But while idly trawling through social media in search of bargains, I came across a chilling advert. A Black Friday sale of babies. ‘Hurry up and receive a discount’, shrieks the advert on Twitter. ‘A unique proposal for our clients – 3% OFF EVERY PACKAGE’, it says with the breezy tone of a market trader selling Christmas tat.
Except the Ukraine company, the Biotexcom Center for Human Reproduction, is not selling fake sheepskin slippers or discontinued perfume. Its selling babies. Legally. And with a Black Friday discount.
Its website offers a helpful graphic to explain the 17 steps rich folk can take to buy the perfect child, from making the original decision to ‘going home as a happy family’. The mother of their child, the woman who carries the baby for nine months before giving birth, is mentioned only twice in the process. Once when the prospective buyers are matched with ‘their surrogate mother’, and again when she has an embryo transfer. She doesn’t exist, except as a womb for rent.
Commercial surrogacy, where the host mother is paid a fee for giving birth, not just her out-of-pocket expenses, is a growing industry. It is legal in the Ukraine, Georgia and in several states in the USA. India has the largest commercial surrogacy industry in the world, worth an estimated $6 billion. It is particularly popular in California, where a plethora of famous people, from Kim Kardashian to chef Yotam Ottelenghi, have paid women to carry a child for them.
Altruistic surrogacy – where the mother receives no benefit – is legal here in the UK. Indeed, it is recognised by the government as a ‘legitimate form of building a family’. The law allows the purchasers to pay ‘reasonable expenses’ to a woman for the use of her body, but not a fat fee as is common in parts of America. It is, currently, illegal to profit from surrogacy in this country.
But could a review of the law by the Scottish Law Commission, currently underway in partnership with the Law Commission of England and Wales, be about to change that? The commissioners have not yet proposed any changes to the rules on payments. Instead as part of their review, they want to ‘understand public views’ on that thorny subject before coming to a conclusion, likely in a few months’ time.
However, the commissioners have already suggested several significant changes to the current law, including changing it to allow ‘intended parents’ become a child’s legal parents at birth, instead of having to wait to start the legal process after it is born, which can take several months. They also recommend a surrogacy regulator to ensure high standards throughout the process, and safeguards such as independent legal advice and counselling for ‘those entering into the surrogacy arrangement.’
“These [changes] would reduce the risk of the arrangement breaking down which can cause great distress for all involved,” asserts the Scottish Law Commission on its website, in typically measured tones.
Therein lies the essential, ethical problem with surrogacy, whether it is commercial or altruistic; traditional, where the mother’s egg is fertilised by the sperm of one of the intended parents, or gestational, where an embryo, fertilised by the intended parents, is implanted in the host mother. It is not a simple financial transaction that can be regulated in the same way as buying a new house. It is about who we are as human beings.
Of course, if you’re going to allow surrogacy, you should make the process as risk free as possible, codified in the law of the land and supported by scrupulous regulation. You could even argue the host mother should be compensated for her time, her physical effort and the emotional cost of handing over her newborn child to strangers.
And I have no doubt that surrogate parents, from Robbie Williams to Tom Daley, shower their designer babies with love and affection.
But for me, the increasing trend for surrogacy is just another manifestation of the stark inequality that is damaging our society, and the world. In the overwhelming majority of cases, women who endure a surrogate pregnancy – whether they live in downtown LA or a village in the Ukraine – do so because they desperately need the cash, not because they want to bring joy to a rich stranger. Their wombs are for sale. And the intended parents have the social and financial clout to buy what they want, including another human being.
It is the physical embodiment of the oppression of women, reducing us to nothing more than a ‘vending machine’, as feminist writer and campaigner Julie Bindel wrote recently. She has researched surrogacy across the world, particularly in India, where there is now a belated attempt to regulate the industry through the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill (2020), but the pandemic has delayed its passage through parliament.
Here, the future of surrogacy lies with the Scottish Law Commission, one of the most thoughtful bodies in the country. Its primary role is to ensure that our laws keep pace with societal changes, and to ensure the law doesn’t ignore the needs of ordinary people.
They will not recommend that surrogacy is banned when they produce their long awaited report and draft bill next year. But they can stop the practice from becoming a purely commercial one where women with very few life choices are exploited by people with an abundance of options. Our wombs should not be for sale.