The huge rise in the incidence of gay men becoming fathers via surrogacy is largely seen as positive by those fighting inequality. Publications aimed at gays and lesbians advertise surrogacy services, and the annual Alternative Parenting Show in London attracts over 2,500 visitors. No wonder an outcry arose when the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana recently described IVF children as “synthetic.” Sir Elton John, the father of several such children, rode a wave of indignation from his fans to call for a boycott of Dolce and Gabbana’s products. “Shame on you,” the pop legend scolded, “for wagging your judgmental little fingers at IVF—a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfill their dream of having children.”
But there is a dark side to surrogacy. Its accelerating use by gay couples is no victory for freedom or emancipation. On the contrary, the “gaybe revolution” has brought a disturbing slide into the brutal exploitation of women, who usually come from the developing world and often are bullied or pimped into renting their wombs to satisfy the selfish desires of wealthy Westerners. This cruelty is accompanied by epic hypocrisy. People from Europe and the United States who would shudder at the idea of involvement in human or sex trafficking are themselves indulging in a grotesque form of “reproductive trafficking.”
What’s more, their support for this vicious business exists alongside the shameful neglect of abandoned or abused children in their own countries. Even as commercial surrogacy has become fashionable, child welfare authorities face increasing difficulty finding foster or adoptive parents for the many thousands of children languishing in residential care. This amounts to a deepening crisis in fostering and adoption in Britain and the United States.
As a lesbian feminist, I campaigned for years for gays and lesbians to be allowed to adopt children, not only because of our human right to have families but also because of the need to give secure, loving homes to vulnerable children. Now the rise of IVF surrogate parenthood is in danger of making the acceptance of gay adoption look like a hollow success.
Baby farming has become a significant international business. There is no law against surrogacy in Britain, but it is illegal for surrogates personally to advertise their services, as they do in the United States and elsewhere. Nor are private surrogacy agreements enforceable in British courts, which means, for example, that a surrogate mother cannot be forced to hand over the baby if she changes her mind. But legal niceties pose fewer barriers in less developed countries.
In 2002 commercial surrogacy was legalized in India and Ukraine, now among the most popular destinations for British and American gay male couples seeking commercial surrogacy services. They offer the advantage of low cost. In the United States, IVF plus surrogacy usually carries a price tag of around $100,000; in India it can cost as little as $24,000, and regulation is far lighter. India has become the “rent-a-womb capital of the world,” according to Slate, with a “reproductive tourism” industry, offering services through some 350 clinics, that is estimated to be worth half a billion dollars. Gay men usually opt for gestational surrogacy, in which the woman has an embryo transferred to her uterus, as opposed to traditional surrogacy, in which her own egg is fertilized with sperm from the intended father.
Pro-surrogacy propaganda usually portrays the surrogate mother as a white, blonde, smiling woman who is carrying a baby in order to make a childless couple happy. But the real story is far less palatable. The mostly Asian or black women who provide the eggs and wombs for potential parents can suffer appallingly. In the most common situation, where a donor egg has been fertilized by IVF and transferred to the surrogate, who has no genetic link to the fetus, the tendency is to pay relatively higher fees to the egg donor and recruit surrogates from extremely poor backgrounds. In some poor, rural parts of India, parents of multiple daughters sometimes sell the older ones to trafficking gangs and pimps, who take them to cities to work as surrogates and earn money for their younger sisters’ dowries. Surrogates in India are usually paid under $8,000.