Baby lust

Surrogate children are desperately wanted. Is it worth the pain?

Story: Andrea Close

Surrogate children are desperately wanted. Their parents are prepared to go to enormous lengths to get them.

Surrogacy is when a woman carries a child through pregnancy for intended parents. There are two main types - gestational and traditional. In gestational surrogacy, the pregnancy results from IVF, so the resulting child is genetically unrelated to the surrogate. In traditional surrogacy, the surrogate is impregnated naturally or artificially, but the resulting child is genetically related to the surrogate.

According to Surrogacy Australia, in this country, the commissioning parent(s) most often engage a family member or close friend as surrogate to carry the baby for them. Altruistic contracted surrogacy is regulated in all states and territories, except the Northern Territory, and there are variations in legislation according to jurisdiction. No payment or reward is given to the birth mother, although medical expenses are usually covered.

Commercial surrogacy is illegal in Australia. However, more and more childless Australians choose to engage with commercial surrogacy agencies overseas, where the commissioning parent(s) agree to pay a fee to the surrogate beyond the cost of her medical needs.  That fee is determined, often brokered, and the full transaction takes place over time.

Surrogacy is a red hot debate in Australia right now, largely due to recent high profile news stories, which have seen public calls for introducing a form of commercial surrogacy in Australia.

The rapidly growing area of commercial offshore surrogacy outnumbers intercountry adoptions, with around 250 Australian commissioning parents having engaged in the process each year for the past several years.

At recent surrogacy roundtables held by the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, a panel of experts waded through the murky waters of regulation and other diverse issues.  Spokespersons from health, psychology, government, human rights, family law and surrogacy bodies all gathered to discuss the complex and highly emotional issues.

Chair of the Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee, George Christensen MP (Dawson, Qld) and other committee members heard that Australia has become the largest market for international surrogacy globally, despite a small population.  Evidence shows there are a number of reasons why Australians choose to go overseas rather than use the surrogacy system here.

Sam Everingham, Founder of Surrogacy Australia says the complex reasons include the differing Australian state-based laws, eligibility, and regulations which deter the majority of intending parents from engaging in surrogacy at home.

“Bans on same-sex couples accessing surrogacy in some states, and a do-it-yourself model in regard to surrogate recruitment and matching are highly problematic.  The absence of the Medicare rebate for IVF associated with surrogacy; the high costs of $70,000 to $120,000; legal, travel and counselling costs; and the policy of some large IVF clinics not to work with altruistic surrogates who are not relatives or old friends of the intended parents,” he said.

The committee heard that many frustrated Australians seek overseas agencies or brokers who say, 'We know how to do this. We can do it for you and make it easier.’

The experiences of those who do choose to use the Australian system vary.  The committee heard that in Australia, many surrogates are not demeaned by the process. On the contrary, there is a significant level of altruism and benevolence in what they do with a real sense of having done something valuable and given a gift, and there is a long-term connection usually between them and the people they are assisting.

Jo Fraser, Secretary of the Association of Relinquishing Mothers focused on the mother/child relationship, expressing that at the centre of every surrogacy, there is a relinquishment.

“Setting up a surrogacy situation is a deliberate choice to dispossess a child of its mother and a mother of its child, whether it is her egg or somebody else's egg, whatever the circumstances may be. It is removing that child from the woman that has carried it. Your blood is going through it. Everything is going through this baby. You cannot not have an attachment to it. And the baby cannot not have an attachment to the woman that carries it,” she said.

Those babies grow up and when they do, there can be serious repercussions, according to Dr Sonia Allan, who facilitates a support group for adult donor conceived people, and says that she hears stories that show Australia’s donor children are no better off than others.

“I have a comment from a mother who says she is a donor conceived person. The sperm used to conceive her was sold for $20. Her parents did not just bring her home from the hospital, they bought her. She has had far-reaching psychological consequences from the practices that were undertaken in Australia. She questions why we are rewarding the people who choose to break the current domestic law by exploring whether to permit and regulate commercial surrogacy here. She says: 'If the only real answer to that question is because people are going to do it anyway, then we should also legalise human trafficking, slavery, child prostitution and all the other practices that commodify human beings,'” she said.

The notion of treating babies as a commodity to be bought and sold caused passionate debate at the roundtables. Recent surrogacy stories that made headlines for all the wrong reasons were a subject of discussion.

For many years, Thailand has been a country of choice for Australians searching for commercial surrogacy. However, its parliament recently voted to ban the practise after a series of foreign allegations, including that of an Australian couple who abandoned a baby with Down's syndrome. That couple left the little boy, known as Baby Gammy, with the surrogate mother who was paid around $15,000 to carry the twins.

Similar tales are coming out of India, which has recently denied visas to a number of Australian couples looking for surrogates because, according to surrogacy advocates, an Australian couple who had twins to a surrogate mother in India back in 2012 left one baby behind because they said they could not afford to take both.

“It just seems to me that, particularly in Third World countries, the commercial surrogacy system is widely open to exploitation,” Committee Chair, George Christensen said.

Chief Judge John Pascoe told the roundtable his concern is that in places like India, Nepal and Cambodia and until recently in Thailand, it is an absolutely unregulated industry.

“If I can give some anecdotal evidence: we see cases of women being implanted with multiple embryos; we see forced abortions; we see women being forced to have caesarean after caesarean so that the child is born at a time that suits a couple flying in from overseas, and literally being thrown on the street when it is not possible to have any more abortions…” he said.

However, the committee heard it would be wrong to put a blanket statement out and say all overseas surrogacy is exploitative because there are a number of countries which have excellent programs, including some states in the USA, Canada, Greece, Israel and the United Kingdom, which have been doing successful compensated and uncompensated surrogacy for up to 30 years.

Despite the divergent range of views aired at the roundtables, one item of consensus was the significance of ensuring that children have access to information about their genetic heritage and their birth mother.  It was noted that not all children will want to follow it up but that they should have access to that information.

Kate Bourne, Chair of the Australian and New Zealand Infertility Counsellors Association wants to see surrogacy relationships include all family members but warned intending parents to thoroughly consider all consequences before taking the surrogacy route.

“We want to see these children at their 21st birthdays saying, 'Great job, mum and dad!' and 'Great job!' to the surrogate who is there, present at the 21st. We do not want them to be saying, 'What were you thinking? How did you ever think that this was going to work for me?'

“I am really concerned that there will be a generation of children who are feeling that, 'Yes, I understand that you wanted to be parents and you love me very much, but didn't you realise this was really going to cause me long-term emotional damage.'

“Unfortunately, I think intending parents who are really just driven by the desire to have a child—I call it baby lust—do not necessarily appreciate the long-term needs of their children, ”she said.

Some speakers urged the committee to take the discussion onto an inquiry where the complex legislative and regulatory frameworks that underpin the issue can be explored further. For updates see the committee webpage.

See the full transcripts on the roundtables on the Inquiry web page.