I’m a Veteran Gay Rights Activist, and I Oppose Commercial Surrogacy

by Gary Powell, European Special Consultant on February 27, 2020

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I have been a British gay rights activist since 1980. I studied German and Philosophy at Oxford University, where I graduated with First Class Honours and served for a period as President of the Oxford University Lesbian and Gay Society and Chair of the Student Union Gay Rights Committee. I also served as Head of German at two academic UK schools and worked with children with special educational needs for the last ten years of my career. In addition to my work in gay rights, I am a local Hate Crime Champion, and the founder and former director of Local Government Ombudsman Watch, and have specialized in public administration complaints procedures. In 2015, I was elected as a district councillor, where I served on the Licensing Committee and the Appeals and Complaints Committee.

I wish to share the following testimony:

In recent years, we have started to see commercial surrogacy presented to us as though it were a legitimate objective in the campaign for gay rights: as though prohibiting commercial surrogacy represented an unfair and discriminatory obstacle preventing same-sex couples from having children with a biological connection.

However, the impediment to gay couples is just one side of the story. The harm caused to egg “donors”, to birth mothers carrying embryos with other people’s genetic material, and to the babies produced in this fashion, doesn’t make so easily for beaming happy-family photographs in glossy magazines, or gushing prose about beautiful altruistic actions that enable other people to have children.

There is little inclination in the national media to expose how women’s lives have been ruined by ruthless surrogacy agencies, callous commissioning parents, serious health damage caused by the injection of strong hormones and the carrying of embryos with alien genetic material, or moral crises caused when the commissioning parents demand an abortion that the birth mother realizes she cannot in fact face.

The dangers associated with commercial surrogacy are exposed in the stories of the women who have taken part in this process, or who write on behalf of mothers who have not survived it. My own contribution is from the perspective of a gay man and a gay activist since the early 1980s, and it is important that I put on record my opposition to commercial surrogacy and have the opportunity to expose the myth that commercial surrogacy is a gay right and that it enjoys blanket support from the gay community. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Commercial surrogacy has nothing to do with gay rights. Surrogacy is an unacceptable practice for everyone, regardless of whether they are gay or heterosexual. It is a medical, legal and ethical minefield, and focusing specifically on the “gay rights” arguments for commercial surrogacy, it encourages the exploitation of low-income women by very wealthy men, leading to high-risk medical procedures where no man is ever endangered but every woman “donating” eggs, or agreeing to carry a baby for others, is put at risk. Every surrogacy pregnancy is a high-risk pregnancy, putting not only the birth mother and the baby at a higher risk of harm, but also the egg “donor” who has been injected with hormones in order to cause the unnatural and dangerous process of superovulation.

Who in the gay community might benefit from commercial surrogacy? Not the vast majority of gay men, who could not dream of being able to afford the six-figure sums that commercial surrogacy usually involves.

Should we be supporting the legalization of harmful medical procedures that exploit and endanger some of the most vulnerable women in our society, for the exclusive benefit of an elite and privileged class? Isn’t the moral integrity of the gay rights movement worth protecting and defending from an exploitative association of this kind? Rather than a legitimate strand of the campaign for equality, this feels far more like a hijacking of the gay rights movement by the multi-billion dollar Big Fertility industry.

Although I have been an ardent gay activist for 40 years, when I speak out against surrogacy because it is a harmful and exploitative practice per se and also because the gay rights movement will be damaged by associating itself with harmful and exploitative practices, I am often vilified and accused of homophobia. But this kind of cancel-culture—which made my late teens and early twenties so challenging–taught me how to stand up to this kind of intimidation. Skills that I can now draw on in my contribution to the new struggle to protect the integrity of the gay rights movement and wrestle it back from the hijackers.

It is recognized almost globally that the free market needs some red lines. Hence the only country in the world where human organ sales are legal is Iran. Everywhere else, it is recognized that allowing human organ sales is something that creates a culture where the wealthy can exploit the poor in a way that is an affront to human dignity and a violation of the minimum acceptable standards governing the degree to which the wealthy may benefit from the desperation of the needy. Yet in the case of commercial surrogacy, low-income women are endangering their health and their lives in order to sell not just an organ that has developed in their body, but a baby that is a human entity in his or her own right. No amount of rainbow-washing by the Big Fertility industry will remove the self-evident parallels between the sale of human organs by the poor to the privileged wealthy, and the transactions that take place in the surrogacy industry from selling babies.

I am not alone among those in the gay community who oppose commercial surrogacy. No one in my circle of gay friends supports commercial surrogacy, and I am sure that if more were aware of what happens to the women and babies involved in this process at the hands of Big Fertility, there would be even more opposition to it from the gay community.

I support the right of gay parents to adopt, or to foster children. Among my own circle of friends, I have witnessed some very successful same-sex parenting via adoption that has transformed the lives of children. However, there is no universal human right to be a parent, for anyone: gay or heterosexual. It is a terribly frustrating and saddening situation to want to have one’s own biological children and not to be able to do so, for whatever reason. But no one can claim to have an inalienable right to something that violates the human rights of someone else. No one has the right to pay for a baby that is carried by women forced by economic hardship to sign away their reproductive rights and put their health and life at risk; just as no one has a right to pay for a kidney that is provided by someone likely to be under economic duress and who is putting his or her own well-being, health or life at risk in doing so. No one, heterosexual or gay, has that right.

As a veteran gay rights activist, I urge you to oppose all attempts to legalize commercial surrogacy, and to reject any claim out-of-hand that commercial surrogacy has anything to do with gay rights. It is an affront to human rights and is beneath the dignity of the hugely important movement to achieve acceptance, equality and fairness for gay people across the globe. We need a principled movement that will always reject any claims to a “right” that can only be achieved by trampling on the rights of others.

Furthermore, there are millions of gay people in repressive nations who are still struggling to achieve the basic right to be who they are and love who they love. When their oppressors can point to those purporting to represent the gay movement in the West and demonstrate harms such as legalized commercial surrogacy that such campaigns are now advocating, then the hands of the oppressors are simply strengthened, and the campaigns of oppressed gay people for basic rights are weakened. Supporting commercial surrogacy is a betrayal of the gay movement on a global scale.

Let’s put an end to the outrage expressed by some who are focused on the difficulties faced by very wealthy gay men in buying babies from economically vulnerable women who risk their health and lives, and instead turn that outrage against the regimes that flog or hang gay people in public for consensual sex.

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