Every year in the Ukraine, thousands of children are born via surrogate, some to Australian couples. But as babies bunkered down in bomb shelters amid a raging war, a debate about ethics, altruism and our local legislation was sparked.
It’s estimated that for every baby born via surrogate in Australia (about 100 each year), three are born overseas. Along with Van Nooten and Middleton, between 20 and 40 couples from Australia had surrogacy plans in the Ukraine when the war broke out, jolting our laws into sharp focus.
Some contend that Australia’s strict legislation – and consequent shortage of local surrogates – is pushing intended parents into dangerous and sometimes illegal transnational arrangements. Yet opponents argue that surrogacy exploits vulnerable women and, when compensated, turns human life into a commodity. Commercial surrogacy is prohibited across all of the EU, and in 2018 the UN warned that it “usually amounts to the sale of children”.
“I see it as a gift, the ultimate gift of life,” says Anna McKie, who was a surrogate – using a donor egg – for a gay couple, Matt and Brendan, in Adelaide two years ago.
She did, however, develop postnatal depression. “I knew in my head and my heart that I didn’t want to keep the child; I already had my own,” explains McKie. “But your body and your hormones don’t get that memo; they birthed the baby. They’re probably grieving the lost baby. Maybe it’s a bit like a stillbirth.”
With ongoing counselling (part of her surrogacy arrangement), McKie found her way out of the “dark pit” and today runs the Surrogacy Australia Support Service (SASS), hosting help sessions for the community. The potential health risks to surrogates are one of the reasons that Dr Helen Pringle, Associate Professor of Social Sciences at The University of NSW, opposes surrogacy in all forms.
“Pregnancy and childbearing is a wonderful experience, but it’s also very risky and dangerous for the woman,” she says. “We underestimate the strength of the bond that’s developed between mother and child before birth. To have the baby simply taken away is not respectful of the [surrogate] mother or the child, and I think it has long-term effects that Pringle also points to the broader societal structures that might lead a woman to “choose” to become a paid surrogate, highlighting parallels with the prostitution industry.
Surrogacy tends to divide liberal feminists along fault lines. One camp shares the viewpoint of Pringle, whose work centres on women’s human rights. But others assert that every woman, every would-be surrogate, should have the right to bodily autonomy. “She definitely should,” agrees Pringle. “But I think the question is: does another person have the right to use another woman’s body?
To buy and to sell her, to treat her like an object? I don’t think they do.”
“Rich people don’t usually volunteer to be paid for surrogacy,” she says. “Think about the former hubs of surrogacy before Ukraine: India, Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal. They all had characteristics of widespread poverty and … a lower status of women.”we haven’t even started to understand.”