A young NSW mum made news recently after disclosing that she almost bled to death following the birth of her baby as part of an altruistic surrogacy arrangement.
Cass, a 32 year old mum from NSW, made the decision to become an egg donor whilst still at university, and then later to carry a baby as a surrogate for a separate couple.
Cass had had three biological children of her own by the time she embarked on her surrogacy experience, so she thought she knew what she was in for, but explained that the surrogacy pregnancy ended up being the worst pregnancy she had experienced in her life.
“Four days after embryo transfer, I started vomiting and continued, sometimes more than 30 times a day.”
She was diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum at six weeks, an extreme form of morning sickness, and was given medication used to manage nausea in cancer patients. She was unable to keep down any of the food she ate.
“It continued so bad the whole time until the birth.”
“I was in and out of hospital on drips. At one point I was admitted for a week just to get me to keep something down and gain some weight.”
It wasn’t just the pregnancy that was difficult. In the course of delivering the baby, Cass came dangerously close to death.
It took 26 hours to deliver the baby boy, named Atlas, whose head measured 38 centimetres.
“Dad Christian helped deliver Atlas, pulling him out while Juan cut the cord. While the newborn went straight to Christian’s chest for skin-to-skin, Cass immediately went into hemorrhage, sending a panic through the maternity ward.
“I lost three litres of blood in a very short time.”
She was rushed into theatre for emergency surgery in order to stop the bleeding, with the medical professionals telling her partner that she would be out in 15 minutes. She ended up being in theatre for three hours.
“I came really close to dying. I was told I shouldn't have any more children, I was too high risk.”
Cass is adamant that she would have no hesitation going through the surrogacy journey again:
“Even though the pregnancy with Atlas was horrible and I almost died during the birth, I would have no hesitation going through the surrogacy journey again.”
Cass was lucky to survive the experience. Other women have not fared so well, with documented cases of surrogates losing their lives in the process. A GoFundMe page was recently set up by the surrogacy agency “Family Makers Surrogacy” in the United States for a woman who died on the day she was to give birth to a baby as a gestational surrogate. The page’s tribute to the mother included the following:
“In May 2021, an amazing three-time surrogate lost her life in childbirth due to a rare, but serious delivery complication called amniotic fluid embolism (AFE). She leaves behind her children, mom, siblings, coworkers, a large, supportive extended family, and countless friends.”
Owing to the confirmed deaths of surrogates both in the United States and elsewhere, the practice is now being referred to by some as an “orphan maker”.
A near-death experience would deter most women from becoming a surrogate again. In instances where a surrogate like Cass is prepared to risk severe sickness and death, some would argue that this is her choice. But who is looking out for her wellbeing or the best interests of her own children? And how do commissioning couples reconcile their desire to have a child with the serious risks that surrogacy poses to women?
The news story documenting Cass’ experience does not state what kind of information was provided by her health professionals before she consented to becoming a surrogate, including whether she was informed about the risks associated with surrogacy, extending even to the possibility of death.
Surrogacy as an industry has received extremely positive media coverage in recent years, owing to a number of celebrities – including Elton John and his partner, David Furnish, reality television star Kim Kardashian West, and many Hollywood celebrities – publicly disclosing and promoting their own surrogacy arrangements. As a result, the practice is now much more widely known and arguably more normalised. In particular, altruistic surrogacy (in which the surrogate receives no payment beyond the reimbursement of expenses), is promoted as a selfless, caring act to assist couples who cannot, for whatever reason, give birth themselves.
However, there are many who argue that just because surrogacy is more common, this does nothing to change the unethical nature of an industry that commodifies human life. As Swedish journalist and author of Being and Being Bought – Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self, Kajsa Ekis Ekman argues:
“Surrogacy may have been surrounded by an aura of Elton John-ish happiness, cute newborns and notions of the modern family, but behind that is an industry that buys and sells human life. Where babies are tailor-made to fit the desires of the world’s rich. Where a mother is nothing, deprived even of the right to be called “mum”, and the customer is everything.”
Addressing the issue of altruistic surrogacy, Ekman argues that there is a strange ideology underpinning the term, as if “exploitation only consisted in giving the woman money.” “In that case”, Ekman argues, “the less she is paid, the less she is exploited.” Clearly, the logic that seeks to obscure the exploitative aspects of even altruistic surrogacy is not robust.
“In reality, “altruistic” surrogacy means that a woman goes through exactly the same thing as in commercial surrogacy, but gets nothing in return. It demands of the woman to carry a child for nine months and then give it away. She has to change her behaviour and risk infertility, a number of pregnancy-related problems, and even death. She is still used as a vessel, even if told she is an angel. The only thing she gets is the halo of altruism, which is a very low price for the effort and can only be attractive in a society where women are valued for how much they sacrifice, not what they achieve.”