Complex and Troubling Dynamics in the Rise of International Surrogacy

Last month  Time Magazine reported the story of 26 babies who had been rescued from disaster-stricken Nepal in the aftermath of the earthquake.  These 26 babies were all between birth and six weeks of age, and had been born to Nepalese surrogates.  Their parents were all Israeli citizens who had employed Nepalese women as surrogates for one of two reasons: 1) Israeli law makes it difficult for single adults or same-sex couples to use Israeli surrogates, and 2) the price of surrogates in Western countries can be up to $150,000 while Nepalese surrogates cost around $30,000.  As the babies were airlifted to safety, the surrogates were left in Nepal – including some women still pregnant with the babies of Israeli citizens.     

As a scholar who studies the international dynamics surrounding vulnerable children, I have an immediate gut reaction to stories like these.  I am a strong supporter of efforts to reduce the vulnerability of children and infants living in a post-earthquake disaster zone undoubtedly qualify as vulnerable children.  But the complexity of this case bring to light many moral and ethical questions that should trouble Christians.  Were the surrogates any less vulnerable because they were in a contract around the use of their womb?  Should a race to the bottom in the commodification of wombs be troubling for Christians?

The loud outcry concerning the commodification of wombs is nothing new, there is a long history of feminist literature surrounding surrogacy, adoption, and north-south dynamics in the exchange of children.  Although I personally do not contribute to this theoretical perspective on the movement of children, I respect the complex ethical and moral dilemmas these scholars have raised in the connection between surrogacy, adoption, and crossing borders to build families.  I will not revisit these debates here.  Rather, I want to highlight a number of issues with surrogacy that I think Christians need to spend some time unpacking.  I do not claim to have cornered the market on truth on these issues, but I would like to unpack some of the dynamics around surrogacy that I find increasingly disconcerting.  I will close with a brief response to some of the most common arguments used to legitimize surrogacy.

Troubling Dynamics

There is no question that rising infertility has prompted aspiring parents to employ a variety of other means to build families.  For example, increasingly couples undergo infertility treatment to overcome barriers to becoming pregnant.  Or couples with infertility problems turn to adoption as a means of building a family.  Both of these options have been highly criticized by both religious and non-religious conservatives and liberals based on concerns about the improper use of science and concerns about the exploitation of already vulnerable populations.  Adding to the criticism in family building is the fact that increasingly it is not just heterosexual couples struggling with infertility who are using these family building strategies; same-sex couples and single adults are also turning to infertility treatment and adoption to build families.   

Another means of overcoming these barriers is to use the egg and sperm of prospective parents (or egg or sperm of one prospective parent), but insert the fertilized egg into a surrogate mother.  This practice is not new, altruistic surrogacy—offering your womb to family or friends—has been a practice for decades.  With altruistic surrogacy, the surrogate and the prospective parent(s) enter into a contract to ensure the legal rights of all parties, but the surrogate does not make a financial profit from the exchange.  But increasingly, more and more women in the United States and other allowing countries are becoming paid vessels for baby making.  This booming business requires both a legal contract between the prospective parent(s), whose genetic material is used to make the baby, and a surrogate, whose womb is rented out to the parent(s).  There are several dynamics around the rise in surrogacy, particularly international surrogacy, which we should be thinking about more carefully.

“The loud outcry concerning the commodification of wombs is nothing new...”

First, surrogacy for hire represents a redefinition of the role of women and the nature of pregnancy, in an effort to create a child with a particular genetic makeup.  Even though surrogates contractually agree to this redefinition, it is troubling that women who serve as surrogates are reduced to the price of their womb, both legally and socially.  They serve as a vessel to carry a child, and contract around this identity.  Even US immigration law characterizes surrogates simply as a legally contracted vessel – for example, a child born to an international surrogate is immediately a US citizen upon birth because of its biological origins, regardless of the surrogate’s identity.  The surrogate, the legally contracted vessel, is unimportant once the child is born.

But Christians believe in a more complex role for the womb – it serves as an intimate place for a mother to nurture her child until that child can be born and physically nurtured outside the womb.  The unique relationship of a mother and child when the child is within the womb is a springboard to a relationship that continues once the child is born.  When this is not the case, we typically view that situation as a loss.  When a child dies in utero or upon birth, we grieve the loss of life and the loss of a relationship that started in the womb. Parents on either side of the adoption process (birth parents or adoptive parents) know too well that the adoption is only possible because of the loss of relationship.  Surrogacy, on the other hand, contracts around planning for that relationship to be severed.

Second, the market surrounding surrogacy seems to be engaged in a “race to the bottom” internationally.  Like any market, the market surrounding surrogacy has supply and demand dynamics.  Wealthy prospective parent(s) have a demand for women who will carry their child; this demand has led to a growth in the supply of women who are willing to hire out their wombs.  Within the United States, a system where the legal rights of both parties are protected in such exchanges, the cost is often as much as $150,000 per child.  But the same prospective parent(s) can go to India or Nepal and pay as little as $20,000 per child.  Economists use the term “race to the bottom” to describe companies who move their headquarters to foreign countries in order to pay less taxes than they would in Western countries.  These types of trends in the market around surrogacy trouble us.     

Surrogacy v. Adoption

These concerns I have raised will likely produce in the attentive reader a “yeah but” reaction.  Isn’t this market the same as the market surrounding children who are being exchanged through intercountry adoption?  Especially concerning the “race to the bottom” mentality in the global movement of children?  We know that it is much cheaper to adopt children in some countries than others; these same countries tend to be the most lax in regulations that would protect children, birth parents, and adoptive parents from exploitation.  Yet adoptive families flock to these cheaper countries despite the risks, and these trends have led to the exploitation of children and birth parents globally.  I think this is a fair question and a compelling comparison.  In fact, I think that we could learn a lot about danger signs in the global market surrounding surrogacy by learning from the lessons of exploitation in intercountry adoption.  But here I would like to focus on two main differences between surrogacy and adoption as they are currently practiced globally.

First, surrogacy is a market around making babies; adoption is an exchange around reducing child vulnerability.  Yes, in the end they produce the same outcome of building families, but they differ in terms of means and motivation.  In surrogacy a child is created, in adoption an existing child is moved from a vulnerable situation into (hopefully) a less vulnerable situation.  And while many adoptions are pursued by couples struggling with fertility, when couples choose adoption they change the legal and social position of a child that was previously vulnerable.  As such, motivations connected with building families become intertwined with motives of reducing vulnerability.  Or at the very least, the means of building a family achieve the end of reducing vulnerability, regardless of motivations.  Additionally, many of the families who pursue adoption are not seeking to build their family because of infertility (evidenced by multiple birth children already in their family), they are pursuing adoption with the primary motivation of reducing vulnerability in children. 

Finally, surrogacy is primarily a demand-driven practice.  The practice would not exist without demand for women who will rent out their wombs to prospective parent(s).  Adoption is an exchange with both supply and demand dynamics, but it is primarily driven by the large supply of vulnerable children globally.  In fact, corruption of adoption typically occur when the practice becomes too demand oriented – the desires of adoptive parent(s) are privileged over the needs of vulnerable children.  Although the practice of surrogacy, particularly international surrogacy are still unfolding, Christians should be engaging around the value of, and potential for corruption in, a global practice centered on the production of children and the leasing of wombs.

 -Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.  She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.