renee Sorensen Miller, who said she had served as a gestational surrogate. “I don’t need a politician, a radical feminist, a stranger, or my best friend telling me what to do with my body. Radical feminism is only convenient when it suits you.”
Jennifer Dominguez, apparently referring to the prostitution parallel, noted, “So strippers and pole dancing and surrogacy are all the same things? Is she kidding?”
And Sunday Crider, a reproductive biologist and the chief scientific officer of 3 Sisters Surrogacy, a Texas-based agency that works with gestational carriers in the U.S., noted that she was “disappointed” in the portrayal of surrogates. “We work with attorneys, physicians, and mental health professionals to ensure that both gestational carriers and intended parents are treated in a way where all have a very positive experience,” she wrote. “You do not speak for the majority of couples that become families through IVF, surrogacy, egg donation, and sperm donation.”
Yahoo Beauty reached out to Crider for more on what she found disappointing, and she told us it was “the comparison of women who act as gestational carriers as ‘happy hookers’ or being taken advantage of. I have worked with amazingly strong women who become surrogates because they have an altruistic desire to help someone experiencing infertility. To portray them as weak women who cannot make decisions for themselves is absurd.”
At her agency, she says, candidates go through a rigorous screening process, and families are then carefully matched. Each party has legal representation to agree on the details of a contract.
Finally, Crider takes issue with Stop Surrogacy Now’s stance that “no one has the right to a child” and says, “If that is the case, then we should all stop reproducing. It is a sad state when others try to dictate how we build our families.”
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