The rewritten story of the ‘birds and bees’, now featuring needles and politics
The traditional sense of family has been reconceptualised in the 21st century, with a need to remake the old ‘birds and bees’ tale into a story that can embody the advances in today’s reproductive technology.
Science has superseded the practice of manipulating a father’s sperm to fertilise a surrogate’s egg; to creating and implanting a couple’s fertilised egg into a surrogate; to now avoiding mitochondrial disorders by removing the nucleus from a couple’s fertilised egg and inserting it into the donor’s oocyte.
However, paired with the advent of such techniques is the rise of commercial surrogacy, which in its unregulated nature has challenged ingrained notions of family, and has brought to the fore probing questions about mutual benefit (purported, at least), power, and exploitation.
In December 2013, Gammy and his twin sister, Pipah, were born to a surrogate mother, Pattaramon Chanbua, in Thailand. Whilst Pipah was healthy, Gammy was born with Down syndrome. Whilst Pipah was taken home with her Australian parents, Gammy stayed with his surrogate mother in Thailand.
His situation made international headlines, thrusting surrogacy into the harsh spotlight. Following initial reports which claimed that the parents had ‘abandoned’ Gammy due to his disorder, significant monetary donations were given to Ms Chanbua to care for him. Ms Chanbua then sought to have Pipah returned to her but the Western Australia’s Family Court ruled against this motion.
Chief Judge Stephen Thackray found that Gammy was not abandoned by his Australian parents, but rather his surrogate mother had made a connection with the twins and did not want to give them up.
Despite this ruling, outcry from Baby Gammy’s situation forced Thailand to illegalise commercial surrogacy for foreigners.
But Baby Gammy’s case begs the following two distinct but related questions: In surrogacy, who are the parents? And whom does the child belong to?
When considered in a legal manner, the answer is perhaps relatively clear cut. The surrogate mother is just that – a surrogate. The baby belongs to the biological parents, end of story. But the natural connection a mother – in this case, a surrogate mother – has with the child she is bearing creates shades between black and white.
In India, regulations have been imposed on commercial surrogacy after a Japanese couple had divorced before the surrogate mother came to term. In this case, the baby would be in a parentless limbo.
As Asian countries, such as Cambodia, Thailand, India and Nepal, ban commercial surrogacy, an increasing number of babies fall into this limbo. What happens to the babies that have already been born? What happens to the babies that are in utero? What happens to the clinics that monitor the healthcare of surrogate mothers?
This response to the risk of exploiting women and the fear of turning children into commodities, has largely subverted the medical tourism of commercial surrogacy. Agents have been reported to approach women in financial hardship and targeted their vulnerability. Ms Chanbua told her story of how she provided the service to repay debts, being offered the equivalent of $11700 AUD and an additional sum of $1673 when it became evident that she was having twins.
The drive of individuals that seek surrogacy ultimately reflects the value that is placed upon parenthood, with many being undeterred by laws criminalising the practice.
Australia has the greatest use of overseas-surrogacy in the world. Yet there is very little information and support for Australian couples seeking surrogacy as a reproductive option. In the Medical Journal of Australia, Everingham et al. underlined the imbalance between the demand of surrogacy and its accessibility in a legal manner, particularly as more countries ban the practice. But it is becoming more apparent that legal barriers are of no match to the drive of parenthood.
For many, parenthood justifies surrogacy. After all, reproduction is an innate drive in all living things. However, at what cost is parenthood achieved in these circumstances? At which point do we step beyond the notion of commercial surrogacy as simply being a mutual benefit to both parties, to crudely defining it as being a transaction wherein ‘the poor bear the children of the rich’?
If we are to pursue commercial surrogacy as an option here in Australia, or even if we aren’t, these are questions we would do well to ask. And they are questions we would do even better to answer.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Doctus Project.