Commercial surrogacy is a human rights disaster

The American state of Michigan recently legalised commercial surrogacy. “This is the most pro-family thing that the Legislature has done,” said Governor Gretchen Whitmer as she signed the legislation into law.

Every American state has its own laws on surrogacy; until this year, a strict ban was in place in Michigan. Now it has joined the majority of states that permit some form of commercial surrogacy. The only states currently banning it are Nebraska and Louisiana.

The United States has become a leader in commercialising human life. But in this particular human rights abuse, it's an outlier. Elsewhere in the world, only a handful of countries, including paragons of human rights like Russia and Iran, permit commercial surrogacy.

However, there are moves to follow America's lead in countries like Ireland, the United Kingdom and Australia. Others can be expected to explore this option.

In fact, over the next couple of decades, surrogacy is expected to explode. One market research agency has predicted that the global demand for surrogacy will rise from US$14 billion in 2022 to $129 billion in 2032 – almost a ten-fold increase.

Will this be an ethical business? Does surrogacy, especially commercial surrogacy, foster human dignity? Is it the “most pro-family thing”?

The media often frames opposition to surrogacy as a “religious” issue. After all, Pope Francis recently denounced it: ““I consider despicable the practice of so-called surrogate motherhood, which represents a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child.”

Strong words, but feminists are even more outspoken. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem fiercely opposed the legalisation of commercial surrogacy in New York in 2019: “women in economic need become commercialized vessels for rent, and the fetuses they carry become the property of others”.

And Julie Bindel, a well-known lesbian journalist in the UK, has said that “the surrogacy industry, in its entirety, is nothing but a reproductive brothel”.

She didn’t mince her words: “for everyone who has the means to pursue surrogacy, including gay couples, adoption is also an option. Nobody has the right to a biological child, regardless of their sexuality or sex. The use of impoverished women’s bodies for the benefit and convenience of those claiming parenthood as ‘their human right’ is anathema to women’s liberation.”

The International Coalition for the Abolition of Surrogate Motherhood (ICASM), a European coalition of feminist and human rights organizations, is just as vehement in its repudiation of Governor Whitmer’s rhetoric:

“Surrogacy raises serious ethical and human rights concerns. It attacks vulnerable women, depriving them of their dignity and bodily autonomy. It puts their lives and health at risk. It treats children as objects taken from their biological mothers, undermining their rights and their psychological, emotional and physical well-being. Surrogacy reinforces the patriarchal view of women as passive recipients of reproduction, commercializes their wombs in the name of a pseudo ‘choice’, and deprives them of their inalienable human rights by organizing their voluntary servitude under the guise of ‘consent’.”

Why surrogacy described as ‘progressive’?

Blind Freddy could see that there is substance in these allegations. Why, then, is surrogacy regarded as a “progressive” cause?

A few reasons spring to mind.

Women are having children later and later. The average age of an American mother at her first child was In 2021, the average woman gave birth for the first time at 27.3 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from 25.6 in 2011 and 21.4 in 1970. Some women leave motherhood so late that not even IVF can help. They turn to surrogacy.

Fewer children are available for adoption. Why not adopt instead of renting a womb? Because there are fewer babies available for adoption today. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion industry think tank, “The estimated effect of abortion legalization on adoption rates is sizable and can account for much of the decline in adoptions”. If legal, commercial surrogacy becomes a viable option for desperate couples.

US IVF clinics have added surrogacy to their product lines. The IVF industry is highly sophisticated, profitable, and aggressive. It offers catalogues of surrogate mothers and egg donors. There’s even a “Bumble for surrogates” which uses the software pioneered for dating websites to match up surrogates and commissioning parents.

More same-sex couples and singles want to have children. The most persuasive argument for surrogacy is it gives infertile couples a chance to have a child. But a leading Australian surrogacy broker told Mercator that half of his clients were gay couples or single people. A look at the websites of surrogacy agencies will confirm this – many of their cheery images and videos feature gay couples. As the LGBT lobby becomes more powerful, more gay dads will feel that they want children. It’s an inevitable consequence of legalising same-sex marriage.

This post on X (formerly Twitter) from an agency called Men Having Babies, gives an idea of the scope and scale of this segment of the market:


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Some ethical issues

People who are desperate to have a child, who feel entitled to a child, who can afford to pay for a child, are unlikely to examine the ethical issues closely.

But these issues are substantial.

The most obvious is that surrogacy exploits women’s poverty. There is a good reason why surrogacy agencies recruit women in Ukraine and Mexico and not on the campuses of Harvard and Columbia. Only a woman in financial straits would carry a child for nine months and give him or her away to strangers.

This is true even in the United States. An article in the Journal of Law and Technology pointed out that “these transactions prey on lower-income women with few alternatives”. For instance, an estimated 15 to 20 percent of American surrogate mothers are military wives. “As a military spouse, you can make up to $72,000 as a first time surrogate with the ConceiveAbilities $10,000 limited time bonus,” one website announces.

Surrogacy brokers praise military wives as “exceptional” surrogates because they are “service-oriented”. This is hokum. The real reason? “(1) they have few alternative job opportunities, (2) their husbands’ incomes are comparatively low, and (3) they have medical insurance,” according to the Journal of Law and Technology.

It also exploits women psychologically. Women develop a deep connection with their baby. When the child is born, separation can often be a wrenching experience.  A study of Indian surrogate mothers in the journal Human Reproduction found that they “had higher levels of depression compared to the comparison group of mothers, during pregnancy and post-birth”.

How about the children of surrogate mothers? Again, research into this problem is scanty. But it is an issue.

On a basic level, RSPCA Australia advises people who are adopting puppies that “the minimum acceptable age for a puppy to be removed from their mother for adoption or purchase [is] eight weeks of age, and the puppy must be fully weaned.” Its experience is that: “Separating a puppy from their mother too early causes distress, and can have long-term negative effects on their health and behaviour.” 

Breaking the maternal bond is not a bug of surrogacy; it is a feature. 

Some children born to a surrogate mother feel deeply wounded. Their mothers have been erased from their lives and they began life as a commodity. This is the case with an American-French woman, Olivia Maurel. She is a spokesperson for the Casablanca Declaration, a group lobbying for a global ban on surrogacy. Discovering that she had been born to a surrogate mother was deeply traumatic for her.

“My experiences have led me to conclude that surrogacy is nothing short of cruel — an immoral act that can cause lifelong damage,” she says. “Becoming a parent myself — entirely naturally, in my mid-20s — has only crystallised my view. The sacred bond between mother and baby is, I feel, something that should never be tampered with.”

Surrogacy agencies typically respond that their surrogate mothers are happy and fulfilled. Here is some odious boilerplate from the Vermont Surrogacy Network:

“Becoming a surrogate mother is one of the most generous and selfless decisions one can make … They are mature, they have a selfless heart, they enjoy being pregnant … there is no better feeling than realizing you are living a life with meaning and hold a genuine passion for helping others … It is truly breathtaking.”

Assuring customers of the happiness of your slaves is an old, old game. A famous pamphlet written just before the American Civil War extolled the life of slaves: “The Negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them.” 

It's hard to know which set of lies is more nauseating. 

Europeans have been more alert to the moral cesspit which is the surrogacy industry. In the words of two members of the European Parliament: “Surrogacy is a modern form of slavery, human trafficking, child trafficking and exploitation of women … It humiliates women by imposing contracts on them which oblige them to relinquish their right to maintain a natural bond with their newborn child, thereby endangering their mental health.”

In France, opposition to surrogacy has drawn impressive crowds. President Emmanuel Macron has said flatly that surrogacy is “not compatible with the dignity of women." A group called Manif Pour Tous demonstrated in Paris dressed as Marianne, the personification of the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and pushing shopping trolleys. 

The only decent, humane response to commercial surrogacy, one which respects the human rights of the surrogate mother and her child, is a global ban. Olivia Maurel’s Casablanca Declaration has proposed a text of a possible international convention. It deserves to be supported everywhere. Surrogacy is not “pro-family”.

Is surrogacy a human rights issue? Leave your comments in the box below.

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator

Image credits: Bigstock


Showing 5 reactions

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  • Paschal Anaeke
    followed this page 2024-05-28 05:46:24 +1000
  • David Page
    commented 2024-05-26 10:28:40 +1000
    Agreed, but only as it applies to commercial surrogacy.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-05-25 09:45:19 +1000
    It seems Mr Cook thinks that the phrase “they enjoy being pregnant” is a lie. That is certainly the case for many women. It would go a long way to explaining the declining birth rate (which, by the way, is not a problem).

    The economy is not more important than the environment that supports it. And the lack of decent jobs for many people only makes things worse for society.
  • mrscracker
    Adoption finds parents for orphans. Surrogacy creates orphans.
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2024-05-24 21:38:14 +1000