While we may think of surrogacy as a pretty recent development, the practice of traditional surrogacy actually has a fascinating history dating all the way back to biblical times. Things may have come a long way since then, but the process is still a controversial one in many parts of the world. We take a look at how it works, why couples make use of surrogates, why women choose to become surrogates, and the challenges surrounding it.
What is surrogacy?
Surrogacy takes two forms – traditional and gestational. In gestational surrogacy, an egg is removed from the intended mother and fertilized with sperm from the intended father. The resulting embryo is then transferred to the womb of the surrogate mother, who will carry the developing baby to term. As both the egg and sperm are from the parents-to-be, the surrogate is not biologically related to the child.
Why do couples choose surrogacy?
For the most part, couples choose to have a baby via a surrogate because a medical condition prevents them from having a biological child any other way. Kim Kardashian, for example, welcomed her fourth child in May of this year, and her second via a surrogate mother, as she has a condition called placenta accreta which makes using a surrogate the safest option.
Surrogacy is also an option for same-sex couples who wish to have a child that is related to at least one of the partners. For lesbian couples, gestational surrogacy means that one partner can contribute the egg, while the other carries the child. And while the woman who carries the baby will not be biologically related to the child, the experience of carrying and giving birth to them can be very meaningful.
Many couples who have tried several rounds of assisted reproduction techniques such as IVF unsuccessfully, especially if they have succeeded in getting pregnant only to lose the baby, will then turn to a surrogate.
Why do women volunteer to become surrogates?
On some occasions, a female friend or relative of the couple who is battling to have a child of their own will step up to assist. In the case of Kristy and Craig Darken of Australia, it was Kristy’s sister Rebecca who finally helped them bring their son Henry into the world. Unlike in many US states, Australia doesn’t allow for surrogacies to be paid for – called ‘commercial surrogacies’ – other than covering necessary medical and legal expenses.
Most couples however will find their surrogate through an agency, usually one recommended by the fertility clinic which will ultimately perform the embryo transfer. Often, women who volunteer as surrogates are mothers who are simply very deeply moved by the pain and heartbreak experienced by couples who find they can’t have a child of their own through normal means.
Ivy MacCurtin, of Richmond, Virginia, is one of these women, who made the decision to become a surrogate after having three children of her own. You can read her story and how she came to this decision in her own words here.
How does the process differ around the world?
For many, the biggest challenge around surrogacy is navigating the legal process – especially if the surrogate mother is a citizen in a country other than the intended parents. Even across state lines in the US, laws can be very different. Some states may require the intended parents to go through an adoption process after the child is born, while others will allow a ‘declaration of parentage’ to be drawn up before the child is born.
In South Africa, couples who intend to use a surrogate need to get court approval before IVF can begin. Both the surrogate and the commissioning parents need to be assessed by a clinical psychologist, a fertility specialist and a social worker, and a contract needs to be drawn up by a family lawyer.
While it sounds like a lot of hoops to jump through, many feel that stricter regulations and laws are a good thing – as it reduces the odds the process becomes one akin to ‘selling babies’.
In Europe, things are again quite different. Any kind of surrogacy, traditional or gestational, is banned in both France and Germany, while many other European countries, including the United Kingdom, allow altruistic but not commercial surrogacies.
And in countries like the Ukraine, where becoming a surrogate mother can net a woman more than eight times the average yearly income, there are concerns that financially vulnerable women may be exploited.
There’s little doubt that finding a surrogate to help bring your child into the world must feel miraculous for couples desperate for a child of their own. And if governments and lawmakers around the world are able to work together to create a solid legal framework, parents, surrogates and children could enjoy greater protection and safety.