There’s still a lot we don’t know about the impacts of surrogacy on both the women carrying the babies and the babies born to them as a result. In Australia, the numbers of surrogate births each year are estimated to be around 120, with more than 200 surrogate births to Australians abroad.
While many might describe it as a wonderful way of helping couples have children, the dark side of surrogacy often goes unmentioned.
What can already be a mentally and emotionally trying time for surrogates has been pushed to the extreme during the COVID-19 lockdowns this year, according to a recent ABC news story. Support coordinator Anna McKie from Surrogacy Australia (a pro-surrogacy advocacy organisation) is quoted as saying that the pandemic left many surrogates feeling “like vessels”.
“The intended parents never make them feel like that, it’s just the situation,” she said. “It’s not the pregnancy they’d imagined when they started their surrogacy journey.”
The impact of lockdowns is blamed for an increased sense of isolation experienced by surrogate mothers, with lockdowns preventing the intended parents in some cases from being with the mothers during the pregnancy, including attending ultrasounds and doctors’ appointments.
Ms McKie noted that the resulting impact has been to make the process “feel more transactional for some surrogates”.
“Because the only time they get to see the parents is at the birth when they hand them their baby,” she said.
While only altruistic surrogacy is legal in Australia, meaning the surrogate cannot receive any financial reward, this does not mean that women are not exploited in the process.
The reality is that the practice of surrogacy is inherently exploitative of women, treating them as incubators and subjecting them to risks of physical and emotional harm for the benefit of those who wish to rent their wombs. This is the case even when the arrangement is altruistic – the only difference being that the woman doesn’t get anything in return for her troubles.
Covid-19 may have exacerbated feelings by surrogate mothers of being a “vessel”, but there is no escaping the fact that this is exactly what the surrogate mother’s function is – to be a vessel for the baby to be nurtured, to grow and to be born.
The news article disappointingly skims over concerns about the impact of surrogacy on women beyond those identified as resulting from lockdowns.
Quoting Surrogacy Australia, the article asserts that “most surrogates have little difficulty handing the baby to parents post-birth.”
However, the stories of countless women who regret their surrogacy experiences tell a different story, as told, for example, in the book Broken Bonds: Surrogate Mothers Speak Out.
Feelings of loss and grief can surface some time after the birth of the baby and the handover to commissioning parents, as was the case with Odette, an altruistic surrogate who experienced profound grief following her surrogacy experience:
“I was sad about what has happened with this surrogacy – but also angry. I feel betrayed, hurt, and I am still suffering mentally and physically from what I have been through. I have great trouble sleeping. Not a day goes by that I do not regret handing over Mitchell...I regret not fighting for him after his birth. Not a day goes by where I do not think about him and wonder if he is safe.”
Or the story of Sherrie, who gave birth to a child for her sister:
“I can’t describe the depth of sadness I felt when I came home without the child I loved, carried within me, and gave birth to. It was as if I had a child die…I just couldn’t help but love this child like my own, because it was my own…As I watched their car driving away that day on the gravel road, I felt like the dust left behind to scatter in the corn fields.”
More counselling is being offered to women acting as surrogates to help them cope during the unique experience of the pandemic. Ms McKie notes that "psychologists help them still find joy and focus on what they can control," she said.
Covid-19 lockdowns and their attendant difficulties for people are shining a light on the reality of surrogacy, which is that it objectifies and exploits women who are being used as “vessels” to bring children into the world for others.
Surrogacy deliberately fractures motherhood into biological, gestational and social roles and commodifies both women and children.
This reality will not change, even once lockdowns are lifted.
 Jennifer Lahl, Melinda Tankard Reist, Renate Klein (eds), Broken Bonds: Surrogate Mothers Speak Out, 2019, Spinifex Press, Victoria.
Kajsa Ekman Ekis (2013) Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne, quoted in Jennifer Lahl, Melinda Tankard Reist, Renate Klein (eds), Broken Bonds: Surrogate Mothers Speak Out, 2019, Spinifex Press, Victoria.