“Surrogacy” is a medical term that has emerged with the development of human reproductive technology. Many surrogacy proponents claim that “surrogacy is a voluntary bargain between couples who cannot have children and poor women that need money,” but is it really a voluntary choice for women to “rent out” their wombs to others? What will happen to them when the embryo is implanted?
Is it as simple as “having a baby”?
Surrogate mothers are usually married women aged 21-45 years (some studies also suggest between the ages of 18 and 35) with at least one child. However, the number of births should not be too many, usually less than 3 natural births and less than 2 C-sections. They usually come from relatively poor areas (except for a few states in the U.S.) where surrogacy is legal or the legislation is vague for “grey zone”. If they pass the medical exam, sign a contract and become pregnant, they are not far from losing their personal freedom.
According to the WHO, in 2017, a total of 295,000 women worldwide died during pregnancy and childbirth from causes such as hemorrhage, high blood pressure, and infections. Even with medical developments, the risks associated with childbirth are still extremely high. Women in less economically developed countries have a 130 times higher lifetime risk of dying from childbirth-related causes than women in high-income countries, due to medical and economic constraints. For women who are deeply involved in the surrogacy industry, their wombs are treated as commodities, and the various tactics used by agencies to attract customers and maximize profits, such as multiple pregnancies and cutting back on necessary care, leave them in an even worse situation.
In order to ensure a high success rate and provide “special” services to their clients, surrogate mothers are often implanted with more than one embryo, which increases the risk of various complications during pregnancy, such as high blood pressure, stroke, placental abruption, perinatal death, fetal death in utero, and neonatal death.
Being a surrogate mother is difficult, but agencies don’t take good care of surrogate mothers because of it. According to a young Ukrainian surrogate mother interviewed by the BBC, immediately after the embryo implantation, the surrogacy agency reduced her daily medical care, and other surrogate mothers who had health problems were not diagnosed and treated properly in time, resulting in all sorts of complications. In addition, there are various rumors circulating in the Ukrainian surrogacy market about the poor performance of some clinics, such as embryo trading, lack of health supervision, and over-solicitation of clients.
Besides the enormous health risks, the plight of surrogate mothers goes far beyond that. Not only do women have to endure physical pain but also tremendous psychological distress and pressure from society. To begin with, women who decide to become surrogates are the ones living in poverty. They are often in a highly patriarchal social structure, low education and social status make them excluded from the traditional labor market, and leaving them no choice but to sell the wombs to supplement their families.
In the BBC documentary House of Surrogates, when they were interviewed about why they want to be surrogates, the young girls’ answers were mostly “to build a house”, “to send the children to English school”, “their husbands are abusive if they don’t bring in money”, and other helpless motives.
If a client selects them, they live with a sense of shame and fear during the long process of transplantation to pregnancy. The shame comes from the social disapproval of selling one’s womb for money. They cannot explain to those around them why they got pregnant and where the baby went afterward. Fear comes from loneliness and worry. As we all know, during the surrogacy process, pregnant mothers can only live in a house arranged by the agency. They cannot live with their families, they need daily injections and medication, and their mobility is restricted for up to 10 months. In such a lonely and depressing environment, they also need to worry about the health of the fetus in their bellies and what to do if the clients ask for a “refund”.
Even after a successful surrogacy process, some women still suffer from potential psychological trauma. Research confirms that most surrogate mothers want to maintain contact with the children.
Who is making money from the womb business?
In the eyes of some surrogacy supporters, surrogacy often becomes a win-win deal where “the child lover gets the child and the surrogate mother improves her quality of life”. As some surrogate mothers say, they need money to supplement their families. But in reality, only the people in the womb rental industry chain make a fortune. In Ukraine, known as a “baby factory,” surrogate mothers may be promised up to $20,000, but the reality is that surrogacy agencies will withhold payment from them. In addition to deducting routine medical resources, some surrogate mothers have been paid as little as $350, which is less than 1% of what the surrogacy agencies charge from clients.
It has also been reported that some surrogacy agencies promise to pay surrogate mothers in stages. The agencies would set strict requirements for the surrogate mothers, and if they don’t abide by the rule, they won’t get a dime. If the result is not to the client’s satisfaction, they won’t get paid too. As the upper end of the surrogacy market, the U.S. has a higher level of medical services and fees, but that doesn’t mean it’s a “win-win” situation for surrogate mothers. In the cases reported by the New York Times, surrogate mothers were paid more than in places like Ukraine, but they were only paid 13% of the international surrogacy price (which is at least $150,000 or more).
A report shows that the surrogacy market generates $1.5 billion annually in Ukraine, and the huge amount of money and financial gain has led to resistance to regulating the surrogacy industry. Surrogacy agencies ostensibly celebrate the love and compassion of surrogate mothers and their impoverished situation, but in reality, they exploit women’s bodies and wombs to make money.
No excuse can conceal the endless exploitation of poor women by capitalism. No matter how attractive the whitewash is, baby factories are using the human body as commodities. In this situation, if a surrogate mother feels she can only change her financial situation by renting out her womb, do you think she is doing it voluntarily? Or was she coerced by capitalists into making a “voluntary decision”? It is the obligation of a better society to actually help the poor rather than persuade them to sell their bodies. Don’t you agree?