Alex Phillips: Do laws around surrogacy need a rethink?

Surrogacy is arguably as old as civilisation itself. But the parameters and ethics of surrogacy are still ill defined two millennia later.

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Is having a child a human right? When it comes to surrogacy, even the Bible talks about it in the very first book Genesis.

It is arguably as old as civilisation itself. But the parameters and ethics of surrogacy are still ill defined two millennia later.

Now, with modern medicine, options for people unable or perhaps unwilling to naturally conceive are growing. Over decades there have been numerous campaigns and protests as more and more routes to conception and childbirth emerge.

But is there a need to draw the line at some point? At what point is an adult’s desire to have a child prioritised over the rights and needs of the birth mother, and in fact, the future of the child itself. If nature says ‘no’, is it right for us to find means of bringing an entirely new life into the world regardless of the unknown will of the future human being.

The first artificial insemination of a woman happened at the end of the 19th century. It was one hundred years later that IVF was first used. In 1980, the first compensated surrogacy agreement was legally carried out.

Today, with the ability to travel overseas for treatments, opportunities are steadily growing, making it easier than ever before to not only have a child, but in some cases, design it, raising all sorts of ethical questions in hitherto uncharted territory.

Here in the UK the laws are strict, with many unhappy couples working to loosen up the regulations, and most importantly, change the law that still regards the surrogate as the legal parent at birth.

Arguments about being able to select certain attributes of donor parents, and increase the amount able to be paid to a surrogate abound, giving more power to those wanting to start a family through assisted conception.

Thorny topics, such as whether surrogacy should only be considered for a heterosexual married couples, despite being legally put to bed, continue to be debated. What happens regarding biological donor parents not playing a role in the future child’s life? Is that fair on them? Or the child, left without knowing their true ancestry? Is it right to deny a child an upbringing with a father and a mother?

How important is it for a child to have a parent of either sex? Perhaps it is arguably only possible to fairly judge on a case by case basis, family by family, basis. If at all. And what are the ethics of surrogacy when there are so many desperate children in need of a loving home and waiting for years to find something resembling a safe and supportive family unit, if they are ever fortunate to be adopted? Is our desire to trump nature, unnatural, irresponsible and plain selfish?

The number of surrogacies in the UK has tripled in just three years with many intended parents saying the law is inadequate and pointing to the US system as it removes any rights the surrogate parent may have over the baby.

There are also questions over the welfare of surrogates, particularly in countries where the laws are more relaxed and assisted conception has become a commercial industry. Do host mothers understand the physical, emotional and mental impact of pregnancy and childbirth?

Or the fact that implantation can result in multiple births? When money changes hands, how much control over the body of the surrogate and her lifestyle should the intended parents have? And what about when surrogacy goes wrong?

Who keeps the child? What about wealthy celebrities who either don’t want to risk changing their commodified bodies, or aren’t in a relationship but desire to have a child, or are in a same sex relationship where naturally having a child is not biologically possible?

Is it right to be able to essentially buy the ability to create a baby? Is same sex surrogacy a gay rights issue - or should the rights and needs of the women and future children be prioritised?

Should the desire of adults to fill a hole in their life eclipse the potential outcomes and rights of an unborn baby? Coverage is all about smiles and flowers and positivity, but surrogacy can, and does go wrong, from women too young or ill informed being wooed by the promise of money later struggling with their decision, and even babies left unwanted. In countries where surrogacy is commercial, there have been a string of disasters.

Babies born with disabilities later rejected, others trafficked to foreign countries far away from their ethnic roots. What about the importance of the mother baby bond? For childless people desperate to have a son or daughter, infertility can be heartbreaking.

But adults surely have the bandwidth and capability to seek support services and have a range of options open. No child chooses to be born. It’s a complex and highly emotional issue that fragments opinion across a spectrum of permutations.

Yet it is about to become a massive conversation over here as campaigns are afoot to change the law. Today, we really need to talk about surrogacy.