Scandals about surrogacy in America rarely come to light, mostly because commercial surrogacy has long been routine here, as are resulting litigations. However, in many developed nations a debate is raging about the ethics of surrogacy, particular when westerners hire wombs from the developing world.
Last year Irish couple Fiona Whyte and Sean Malone shone a light on the shady, unregulated sphere of first world/third world surrogacy. The Irish film Her Body, Our Babies chronicled how their desire to become parents despite being in their 50s ultimately led to the abortion of a “spare” fetus. More recently, the baby Gammy case, in which an Australian couple left their Down Syndrome baby with Pattaramon Chanbau, his Thai surrogate mother, returning to Australia with his healthy twin, brought these goings on back into public consciousness. These cases now raise the question as to whether America’s acceptance of the commercialization of creating human life is an acceptable situation for a developed nation, especially one often looked to by other nations for moral leadership?
The story of the Farnells and baby Gammy takes place at the most important crossroad in the global economy, where rampant inequality, rampant individualism and regulatory impotence create an unholy alliance whose driving force is blind acceptance of all technological advancements, irrespective of their consequences.
David and Wendy Farnell, the Australian couple who entered a surrogacy contract with a Thai street vendor, Chanbau, for twins, then allegedly abandoned one of the resulting offspring because he had Down syndrome, are poster children for everything that has gone wrong with family life. David, a convicted child molester, veteran of at least one failed family, and parent to older children, exemplifies the 1970s generation’s dominant ethos: “I want it, I’m going to get it, and damn the consequences.”
The Farnell’s ability to pay trumped David’s questionable credentials as a father. It was their whim, their desire to have a child despite his age and criminality that won the day. But without unregulated modern advances in medicine the Farnells would have had no chance of getting the additional biological children he craved.
According to published reports, Janbua, the women who carried the Farnells’ twins to term and gave birth to them, received between $9,000 and $16,000 for renting her womb. The total cost, and the surrogacy agency’s cut is unknown, but who doubts it was substantially more than these numbers?
Following this story was been a bit like trying to stab a worm. First the Farnell’s claim to have not known of Gammy’s existence, then they had allegedly demanded an abortion, then they abandoned him, but now they say they wanted him all along. Really?
Few commentators deny that human trafficking and slavery are two of the most sinister consequences of globalization. And yet the roaring trade in human life in the form of eggs, wombs, embryos and babies is seldom discussed in this context. Just as opponents of abortion rarely consider whether a child would want to enter the world against his or her parents will, until Gammy, few seems to identify with fertilized children, or ask did he or she want to be slapped together in a lab somewhere and grown inside a stranger’s body? Perhaps baby Gammy’s Down syndrome is a heartrending gift to us all, as it enables us to better appreciate the injustice to the child as well as the women who gave birth to him.
It’s not without considerable shame that this story has only been mentioned in passing in the U.S. A Washington Post report in August, deftly sidestepped the morality of surrogacy in the U.S. by simply stating, “. . . in the United States, for example, enforcement falls to the states.” Click on the link embedded in that quote and you discover a state by state breakdown of US states’ surrogacy laws. With the exception of five of the US’s 50 states, surrogacy takes place in the regulatory equivalent of the Wild West. It’s an open secret in the US that smart white girls can earn up to $25,000 per egg, and ads for eggs and surrogates are freely displayed on campuses, in local papers and elsewhere.
Many in the US would be hard pressed to understand the controversy. Some may even sympathize with the position David Farnell briefly took during the Nine Network’s 60 Minute interview, namely that a Down syndrome baby is a breach of contract and the surrogacy agency should be held to account and give him a refund. Of course, Farnell backtracked pretty fast when confronted, but wouldn't many Americans in his position hold a similar position to his?
Human sexuality had long been commoditized here and around the world, but the enthusiasm and speed with which Americans have embraced the commodification of eggs, embryos, babies and infants is appalling. Recall the US position on adopting children left orphaned by the 2006 tsunami. While European countries rushed to ban such adoptions, American citizens were merely advised to hold back until the hysteria calmed down.
A fellow college instructor recently informed me that couples buying babies from poor parents in the developing world was not to be considered slavery because the buyers were kind to the children they purchased. By that definition many households in the bygone American south no doubt fell outside this convenient definition of slave owners. Adopted and surrogate children are abused as often as natural born children. Is it really only slavery when these children are abused? The question takes on greater urgency in this case with David Farnell’s prior conviction on child sexual abuse, and it was interesting to hear the 60 Minutes reporter asking him if the child’s sex played any role in the decision to leave Gammy behind.
What unites all countries reportage of this story is the dehumanization of Pattaramon Chanbau, with even those stories that name her first only as the surrogate, and only later providing her name.
The forces that made the Farnell story possible are as powerful as the winds of 2012's Super Storm Sandy. These sordid events simply could not have happened 40 years ago; technology would not allow. For now, surrogacy shimmers before the infertile like candy in a store without windows. These two feckless parents are as much victims of these winds as the woman who rented them her womb. We can be reasonably sure that if she had enough money to meet her needs they would have had to find another surrogate. This was not a contract between equals.
Regulations cannot control human desire, and the unscrupulous stand ready to exploit it. The desire for children is powerful. What governments can do, however, is to remove the profit motive from these transactions. Take them out of the commercial realm altogether and enforce meaningful consequences for transgressions. Of course, as long as the technology allows, there will always be mothers, and sisters and friends who will become surrogates in private for free; but without money changing hands it’s technically not slavery, and besides, shouldn't reproduction continue to be centered in private life?
Making fees illegal and enforcing that law will go a long way to slow the rate of surrogacy. The Thai government banning commercial surrogacy is a positive consequence of these troubling events. The saddest part is that ultimately it won’t be the Farnells who deal with the consequences of their excesses; it will be their children.
(image of pregnant woman, by "patrisyu," licensed from freedigitalphotos.net)