Human Factory Farming and the Campaign to Outlaw Surrogacy

The despair of wanting a child you are unable to produce naturally has led to a multi-billion dollar Assisted Reproduction Technology (ART) industry offering a plethora of reproductive choices resulting in tens of thousands of births a year in the U.S.  It has also led to controversy and a campaign to ban it.

Michele Goodwin, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy, holds the Chancellor’s Chair at the University of California, Irvine with appointments at the School of Law, School of Public Health, and Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies.

These technologies provide a stunning candy store of options: a spectrum so vast in array, scope, and breadth as to make heads spin: in vitro fertilization, ova selling, cryopreservation of ova, womb renting [surrogacy], pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, embryo transfer, assisted hatching, intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) of ova, embryo grading, and more.

Producing children with the assistance of anonymous third parties, while increasingly popular and accepted for anyone who can afford it, remains controversial. Despite compassion for the unmet longing to be a parent, there is no right to a child for anyone — heterosexual, homosexual, or singles by choice.


The term surrogate is used to describe a woman who intentionally gestates a baby for others. Those who do it out of love for a friend or family member are called “altruistic surrogates” while those who do it for compensation are “commercial surrogates.”

Originally, surrogates were artificially inseminated with the sperm of a man who was the sole or one of the intended parents to raise the child. When some of these early surrogate mothers found it difficult to part with a child after the birth, complicated custody disputes ensued because the surrogate was the biological mother.

As a result, most surrogate arrangements today involve what is called a “gestational carrier” wherein a woman implanted with a fertilized embryo using egg and sperm that may be from one or both of the intended parents, or purchased anonymously from a third party or parties. She is thus carrying a child that is no relation to her.

Surrogacy is rife with controversy. PBS, BBC, and Newsweek are among some of the many venues that have exposed concerns about international surrogacy in particular.

The Children

The goal, the prize, the highly sought commodity of all forms of reproductive technologies is the hope of a newborn infant who is the genetic offspring of at least one of the parents who contract for its creation, or one who has been custom designed from high quality genetic material carefully selected for physical attributes and the educational level of the “donors.”

What, if any, rights or protection do the children of surrogacy have? Some who hire surrogates do so after being rejected as adopters because of age limits. Others fail or want to avoid a background check, which surrogacy does not require. Unlike adoption, surrogacy requires no home studies. Children can thus be ordered, paid for, and handed over to anyone, including pedophiles or others who may intend to mistreat them.

Even under the best of circumstances adoptee rights organizations and donor sibling registries speak volumes of the pain inflicted on future citizens who are denied access to complete and accurate genetic medical history. Dr. Bernadette Tobin, director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, AU and the Australian Catholic University, says: “The wellbeing of the future child – the only person who does not get to have a say in the arrangement – ought to be the starting point for our ethical evaluation of the practice” of commercial surrogacy.

Tobin believes: “We have to consider whether surrogacy in and of itself wrongs the child brought into existence before we go on to consider… further questions” such as exploitation. “Surrogacy”, Tobin notes, “intentionally violates a child’s entitlement to be brought up – if at all possible – by his or her natural parents.  Surrogacy intentionally violates the gestational link between the child and the natural mother.” Adoption, she adds, justifies this egregious separation of mother and child because it is thought to be in the child’s best interest. Surrogacy, however, creates a “deliberate breaching of the parent-child biological bond” with no claim to be saving or rescuing a child from abuse, neglect or poverty.

Additionally, in the UK and some states in America, children born to a surrogate need to be adopted by their social parent. (State laws on surrogacy here.)  At a British conference on the rapid increase in the number of surrogate births, concern was raised about such children whose parents fail to obtain parental orders, leaving them “stateless and legally parentless.”

”It is estimated that as many as 2,000 children a year are born to surrogate mothers – mostly overseas – before being handed over to British parents. Last year, however, according to the government’s child protection agency, Cafcass, only 241 applications were made for parental orders.” These situations create a “ticking legal timebomb that might arise later on through [the parents’] deaths, testamentary [inheritance] issues and through parents splitting up – or even simply if passports need to be renewed.”

Exploitation of the Poor: Handmaid Breeders

Kathleen Sloan, former member of the board of directors of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and co-author of Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth and Culture, concurs. Recently Sloan wrote “Stop Surrogacy Now: Why We Must Unite” (in Public Discourse, a publication of the Witherspoon Institute), stating:

Internationally, deep regulatory divides have fueled a growing global market in which the wealthy, together with third-party intermediaries such as surrogacy brokers, attorneys, and clinics (all of whom benefit economically from the commodification of reproduction) exploit low-income, poor, and otherwise marginalized women for their reproductive capacities. Surrogacy and egg trafficking have become pervasive international phenomena in which women’s poverty and subordinate status increase their exposure to gender-based exploitation and physical harms.

Proponents of surrogacy point to the money earned: enough to buy a house in places like India. It is not a sustainable income, however. To earn it the women are confined, away from their husbands and children for the term of their pregnancy, monitored carefully like animals impregnated for the sale of their offspring, leading to Sloan aptly calling it “human factory farming.” Many surrogates are ostracized for the manner in which they earned a fee.

More importantly, those paying for their “embryos to be implanted in women living in India,  Thailand, Mexico, Nepal, and other developing countries” have attorneys who create contracts to protect themselves, not the surrogate, notes Michelle Goodwin.

Contracts may obscure problematic legal and social norms. In the case of international surrogacy, typical surrogates are uneducated, from impoverished ghettos and slums, willing to risk their health to make in one nine-month period more than they would make in four or five years….Impoverished surrogates often sign elaborate contracts stipulating that they will abort fetuses unwanted by the ‘intended parents,’ gestate multiple fetuses if necessary, and essentially do whatever is asked or demanded of them with a thumb print, because they are illiterate and cannot read or write.

Even educated American surrogates are disadvantaged by virtue of the fact that the contracts are drawn up or approved by attorneys representing the intended parents to protect their interests solely. Surrogate contracts have resulted in complicated custody battles and surrogate mothers left with medical bills or left caring for a child the contractually “intended parents” did not want.

“Unsurprisingly,” says Goodman, “there have been deaths, severe health harms, babies left behind, and a slowly emerging black market in foreign babies left behind in places like India. More recently, in Nepal, after the tragic earthquake, the Israeli government airlifted babies born through surrogacy out to safety, but left the women who gestated them behind.”

Surrogates, however, from the U.S. or not, have no independent legal counsel to explain the risks to their health, the life-altering ramifications, or legal entanglements of the contract they are entering into. For a detailed description of the risks of surrogacy and egg extractions, read Kathleen Sloan’s full article.

Strange Bedfellows

Jennifer Lahl, creator of the international Stop Surrogacy Now campaign, worked in pediatric nursing for 20 years and holds a graduate degree in bioethics. Her training in reproductive ethics and bioethics coupled with a strong concern for and work with patient advocacy led to her founding The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network which champions the rights of women who are used for human egg production, as well as those used as human incubators. In an email, Lahl summarized her concerns about surrogacy:

Surrogacy is fraught with medical, ethical and legal problems…issues of class, …And of course the using of women as breeders and ignoring the important maternal-child bond, which turns women into commodities and babies as products. There are those who suggest regulation is the solution to preventing problems, but of the countless surrogacy arrangements gone bad … regulation wouldn’t help the women and certainly not the children created by these complex contracts.

The Swedish Women’s Lobby, working for the rights and equality of women, agrees that surrogacy cannot be regulated, stating that it is “a threat to women’s basic human rights and bodily integrity … No matter the regulation or the nature of the contract, it still remains a trade in women’s bodies and children. The rights of women and children, not the interests of the buyer, must be the focus of the debate surrounding surrogacy.” These concerns about surrogacy are shared by those of divergent beliefs including pro-life and pro-choice women, notes Sloan.

“The fervently religious and the entirely non-religious, those who advocate LGBTQ rights and those who oppose same-sex marriage, feminists and non-feminists, the radical right and the radical left along with those in between, neoliberal capitalists and socialists, death-with-dignity supporters and those who consider it to be a form of euthanasia” stand together to ban surrogacy.

This has been the case since 1987 when the Mary Beth Whitehead, Baby M case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court and changed surrogacy in that state. Briefs in support of outlawing surrogacy were filed by individuals and organizations from a vast array of political and religious persuasions.

France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria outlawed surrogacy – paid or not. Australia, the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Belgium allow unpaid surrogacy only and Australia is currently debating whether commercial surrogacy should be allowed or not. All of this opposition should give us pause to seriously question the ethics and justifications of allowing underclass women to be used, albeit with compensation, as brood stock to create human babies to be sold as commodities.

America is known as the most lax country for adoption and surrogacy. It has been called the Wild West for its lack of regulation of these practices. Is this a legacy we want to continue? Longing for a child is agony, but so too is needing an organ transplant, yet we do not allow the indigent to earn money selling organs.  Civilized nations outlaw human trafficking and baby selling. Adoption laws prohibit pre-birth contracts because to lock a mother into such a contract violates laws against baby selling. How then can we allow surrogacy which intentionally produces a child to be sold? If you agree, join the signers of the international campaign to Stop Surrogacy Now.

Mirah is author of two internationally acclaimed books, more than 200 published articles, and cited in twenty professional journals having been researching, writing and speaking about American and global child adoption, restoration of adoptee rights, as well as contract anonymous conception and surrogacy since 1980. More at her website and Wikipedia. Read other articles by Mirah, or visit Mirah's website.