Parenting

Too late or too great to gestate? Don’t worry, Britain will welcome you | Catherine Bennett


‘A beautiful little blessing has chosen me to be her mother.” Naomi Campbell’s announcement, posted on Instagram last week, is unusually worded even given the fashion for “welcomed” in media reports of significant births, as if there really were some depot from which ready-made infants are now Deliverood for introduction to their new owners.

Campbell’s phrasing added to a general, not unreasonable belief, one reportedly shared by “friends”, that the 51-year-old Campbell’s baby was born via a surrogacy arrangement. In the US, one of the world’s most liberal destinations for commercial surrogacy, with clients including leading US celebrities – that is, in buying rather than supplying the service – it would have been, if so, an unremarkable transaction. Kim Kardashian West had children this way, ditto Sarah Jessica Parker; a few years back, Lucy Liu was open about picking elective “gestational surrogacy”, being busy. “It just seemed like the right option for me because I was working and I didn’t know when I was going to be able to stop.”

True, Campbell may have adopted her baby and did not mention a surrogate mother in her announcement, but that’s not necessarily indicative: not all the beneficiaries of these services are as scrupulous as were, say, Ayda Field and Robbie Williams in expressing gratitude publicly.

But either way, unstinting appreciation of Campbell’s announcement is encouraging for pro-surrogacy advocates impatient for the day Britain becomes in this respect more like the US, Ukraine and – for now – Russia. If it can never become a reproductive tourism destination on their scale, the normalisation of cases such as, possibly, Campbell’s, must diminish the possibility of the UK becoming the opposite – that is more like Sweden, Iceland, France, Portugal, Bulgaria, Norway, Germany, Italy, Spain and Finland – in banning all surrogacy.

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This relaxed approach contrasts not only with earlier worries about the exploitation of impoverished women, and what a squeamish UN considers the sale of children, but with often judgmental tendencies on women’s reproductive behaviour, maybe for dodging the agony nature/God intended. Compare “too posh to push” with the non-existent tag for broody pregnancy avoiders: too late – or great – to gestate. For now, to the dismay of pro-surrogacy campaigners, who include, as well as would-be parents, MPs, lawyers and people who make – or would like to – a living from the fertility industry, surrogacy remains marginally available in the UK and not just because of the cost. Vardags, a law firm advertising surrogacy expertise, tells clients: “If you have savings greater than £20,000 or family income of greater than £100,000 per annum, we can generally advise and represent you.” A surrogate mother might get around £15,000 in “expenses”.

In the UK, surrogacy agreements are legally unenforceable and the woman giving birth is, pending a successful application for a parental order by the intending parents, the legal parent. This, being a deterrent to some would-be parents and therefore considered unconscionably unenlightened by their advocates, takes account of the interests and possibly fluctuating thinking of those occasionally unpredictable machines, surrogate mothers. In not officially stipulating that a surrogate mother hand over her infant on delivery, it spares the state from supervising, effectively, the sale of children, via professionals, often from the poor to the rich.

One way to avoid that happening, the United Nations human rights special rapporteur, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, argued in her 2018 report, would be, among other requirements, “if it were clear that the surrogate mother was only being paid for gestational services and not for the transfer of the child”. That transfer “must be a gratuitous act”.

Around the same time that her report became – elsewhere – a critical reference on surrogacy ethics, British MPs were rallying behind an all-parliamentary group on surrogacy (APPG) whose purpose, under its founder, Andrew Percy, is to facilitate surrogacy as “just another way for people to create families just as adoption or any of the other routes to parenthood are”.

Still ignoring, for whatever reason, the health risks to the key suppliers (including pain, tearing, postnatal depression, incontinence, gestational diabetes, hysterectomy, a heightened incidence of breast cancer) that critically differentiate surrogacy, along with reports of abuse and the prohibition of this practice in neighbouring jurisdictions, Percy has been publicising a new APPG report asserting that existing law “is no longer fit for purpose”.

On that last point, of course, many women would agree. Anyone concerned about using someone else as a means to an end might conclude that the only ethical and safe reform is a domestic end to surrogacy, as in Sweden and beyond. Recourse to, in some cases, vulnerable mothers in more permissive countries is not, even if claimed as one by interested lawyers, an argument for a sanitised domestic version.

However, with both Percy’s outfit and since 2019, its allies in the Law Commission, publisher of a pitifully tendentious consultation document (supervised by a property lawyer, Professor Nick Hopkins) acting as if mutually choreographed by a hungry surrogacy industry, the UK promises to become, in meeting market demand, an ethical outlier.

The Law Commission’s consultation (in which surrogate mothers are called “surrogates”) completely skipped the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, consulted only two surrogate mothers, but listened repeatedly to surrogacy promoters. In a circular fashion, the commission showcases endorsement by the APPG, the APPG invokes the Law Commission.

Unless it derives from the preponderance of men in parliament and the law, it is hard to understand how leading policymakers could so comprehensively dismiss questions raised internationally about the instrumentalising of generally poor women and the commodification of children. But in the event, courtesy of Andrew, Nick et al – Lord Bethell is also super-keen – there now seems every prospect of legal change that will allow this country to become, just as our fish run out, a niche, global supplier of beautiful little blessings.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist



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