“Myth-Busting” or Misguided? Forgetting the Baby in Surrogacy Research

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on July 25, 2018

Surrogacy in the UK report cover

by Lois McLatchie, University of Kent, CBC Legal Intern

In late 2015, a team of “myth-busting” researchers from the University of Kent collaborated with Surrogacy UK to disprove some “common misunderstandings” about Britain’s reproductive technology industry.

Praising an altruistic model of the industry, the scholars hoped to present ideas for legal reform that “centre on the welfare of surrogate-born children and on realigning the law with their best interests.” Collating data from surrogates in the UK, they conclude that the current surrogacy law is outdated in requiring at least one parent to have a genetic link to the child. Additionally, they fight the stereotype of the “clingy surrogate mother:” almost 70% of the women they asked rejected the idea of having an “escape clause” allowing them to keep the child built into surrogacy contracts.

Relying the mantra that “surrogacy is a relationship, not a transaction,” the researchers boldly state their conclusions that surrogacy is “not risky,” “not exploitative,” and, most intriguingly, “not morally wrong.

The scientific evidence upon which they stake their claims is baffling. Boasting to have found that the surrogate mothers in the study did not want a way to reclaim their child—relying on the spoken word of those who have already been through the separation process and who likely want their choice affirmed—they can at best claim to have reduced the perceived “risk” of heart-wrenching legal battles to a still significant 30%. The second two claims—regarding exploitation and morality—are entirely subjective findings based on collated opinion data.

It is unclear what results the “exploitation” conclusion is premised on, other than simply asking the views of those involved. Perhaps the scholars also drew this claim from their evidence that surrogates in the UK were not generally paid over £15,000, amounting to compensation for “expenses” rather than a commercial payment. However, the very definition of the word “exploitation” defies this logic. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the term means “the act of using someone unfairly for your own advantage.”

The study does not address the alarming evidence that the methods practiced upon the contracted women are laced with health risks. For one, Lupron—a drug used as part of the transfer of embryos—is proven to put women in danger of intercranial pressure. Often, surrogates carry multiple embryos as a way of ensuring success, which causes a greater risk of pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes. If, as stated, the researchers consider it “exploitative” to subject underpaid and impoverished international surrogates to these risks—how much more is it wrong to take advantage of the “kindness” and emotional burden of a volunteer surrogate for no recompense whatsoever?

Keeping in mind the stories and struggles of the women in CBC’s Breeders? documentary, it is hard not to be made uncomfortable by the sweeping breeze-over that the report makes of negative surrogate experiences.

Indeed, the research somewhat assumes that any problems arising with the arrangement would be the fault of the surrogate—focusing questioning on whether the birth mother would ever be tempted to keep the child. However, high-profile cases such as that of Baby M and Baby Gammy prove that the philosophy of having a pre-made child “on-demand” leaves some children discarded by their intended parents as “faulty products.” It is unthinkable to claim that the process that led to this ethical nightmare was a moral one, much less so that it truly put the best interests of the child first.

For all its claims to protect a situation that works best for all members of the surrogate deal, the study neglects to include data from the person at the centre of the transaction—the surrogate-borne child. No responses were collected from the children who were co-opted into this unorthodox delivery. The researchers might like to further consider findings from the University of Cambridge, showing that surrogate-born adolescents are more likely to suffer from anxiety and anti-social behavioural problems.

The report, then, does not responsibly address concerns raised by abolitionists such as those in the #StopSurrogacyNow coalition. It misunderstands the principle of deeply-rooted exploitation—commodification of the human body—upon which the surrogate trade is based.

The outcome of this report can serve as an important reminder that all members of the human family must be honoured in procreation-research. If not, the results can support transactions that threaten the wellbeing of all members involved.

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