Expendable mothers

The surrogacy industry treats women like disposable commodities.
Melinda Tankard Reist | 5 March 2014
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Adelaide couple Mark and Matt, both 29, have acquired Thai-designed newborns Tate and Estelle through commercialised surrogacy overseas. According to Adelaide's Sunday Mail, “the dual boy-girl delivery an hour apart by caesarean section to separate surrogate women for gay parents is believed to be an Australian first”.

These babies have a complex genealogical history. They were conceived from eggs extracted from a single Caucasian donor woman (country not identified), separately fertilised with the men's sperm, then implanted into two Thai women who acted as surrogate mothers. Commercial surrogacy is illegal in Australia and adoption by gay people disallowed in South Australia. The men spent A$80,000 to obtain the children.

I'm not about to make a case that Mark and Matt won't love the children or provide good homes for them. And it's not just gay men engaging in reproductive tourism in developing countries - an estimated 500 couples a year are doing it, with figures showing a tripling in three years.

What most concerns me is the complete erasure of the mother or mothers in these acts of global womb renting by wealthy Westerners. This latest case highlights this mother disappearance.

There is no mother in the story. A graph showed the two men as “Biological Fathers” and the women as “Surrogate 1” and “Surrogate 2”. Elsewhere they are “women” not “mothers”.

“We have decided we will not contact the donor but we do have photos of her, which we will give to the children,” Matt said.

The birth mothers won't ever be contacted or shared in photos even though it was their voices the babies heard and responded to in-utero, their bodies who nourished and sustained them and prepared for their arrival.

The mothers who grew and birthed Tate and Estelle are eliminated from the children's history, treated as nothing more than disposable uteruses. The physical, emotional, spiritual bonds between mother and child that develop during a pregnancy are rendered null and void by a monetary transaction.

Previously popular for surrogacy - with Australian citizenship requests for children born there increasing more than 300 per cent over five years, according to a report in The Age - India is now apparently excluding gay couples, singles and de-facto foreigners from the practice.

Thailand is looking like the new popular destination, with surrogate baby breeding rings springing up. “Baby 101” was shut down in 2011, with 13 Vietnamese women, half of them pregnant, freed. Australian citizenship requests for children born there has increased by 54 per cent.

In Thailand, the hired mother is required to be single but with previous children. Wouldn't her being single with children make her even more vulnerable to exploitation? Could she understand a contract and provide full informed consent? Was it possible for her to change her mind at any time?

Would she be required to terminate when multiple embryos were implanted and grew? What if the drugs and other procedures make her ill now or in future? It's unlikely she will ever be followed up.

Today we have stricter and more humane laws and protocols around adoption, and the rights of birth mothers and their children. But the global baby production industry profits through circumventing these.

This industry is taking Australia back to the dark days of mother-child separations and baby snatching at birth. But glitzy technology and distorted ideas about the right of anyone to a child, is clouding clear judgment and sensible policy-making in today's surrogacy business.

Instead of young, single women in the mothers' homes of the 1950s, today it is Thai and Indian mothers who give birth to babies who are immediately taken from them.

A new documentary Breeders: A Subclass of Women?, produced by the US Centre for Bioethics and Culture Network, explores some of the harms of surrogacy in general, with women feeling used, exploited and unable to forget the children they birthed in this global baby production industry.

Australian women have also spoken out about their damaging experiences of surrogacy. Sydney surrogate birth mother Shona Ryan told a Canberra conference: “My subconscious, my body, my emotions, knew I'd given birth and were screaming out for that baby. I kept having the urge to tell people, 'I've had a baby!' “

The Family Law Council is about to release a review of legal issues of parentage including children born through surrogacy. I hope this report will not erase the mothers or the right of any child to know their mother.

Melinda Tankard Reist is a columnist, blogger and commentator. This article originally appeared in The Age and has been republished with permission.

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