Surrogacy: The Commodification of Motherhood and Human Life

Genevieve Plaster, M.A.  

Last month, an international coalition of individuals and organizations launched a campaign calling for an end to the assisted reproductive technology practice known as surrogacy. Stop Surrogacy Now (SSN) is urging national governments and the global community to end the “exploitation of women and the human trafficking of children through surrogacy.”


According to the campaign’s statement, the coalition “affirm[s] the deep longing many have to be parents”; however, it rejects surrogacy as a solution because of the human rights abuse it inflicts on women and children. The coalition represents 16 organizations and more than 100 individuals from 18 countries. Original signatories comprise a diverse group of surrogate mothers, children conceived through surrogacy, opponents of prostitution, women’s rights activists, and, notably, individuals and national groups with varied views on abortion.

Pregnant woman- shadow

Surrogacy is the sexual reproductive procedure by which a woman enters a contract to carry and give birth to another’s child. With “traditional” surrogacy, the surrogate mother’s own eggs may be naturally or artificially inseminated by a donor or intended father’s sperm. With “gestational” surrogacy, the surrogate mother is implanted with an embryo created by in vitro fertilization (IVF), generally using the intended mother’s egg and intended father’s sperm. In this latter case, the surrogate mother is not genetically related to the baby.


According to the SSN campaign, surrogacy “exploits women (in many cases poor and marginalized) who are paid to bear children” and makes surrogacy-conceived children “objects of contract.” As such, children of surrogacy are “subject to sex-selection or abandonment for disability or simple change-of-mind.” Furthermore, commercial surrogacy, says the coalition, is “indistinguishable from the buying and selling of children.”


Jennifer Lahl, president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network and a central force behind the SSN campaign, says, “Surrogacy is fraught with medical, ethical and legal problems… issues of class… and of course, the using of women as breeders and ignoring the important maternal-child bond, which turns women into commodities and babies as products.” Lahl directed a documentary released last year called Breeders: A Subclass of Women?, which features the stories of surrogate mothers among other compelling interviews.


Some of the health risks to surrogate mothers and women who sell their eggs, as cited by SSN, include Ovarian Hyper Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS), ovarian torsion, ovarian cysts, chronic pelvic pain, premature menopause, and loss of fertility. Children of assisted reproductive technologies may also face preterm birth, stillbirth, low birth weight, fetal abnormalities, and higher blood pressure.


Last year, the international community saw the inherent ills of surrogacy unfold with the tragic case of baby Gammy. The surrogate-born boy was abandoned in Thailand by his intended parents from Australia because he had Down syndrome, though they returned home with his twin sister who did not have Down syndrome.


“If it would have been safe for that embryo to be terminated, we probably would have terminated it… because the baby has a handicap,” admitted David Farnell, the intended father, in an interview.


There’s no knowing exactly how many surrogacy procedures are performed in the United States, let alone how many result in abortion, since the procedure is widely unregulated here. Nevertheless, some surrogate mothers who aborted the baby or were pressured to abort the baby at the intended parents’ demand have shared their experiences publicly.


In Lahl’s documentary, one woman expressed deep, continuing regret over an abortion she had after the baby was detected with a fetal abnormality at an ultrasound appointment. Both intended parents wanted the abortion, and despite telling them she was against it, the surrogate mother ended up consenting.


Because of this complex dynamic between intended parents and the surrogate mother, surrogacy contracts may include abortion clauses such as in this sample contract, which states:


The Surrogate agrees to accept a clinical abortion under the circumstances stated in the foregoing paragraphs.  However, in the event that the Surrogate refuses to proceed with a clinical abortion, Surrogate agrees to the termination of all expenses under Section IX of this Agreement…  Furthermore, in the event that the Surrogate refuses to proceed with a clinical abortion, all further performance required by the Genetic Father and Intended Mother under the terms of this Agreement is excused.


Abortion is one among a plenitude of harmful practices involved in surrogacy, which is why the SSN campaign is supported by a unique and diverse group of people and organizations from around the world. Kathleen Sloan, a former board member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and another major force behind the SSN campaign, explained this “unlikely alliance” in Public Discourse, writing:


The path to justice is long and arduous. Those of us across the political and ideological spectrum who have learned the poisonous truth about surrogacy have decided to put our differences aside… None of us can stop surrogacy on our own. So … we have freely chosen to come together and create a campaign to bring an end to the commodification, health endangerment, trafficking, and exploitation that is surrogacy.


Sloan continued, “We will not allow ourselves to be distracted by the differences between us, we will not allow the surrogacy industry to divide and therefore conquer us.”


Surrogacy is often portrayed as a service, or even a good, in the media and by commercial surrogacy agencies. The SSN campaign exposes its harms – the exploitation of women; commodification of the woman’s body; objectification of children who are bought, sold, and subject to compelled abortion or abandonment; and the health risks to the surrogate and children conceived by surrogacy. Time will tell whether the international community will heed these warnings. In the meantime, in Sloan’s words: “We will not allow ourselves to be distracted by the difference between us…We will keep our eyes on the prize – and we shall overcome.”


The full text of the SSN statement can be viewed here.


Genevieve Plaster is a research assistant for the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Rebecca Gonzalez, an intern for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, contributed information on surrogacy sample contracts.


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