The Rise and Ethics of "Social Surrogacy"

What can happen to one couple by accident may be impossible for another couple to achieve.  While some couples use various contraceptive technologies to ensure that pregnancy does not occur, others try desperately to have a baby. Many people know model Tyra Banks as the host of The Tyra Banks Show or as a judge on America's Next Top Model.  What many people did not know until recently, however, is that she and boyfriend Erik Asla struggled with infertility issues.  For people that want to have children and are not able to do so the traditional way, feelings of frustration, sadness, and failure often arise. 

Couples trying to have children may excitedly tell friends and family when there is a positive result, only to be disappointed after realizing it is a false alarm or the baby is lost through miscarriage.  Jimmy Fallon, a comedian known for Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and wife Nancy Juvonen have endured this struggle.  Opening up to Us magazine, Fallon revealed, “We tried before, we told people and then it didn't happen. And it's just really depressing. It's really hard on everybody”. 

Fortunately, there are alternate routes an individual or a couple can take to have a baby.  Some of these methods include adoption, intrauterine insemination (also known as artificial insemination), in vitro fertilization, donor eggs, donor sperm, embryo adoption, and surrogacy.  Fallon and Juvonen have been able to have two daughters, Winnie, born on July 23, 2013 and Frances, born on December 3, 2014.  Both girls were born via surrogate.  In an interview with Today, Fallon gushed, “I can’t stop looking at her. When I’m not holding her, I’m looking at photos of her on my phone. She’s the coolest – the best thing to ever happen to me.”  

Banks and Asla welcomed their baby boy, York, on January 27, 2016.  He was born via surrogate.  On Instagram, Banks posted a picture of York in her arms with the caption, "The best present we worked and prayed so hard for is finally here. He's got my fingers and big eyes and his daddy Erik's mouth and chin. As we thank the angel of a woman that carried our miracle baby boy for us, we pray for everyone who struggles to reach this joyous milestone.”  Other famous couples that have had children via surrogate include Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman, Elton John and David Furnish, and Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent.

We’ve heard the trials and tribulations that these famous couples went through in an attempt to expand their families, but what about the women who carry these babies- the surrogate mothers themselves?  What are the physiological and psychological toll of carrying a baby for nine months and then handing him or her off and going about life as usual?  What is the compensation for these women, and how do surrogacy practices vary around the world?

Some human rights activist groups that oppose surrogacy argue that its increase will create a subclass of women who are breeders and will further exploit poor women.  According to this ideology, surrogacy is the renting out of a woman’s body to produce a child in a business transaction.  Surrogacy is illegal in parts of the U.S. such as the state of New York and the District of Colombia and in countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria.  Interestingly, in countries such as the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Belgium, surrogacy is allowed in situations where the surrogate mother is not paid, or paid only minimally, just to cover the cost of pregnancy expenses.  In these countries, paying the mother a fee, which is referred to as commercial surrogacy, is prohibited. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, 1,898 babies were born via gestational surrogate in the United States in 2012, more than double the number in 2004.  

Through an anonymous app called Whisper, surrogate mothers express their feelings about the process.  A common theme among them is the difficulty of having to give the child up.  One surrogate writes, “I’m a few days away from giving birth to this baby. I love her way more than I planned.”

So then why do women become surrogates if it is so emotionally and physically draining?  The answer is mainly for the economic benefit, and a few women in the U.S. say that an added bonus is being able to give a child to a couple that cannot conceive one on their own.  But internationally, especially in countries where many people struggle to make ends meet, the game changes, because women in developing countries will do the job for less money.  The pregnancy and birth process is being outsourced to places where labor costs are lower. 

In The Atlantic, Rhyannon Morrigan tells of her experience with international surrogacy.  She and her husband decided to have their child in Delhi, India because they could not afford the cost of an American surrogate, which can cost upward of $60,000, according to financial analyst Mike Anderson.  Because of extensive paperwork, the couple did not get to witness the birth of their twins, one male and one female, and had to wait almost two weeks to see them in person. 

Before she could get to them, however, the male twin died due to lack of oxygen.  The loss was not one experienced by just Rhyannon and her husband, but rather it was a tragic experience that caused suffering for the surrogate too, who had carried the baby boy.  Rhyannon recalls that the doctors greeted her with “Congratulations on your beautiful daughter” but she says, “My surrogate and I felt anything but celebratory”.

Instead of feeling fulfilled to finally have a child, Rhyannon worried whether her financial contribution to her surrogate would be enough.  Of the surrogate’s welfare, Rhyannon commented, “I’m not sure she’ll be able to handle this emotionally by herself. She was devastated. She is my son’s mother, too”.

To ensure that the surrogate gets equitable compensation for her role, Rhyannon said, “We’re paying our surrogate $12,500, which will allow her to buy a house and put her daughter through private school up to the eighth grade,” Morrigan said. “We made sure the money would be under her name”.  In especially patriarchal societies, one may have to work hard to see that the money goes to the woman, and not to her husband.

Surrogacy is not something that is clear-cut.  Because of the lack of strict, concrete rules regarding surrogacy, the process can become wrought with fraud, shady deals, and victimization.  In countries such as Thailand, the surrogate is considered the legal mother of the child.  On the other hand, in India, the intended parents are considered the legal guardians of the child.  In a controversial case in 2014, a baby named Gammy was left behind by the intended Australian parents because the baby had Down syndrome. The parents took Gammy’s twin, a girl, back to Australia because she was healthy, but they left baby Gammy behind.  Because of this, Gammy then became the Thai surrogate mother’s responsibility.  As a horrifying addition to the story, the Australian father had spent time in prison due to child sexual offences prior to using a surrogate.  Since this case, a law has been put in place in Thailand that bans foreign couples from accessing Thai surrogate mothers.

It is clear that surrogacy is not well-regulated, and can lead to legal and emotional turmoil.  There are no federal laws in the U.S. governing surrogacy, and politicians are afraid to touch the subject.  Because it does not affect as many people as some other topics the politicians continually discuss, surrogacy gets pushed to the back burner.  Until there are clear and fair rules regarding the process of using a surrogate both in the U.S. and abroad, people face the possibility of being taken advantage of or having dreams crushed in the process.  “SurroGenesis”, a fraudulent surrogacy company, both stole intended parents’ money and scammed surrogate mothers by revoking the health insurance the company said it would provide for them throughout the pregnancy.  Better regulation would prevent such scenarios, or at least significantly decrease the likelihood that such situations would occur.             

It is also clear that surrogacy can provide an avenue for people to have children genetically related to them who otherwise wouldn’t be able to conceive.  There are numerous success stories, in which both the surrogate and the intended parents fare well.  The intended parents are able to expand their family and receive what some people refer to as the biggest joy in life, children.  The surrogate is able to (hopefully) receive fair compensation, and with that money, improve her and her family’s quality of life.