As the fallout from baby Gammy continues and Thailand moves to make commercial surrogacy illegal, calls are intensifying for Australia to legalise paid surrogacy with a ‘carefully designed system’ as columnist Julie Szego proposed on these pages last week.
As a critic of the IVF industry for three decades, my solution is very different. Rather than regulating a system that commodifies the resulting child and invariably uses women as "containers" for carrying and birthing a baby they are taught to say is not theirs, we need to focus on the demand for surrogacy and try to reduce it.
How is it that there are 100 or more couples who are now in understandable despair because they don’t know what’s happening to the Thai women carrying "their" babies, or to their frozen embryos in clinics that have been closed down? Who is facilitating couples - gay and straight - who are intent on their own genetic child and have the money to pay going baby shopping overseas?
We need to focus on those who fuel the demand for surrogacy - like the group Surrogacy Australia, which held its consumer-oriented conference for prospective IPs (intended parents), titled Families through Surrogacy, in Melbourne at the end of May 2014. This was a buyers’ market with beaming surrogates and egg donors from Australia and overseas, and a presence of local and international IVF clinics from Thailand, India and Mexico.
And so we sat for two days: about 200 people, many of them potential customers. We listened to expert after expert extolling the happiness but also the pitfalls facing intended parents – they were clearly the focus of the conference – if they start the surrogacy journey on their own. Much better to use the services of Surrogacy Australia with their tried and tested connections to IVF clinics in- and outside Australia, including the Thai clinic Talent IVF. And their lawyers: no fewer than six Australian law firms and migration agents were advertising their services in a trade fair along the walls of the venue, with plenty of nice pens.
Surrogacy Australia is closely aligned with Fertility Connections, a closed online forum for members (fertilityconnectionsaustralia.com/au). Here intended parents can look for surrogates, egg donors (and vice versa). Featuring a beautiful Tree of Life as their logo, spokeswoman Rachel Kunde (who is also a spokesperson for Surrogacy Australia) describes herself as a Queensland surrogate and "4 times egg donor".
All of this is presented to us as the "natural" next step for couples who went unsuccessfully through IVF multiple times. (Stopping altogether is not discussed.) Many are now also in need of an egg donor – as are the gay couples who play a prominent role as proud Gay Dads at the conference discussing "processes, costs and success rates" of their surrogacy journeys in India, Thailand or the US.
The right to a child is not questioned, the fact that the birth mother might regret giving away her child for the rest of her life, or decide to keep the baby, is only discussed in the context of what precautions intended parents need to take so that this does not happen. It is accepted without discussion that a "gestational surrogate" - the term used for a woman who becomes pregnant with an implanted embryo that does not contain her own genes – will not have a relationship with the developing baby as it is "not her child". An absurd notion for any woman who has ever been pregnant.
A pregnant 22-year-old Queensland woman at the conference tells us her story of being a three-time egg donor. One hormonal stimulation went horribly wrong and she ended up in hospital with life-threatening ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. But the "reward" of donating is so important to her that she does it another three times! Now she is a surrogate but in the "traditional way", via sperm insemination. She could not face the fertility hormone injections again. This woman, who has now a fiance, will give her first child away … but she talks about it with obvious pride. The audience has gone quiet and it is difficult to guess what they think.
What have we done as a society that beautiful young women risk their lives and health and give their babies away? That people with money can commission a custom-made baby from an Indian woman their child will never know? Have we forgotten the many heartbreaking stories from adoption? Don’t we know about donor children in desperate need of finding their sperm donor? Why are we repeating these mistakes, and why are we not even talking about it?
We need to reduce the demand for surrogacy. Surrogacy is a heartless, exploitative, capitalist enterprise. There is no right to a child; children are not commodities, and surrogates are not just "suitcases" or "angels" (depending on your point of view). Infertility can be very sad but we need to also understand that many women are pushed into surrogacy because of IVF failures (more income for IVF clinics). There are so many children around who deserve love and attention - why insist on your own genes and commodify a woman in the process (even if she says it’s her "choice" or she needs the money)?
Introducing commercial surrogacy in Australia is not the answer. Reducing demand for all types of surrogacy is.
Dr Renate Klein is a feminist health researcher. She was Associate Professor in Women’s Studies at Deakin University until 2006.