Chances are, you probably know what surrogacy is — but where exactly does it stand in modern society?
As defined by IVF Australia, surrogacy is “a form of assisted reproductive technology where a woman (the surrogate) offers to carry a baby through pregnancy on behalf of another person or couple and then return the baby to the intended parent(s) once it is born.”
Since the advent of surrogacy in the 1980s, surrogacy has long been the answer for people who are unable to conceive or carry their own children. The quest to have one’s own biological children is a lifelong wish for many, and one that some would do anything to fulfil. One in six Australian couples have trouble conceiving — and with the legalisation of same-sex marriage last December, the topic is starting to resurface.
At a glance, it’s a beautiful answer to an otherwise heart-stricken problem — but it is by no means a simple process, nor one that is widely accepted globally. While surrogacy has been around for decades, it has mostly remained under the guise of tightly controlled laws, away from the public eye.
This especially holds weight in Western Australia, where laws have only seen ten babies born through altruistic surrogacy in the last ten years. On average, the procedure in Western Australia costs each couple $80,000 and can take up to year — as opposed to a few months in other states. As couples also have to undergo rigorous counselling and psychiatric testing, it has proven incredibly difficult for couples here to conceive via this method.
Currently, two types of surrogacy exist: commercial and altruistic surrogacy. While commercial surrogacy entails a financial gain for the surrogate, the latter only sees a reimbursement for reasonable costs — such as medical expenses and time off work.
In Australia, altruistic surrogacy is legally recognised (in every state except the Northern Territory), with commercial surrogacy considered as a criminal offence. Commercial surrogacy is only legal in India, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine and certain states in the United States. Sitting on the far end of the spectrum, however, are countries like Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Bulgaria and Portugal which prohibit the practice entirely.
Nonetheless, there’s a whole array of arguments as to why surrogacy should be outlawed.
Having come from a strong background in paediatric nursing, Founder and President at The Center for Bioethics and Culture Jennifer Lahl argues that the high-risk nature of gestational surrogate pregnancies puts both the surrogate and unborn child at risk.
“If you’re going to have a patient assume risk, it’s because the medical treatment is something that outweighs the risk,” says Jennifer Lahl. “[However] in the context of surrogacy, there is no benefit to [the surrogate] apart from financial gain.”
How much surrogacy plays a role in the future health and wellbeing of the child still remains unknown, but the health risks for surrogates are apparent. A recent Fertility and Sterility study conducted by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine found that surrogate pregnancies were more likely to result in miscarriage and ectopic pregnancies, while surrogate births had significantly higher obstetrical complications. These include gestational diabetes, hypertension, use of amniocentesis, placenta previa and the possible need for a cesarean section.
From a feminist standpoint, surrogacy has also been criticised as an exploitative practice whereby women are reduced to being child-bearing factories. Amongst the strongest supporters of this notion is feminist health activist Dr Renate Klein, who argues that surrogacy is simply ‘a violation of human rights’. Religious organisations such as the Catholic Church and Australian Catholic Bishops Conference also fiercely oppose surrogacy, deeming it as ‘unnatural’.
Others simply argue that it is unethical for children to be regarded as products of trade — that are, in other words, expected to be the perfect result at the end of the transaction. The infamous Thai surrogacy case of ‘Baby Gammy’ in 2014 is an excellent example. The international dispute was centred on the intended parents, David and Wendy Farnell, and their refusal to take home one of their biological twins, as he was born with Down syndrome. The tragic separation of the twins and lack of protection for surrogate mother Pattaramon Chanbua raise questions about the mechanic nature of surrogacy — and the value of a child despite disability.
While opinions about surrogacy vary greatly all over the world, there’s no doubt that infertile couples don’t have many options when it comes to having their own biological children. Surrogacy isn’t for everyone but it is undeniably a solution for those who are willing.
CEO and Founder of World of Surrogacy, Crystal Travis, believes that couples should have be able to have access to surrogacy in other countries — as long as the relevant legal and protective measures are in place for both parties. As a mother of three children born via a surrogate from India, she only wishes that others can have the same privilege of becoming a parent.
“Surrogacy should certainly be more available to those who need it,” Crystal Travis says. “People will always find a way to pursue surrogacy even if it’s illegal in their country of origin. My mission is to help to create a legal framework for those countries interested in helping to pass international surrogacy laws.”
As such, Crystal raises a pertinent point about how surrogacy should be regarded in our modern day. It may almost be impossible for the practice to arrive at a global consensus, but creating more public discussion around it will only prompt reform. The ideal outcome would see surrogacy become more accessible without compromising proper regulation.
Currently, Western Australia stands as the only state in the country where surrogacy is illegal for same-sex couples. With surrogacy laws set to be reviewed by the state government, both heterosexual and same-sex couples may just be one step closer to the reality of having their own children.