Last week we were able to attend a webinar titled “Assisted Reproduction on the Global and U.S. Stage” as part of a speaker series put on by the Center for Reproductive Rights. Hosts of the webinar declared, “This promises to be an engaging conversation around the Center’s work to support human rights-based surrogacy in the U.S. and the decriminalization of surrogacy in Cambodia, Nepal, and India.”
As an organization, we at the Center for Bioethics and Culture don’t support any form of surrogacy and maintain that “human rights-based surrogacy” is a myth; it does not and cannot exist. Apparently, the European Parliament agrees as they have declared twice now their condemnation of surrogacy, first in 2015 stating:
[Parliament] condemns the practice of surrogacy, which undermines the human dignity of the woman since her body and its reproductive functions are used as a commodity; considers that the practice of gestational surrogacy which involves reproductive exploitation and use of the human body for financial or other gain, in particular in the case of vulnerable women in developing countries, shall be prohibited and treated as a matter of urgency in human rights instruments…
And again, in their May 5, 2022 resolution on the impact of war in Ukraine on women:
[The European Parliament] condemns the practice of surrogacy, which can expose women around the world to exploitation, in particular those who are poorer and are in situations of vulnerability, such as in the context of war…
Fortunately, we were not the only ones in attendance that know this truth. We were joined by allies, like Lynn Savarese, that helped us in the effort to keep commercial surrogacy out of New York. She even held up a sign in protest during the duration of the webinar. The webinar was also attended by the European Special Consultant at the Center for Bioethics and Culture, Gary Powell.
Marketed as a “discussion of how the Center is helping to change laws and expand opportunities for families across the globe” this webinar was hyper focused on the wants or reproductive “rights” of intended parent(s) and glossed over the needs and rights of the children born from assisted reproduction, namely surrogacy. The child, once again being reduced to a monetizing commodity.
Speakers included Marc Solomon with Civatas Public Affairs group and three women from the Center for Reproductive Rights: Risa Kaufman, Karla Torres and Parbina Bajracharya. Solomon has a deep history working on marriage equality and has personal experience hiring a surrogate in Wisconsin. Solomon claims that he had to use a surrogate mother in Wisconsin because, he says, it was illegal in NY and NJ at the time. This is untrue, surrogacy was not illegal in New York. Prior to the passing of Child-Parent Security Act, New York State allowed for non-paid or what is often called, altruistic surrogacy (only commercial surrogacy was illegal). In 2018, New Jersey surrogate law changed to allow contracts to be enforced, legalized pre-birth orders, where the intended parents were given parentage status in the signed contract without having to go through a legal adoption, and permitted the surrogate to be compensated for “reasonable expenses”. Solomon was vocal about the importance of providing a way for same-sex couples, especially men, to have children. He stated that having surrogacy as an option is “crucially important”. He does admit that a possibility of “power imbalances” throughout the surrogacy process and that extra legal protections are important. However, legal protections cannot protect surrogacy mothers or the children they carry, from harm, or even death.
The webinar seemed to be focused on surrogacy, but it’s important to me to mention egg “donors” as well because in some cases, gay men for example, eggs are also needed. Intended parents may use the egg from one woman and the womb of another, or they may use the egg and womb of the same woman (traditional surrogacy). Egg donation, like surrogacy, is risky to a woman’s health and preys on a woman’s financial needs and emotions so we must not forget these women in our discussion of third-party reproduction.
Karla Torres works for the Center for Reproductive Rights within the US Human Rights team. She stated that she focuses on three issues, but during this webinar only focused on two (denoted with *):
- Ensuring equitable access to fertility care*
- Advocating for human rights-based surrogacy laws*
- Fighting embryo personhood efforts
Torres talked about barriers to care for infertile couples and spoke about how Black women are more likely to be impacted by infertility, but are much less likely to access fertility care to build families. She didn’t talk about the types of women that agree to be surrogate mothers. Maybe because the research on this data is yet to be done. The Center for Bioethics and Culture has conducted our own research on the matter (pending publication) and we found that overwhelmingly, women use the money from surrogacy to pay bills and get out of debt. Further, no women in our survey of 97 U.S. gestational surrogate mothers were in the top 3 tax tiers for taxable income.
A large portion of the webinar was focused on international surrogacy arrangements concentrated on India, Cambodia and Nepal, presented by Parbina Bajracharya. It’s as if the Center for Reproductive Rights hasn’t been paying attention to the news in Ukraine, to the past exploitation of Indian women, or what happened to poor surrogate mothers in Nepal after a devastating earthquake. If you google “surrogacy in Ukraine” you will find news of surrogate mothers and babies stranded in this war-torn country. There are women in India who have died from surrogacy arrangements and children that have been abandoned. Finally, women in countries like India are often illiterate and cannot read the surrogacy contracts they enter. I encourage you to look up the work of Sheela Saravanan.
Barjracharya claimed that if surrogacy continues to be restricted, illegal or criminalized, it will only force the practice to go underground or move to another country. The “underground” logic fails time and time again. We know child trafficking occurs underground, but we don’t make it legal. The same can be said about prostitution and other illegal practices. Further, to prevent surrogacy from moving cross borders, from one poor country to the next, the only answer is global abolition of surrogacy, which is truly the human rights violation of women and children at stake here.
While we agree that surrogate mothers should not be criminalized for engaging in surrogacy, we maintain that surrogacy should be banned throughout the globe. #BigFertility should be criminalized for attempting to commodify women and children. Selling parts of your body and selling children cannot be the ladder with which women climb a family out of unemployment or poverty and it can’t be the answer for men and women to build families. We’ve said it before and we will say it again, no one has a right to a child.
The most that speakers talked about children, and their rights, was during the Q&A session, comparing a child born of surrogacy to donor conceived people. Torres seems to agree that donor anonymity is harmful to donor conceived children. However, for those children born through surrogacy, some laws have prevented the birth mother’s name from existing on the birth certificate. How can these children possibly know who their birth mother is if the very document expressing their existence is a lie?
During the hour-long webinar, speakers continued to use buzz words like “equity” and “discrimination” and avoided any deep discussion on the topic of surrogacy or their actual work. For example, when asked who or what organizations they are working alongside of, this was the answer: “in the US we work very closely with state and federal partners, allies and lawmakers. We work closely with reproductive health rights and justice organizations…” Okay, so who do you partner with? Overall, a depthless conversation that puts the “rights” of intended parents over the rights of a child.
Finally, we were disappointed that hosts made sure that the attendees could not communicate with one another and could not see what questions had been posted during the Q&A session- not very “engaging” if you ask me. In fact, most of the questions asked during the Q&A session were from the moderator, a colleague of the presenters, and the specific questions from individual attendees were not read out in full, instead suffering the fate of being lumped together and defused by relaying them as general topics.
In light of the European Parliament’s strong condemnation of surrogacy as exploitative we find the work of the Center for Reproductive Rights, as it relates to surrogacy, outrageous and dangerous.
- Kallie Fell, MS, BSN, RN, started her professional career as a scientist in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center utilizing a Master of Science degree in Animal Sciences with an emphasis on Reproductive Physiology and Molecular Biology from Purdue University. While assisting in the investigation of endometriosis and pre-term birth, Kallie simultaneously pursued a degree in nursing with hopes of working with women as a perinatal nurse. After meeting Jennifer at a conference, Kallie became interested in the work of the Center for Bioethics and Culture and started volunteering with the organization. It is obvious that Kallie is passionate about women’s health. She continues to work, as she has for the past 6 years, as a perinatal nurse and has worked with the CBC since 2018, first as a volunteer writer, then as our staff Research Associate, and now as the Executive Director. In 2021, Kallie co-directed the CBC’s newest documentary, Trans Mission: What’s the Rush to Reassign Gender? Kallie also hosts the popular podcast Venus Rising and is the Program Director for the Paul Ramsey Institute.