On the issue of surrogacy, it’s the Pope’s critics who are archaic and uninformed
Fireworks erupted last week after Pope Francis demanded a global ban on the practice of surrogacy. He described it as “deplorable” and “a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child”. “A child is always a gift and never the basis of a commercial contract,” he said.
As a sign of the issue's importance, he included it in his annual foreign policy speech to the Vatican diplomatic corps, along with Gaza, Ukraine, Myanmar, Armenia and other hotspots for war and violations of human rights.
The Pope’s critics pulled at the heartstrings – surrogacy is a way for childless people to build a loving family. “The Pope’s opinions on surrogacy are outdated, uninformed and condescending to the women who choose to be surrogates,” wrote an Australian surrogacy lawyer who has also been a surrogate mother in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Surrogacy is relied heavily upon for people who have no other options and really really want to grow their family,” Stephanie Levich, of Family Match Consulting, told People magazine.
“It’s insensitive and not in touch with the world,” Judith Hoechst, a surrogacy lawyer in Denver, told USA Today. “My son would not be on this Earth but for God, and God makes no mistakes.”
But it is supporters of surrogacy who are out of touch. Most people believe that a typical couple looking for a surrogate mother have been trying for years and are making one last throw of the dice. In fact, demand for surrogate mothers is being fuelled by the rise in the number of gay couples, especially after the legalisation of same-sex marriage. They believe that they have a right to a child and that a ban would be an outrageous form of discrimination.
A quick scan of the websites of IVF clinics and surrogacy agencies will show how important the gay market is. Check out Hatch, Circle Surrogacy, Same Love Surrogacy, ConceiveAbilities, or Growing Generations. The acronym LGBT should be expanded to LGSBT to include surrogacy.
The Pope is right. Surrogacy is an important human rights issue in which both mother and child are exploited. Even on an evolutionary level, children are meant to be raised by their biological mothers and fathers. The further we move from this model, the greater the danger of abuse. Commercial surrogacy turns children into commodities which are valued for their utility, not for their humanity. It depends upon IVF, which separates loving sex from reproduction, with unpredictable consequences.
Here are a few of the pimples and ulcers that appear when you look through a magnifying glass at the glowing smiles on surrogacy websites.
Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The best recent example is the catastrophic history of Ukrainian surrogacy agencies. Ukraine is, or was, a global hotspot for surrogacy. It is rich in good doctors and poor women – the ideal society for surrogacy. Hundreds of Ukrainian women were pregnant with surrogate babies when Covid-19 struck. Horrifying images appeared of wards filled with wailing babies who could not be delivered to the commissioning parents. Some of the parents never showed up. And then the war with Russia broke out. Some of the mothers ended up behind enemy lines. The IVF clinics moved into bomb shelters.
Narcissism. Surrogacy makes it possible for a new kind of crime – perverse narcissicists with deep pockets can fulfill kinky desires of parenthood.
In 2014 Bangkok police discovered that a 28-year-old Japanese man, Mitsutoki Shigeta, had hired dozens of women to gestate children conceived with his sperm. It’s not clear how many children were born, but it appears that he fathered at least 15. His agent in Thailand told the media that "He said he wanted 10 to 15 babies a year, and that he wanted to continue the baby-making process until he's dead." He was awarded custody of 13 of the children in 2018.
In 2021 the Russian media discovered the case of Kristina and Galip Öztürk, a couple living in the seaside city of Batumi, in Georgia, who planned to have 105 children. Kristina chronicled her home life on Instagram @batumi_mama. Media reports never made it clear who was supplying the eggs and sperm, but the project stopped at 22 surrogate children under two or three years old. Galip was a multi-millionaire, but he has been arrested for money laundering and is wanted in Turkey for colluding in a murder.
Children as a status symbol. Paris Hilton. Elton John. Rebel Wilson. Khloé Kardashian. Anderson Cooper. Kanye West. Angela Bassett. Nicole Kidman. Robert De Niro. The list of celebrities who have had children by surrogates is endless. This is where surrogacy-as-exploitation comes into focus. These unimaginably rich people hire poor “carriers” who are shut out of their baby’s lives. As the lifestyle magazine Town & Country put it: “The golden age of status surrogacy is here… As with so much in life, the rich are paying for convenience and how they want to exercise it.”
When the baby is damaged goods. The Ukraine’s ombudsman for children said in 2019 that he knew of about a dozen cases of babies born via commercial surrogacy who were abandoned by foreign parents, probably because of birth defects.
In 2014 the UK, the tabloid press described another case of twins: Amy, who had a rare inherited condition which causes babies to be “floppy” and developmentally delayed, and a healthy brother. But when the commissioning woman learned about Amy’s disability, she refused to take her. She told Jenny over the phone: “She’d be a ****ing dribbling cabbage! Who would want to adopt her? No one would want to adopt a disabled child”. She took the healthy boy.
And those are the babies who are born. What about those whose defects are detected before birth? Normally they are aborted.
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Abused women. If gestating a child for a childless couple is such a heart-warming experience, why don’t more young women with degrees from Harvard and Oxford take up the challenge? The truth is that surrogate mothers are almost always poor women who are desperate for cash. This makes them easy prey for human traffickers. A few months ago, a leading IVF clinic in Greece was raided by police. They found that a syndicate had taken more than 160 women from countries like Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Georgia, and Albania and persuaded them to become egg donors and surrogate mothers in Greece. It allegedly orchestrated illegal adoptions and offered counterfeit IVF treatments to unsuspecting patients.
The problem was worse in India before commercial surrogacy there was banned. A report from the Centre for Social Research in 2013 found shocking abuses. Most of the “carriers” were illiterate or only had a primary education. Almost none of them had a copy of the contract that they signed. So much for legal protection!
Surrogacy thrives in countries where there are weak legal protections for the mother and an abundant supply of poor women. After endless stories of abuse, the governments of India, Thailand, Nepal, and Cambodia made commercial surrogacy illegal. The surrogacy industry simply shifted to Laos, Kenya, Nigeria, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and other low-income countries.
Surrogacy is a feminist issue, as many women have recognized. Julie Bindel, a famous British feminist, wrote in Prospect not long ago that: “The surrogacy trade is similar to the sex trafficking and mail-order bride industries—in that the female body, in one way or another, is the merchandise for sale.” The Grande Dame of American second-wave feminism, Gloria Steinem, wrote that: “women in economic need become commercialized vessels for rent, and the fetuses they carry become the property of others”.
Back to Australia. Two government MPs in the Victorian Parliament refused to join in the Lord’s Prayer because they had been scandalised by the Pope’s outspoken words. Dylan Wight posted on X: “After reading the comments by Pope Francis during the day, I’ll be following the lead of the member for Frankston, Paul Edbrooke, and no longer participating in Parliament’s morning prayers.” He said that the Pope’s comments were “archaic and deplorable”.
But if anything is deplorable, it is turning surrogacy into a badge of woke politics. The fundamental idea of surrogacy is that anyone – married or single, gay or straight – has a right to a child. We should manufacture children to make adults happy. That’s not progressive politics; it’s slavery.
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator.
Image credits: Bigstock
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