The Wish for a Baby Comes with a Price

  • Post category:Blog

by Güleren E. & Julia Beck

What is all the fuss about?

When we are discussing reproductive and gene technologies we should never ever forget that we are NOT – emphatically not – talking about ‘help’ for involuntarily childless women. What we are talking about is a politics of power and control. We are in fact – and these are Maria Mies’ words – talking about a WAR against women: violence against women in yet another form.”

Renate Klein

As radical feminists, we appreciate and follow the tradition of feminists who have been critical of reproductive technologies since the 1970s. The practice of surrogacy has endured throughout patriarchy’s long history, answering its need to continue the father’s lineage. The mother is irrelevant, preferably invisible and powerless. Surrogacy is so old, even clay tablets recorded it: Assyrian marriage contracts granted husbands the right to impregnate female slaves, if their wives did not conceive in the first two years of marriage. Another prime example of this patriarchal arrangement is also recorded in the Bible. Technology has developed in the last 4000 years, but so has surrogacy’s exploitative nature. Today the global surrogacy market advertises reproductive slavery as a baby-making solution for wealthy consumers worldwide. 

Surrogacy relies on reproductive exploitation, but popular advertisements for the industry contradict this historical fact. An unfulfilled desire for children is portrayed as a problem which surrogacy can solve. Target audiences like “intended parents” and “gestational carriers” or “egg donors” are led to believe that surrogacy is progressive, inclusive, humane and harmless. However, it is just a product of “techno-patriarchy” as a newer version of the age-old biblical story.

For wealthy consumers, surrogacy is a technologically and legally sophisticated procedure for gaining ownership over newborn babies. On the other hand, the industry encourages young women to give institutions and total strangers total control over their bodies, the eggs they produce and the babies they birth, in exchange for a warm and fuzzy feeling of selfless philanthropy – not to mention money. Our current age of celebrity worship and digitized media has opened a new door for the industry, creating a booming marketplace of babies-as-products. Celebrities themselves, being role models for many, function as the advertising material of surrogacy in social media by glorifying their purchases.

Many people are not aware of what the process of surrogacy actually entails, despite – or perhaps because of – widespread advertisement. Luckily for us, a traveling fertility fair called “Wish for a Baby” visited Berlin in March 2024. We attended the event to learn more about the surrogacy market from the industry itself.

One thing was certain from the online program: it was practically a surrogacy convention, but calling it that would have tainted its family-friendly façade, as surrogacy is illegal in Germany. The majority of companies at the fair advertised surrogacy, with nearly 65% offering surrogacy services outright. Around 15% of fertility centers provided surrogacy as a supplementary service. Only around 20% of the companies did not promote surrogacy at the fair.

Looking at the main services of the companies in the fair, we noticed nearly 44% of them specialized in surrogacy either as an agency to find surrogates or as a clinic offering necessary medical procedures. However, the Fertility Treatments and Egg/Embryo Donation in the chart below also shows the companies which work in the surrogacy industry.

The seminar program was tailored to German customers, advising how to deal with German laws against surrogacy without being criminalized. Customers could also learn which countries are best for buying a baby according to budget, marital status and/or sexual orientation. Seminars had catchy titles like, “Where in the World? Choosing your International Surrogacy Destination” and “From Dreams to Diapers: Dads Share their U.S. Surrogacy Story”. In fact, 73% of all seminars focused exclusively on surrogacy, with just 2% suggesting adoption as an alternative. Since seminars thematized Egg Donation in conjunction with Surrogacy, we conclude that surrogacy was mentioned in almost 80% of all seminars.

A look inside the “fertility” fair

“What characterizes surrogacy is the requirement of an absent mother…. (Surrogacy) is not only a desire to raise a child, but also a demand that the mother be absent.

Kajsa Ekis Ekman

We soon found ourselves standing in line at the Estrel Congress Center behind three male couples waiting to check-in. When it was our turn, two women scanned our QR codes and gave us complimentary tote bags from a main sponsor of the event, a fertility center in California. Inside each bag was a copy of the fair program and an accompanying 84-page “BabyWunsch” magazine subtitled: “So klappt es mit dem Wunschkind” (How to make your dream child come true). A large display panel stood before the conference doors warning that photography, filming, and the attendance of qualified professionals – doctors, lawyers, midwives and doulas – were all prohibited.

As soon as we entered the fair, a balding man with a rainbow lanyard eagerly asked if we had any questions. We politely declined and browsed the stands in the entryway. Each table was covered with colorful pamphlets and loads of freebies. Companies gave away branded pens and notepads, sperm-shaped USB drives, reusable bamboo cutlery, white cotton baby onesies, heart-shaped hot and cold packs, and allegedly homemade candies from the Pacific Northwest. The sheer amount of promotional material made it clear that “fertility” is big business. At least, like any other business in any other convention focused on selling a product. 

Markets rely on profits, the sale of goods and services, and surrogacy is no different. As we walked through the fair, we observed countless images of happy, healthy infants and remarked that this is the product being advertised – the convention itself was a marketplace for ordering and buying human babies. It had an air of friendly professionalism, with company representatives – mostly women – dressing smart and smiling wide. But the topic dominating most of our conversations that day was indeed how to get a baby.

One friendly spokeswoman explained that egg donation in the United States is more consumer-friendly than in Europe. Stateside women can legally receive higher doses of stimulating hormones, so more eggs can be taken from their bodies at a time. She remarked that a US “donor” once “donated” 70 eggs, far more than the average 10-12 during a fertility treatment, and extraordinarily higher than the common number of one ovulated egg per month. The impact of such high hormone doses on “egg donors”, all of whom are women, was not mentioned. 

The first seminar compared surrogacy in different countries. For example, laws on surrogacy may differ across the United States, so Tonya Canaday at the Utah Fertility Center “directs you to a state that meets your needs.” She compared the search for the right surrogate to dating, and Dr. Minoos Hosseinzadeh of the Fertility Institute of San Diego agreed; but consumers need not fear traveling to meet the surrogate, since “we have amazing beaches in San Diego.” Wealthy consumers can turn their exploitation escapade into a fun summer holiday.

Susan Kersch-Kibler, founder of Delivering Dreams International Surrogacy Agency, added that consumers should discard their stereotypes about destinations like Ukraine and Ghana, since the war in Ukraine only happens on TV, and Accra is in fact quite a wealthy city. This was a bizarre way to say that procedures in these two countries were relatively cheaper than in Europe or the USA. According to Ms. Kersch-Kibler, the quality of life in these countries was not at all related to low prices but instead could only be a source of prejudice. The possibility was ignored that in Ukraine and Ghana, women may live in more precarious conditions and are economically coerced to such lengths for a small sum.

The whole discussion was indeed interesting to observe. Everyone spoke nicely about an almost holy “journey” while giving tips about who should go where and why in order to purchase a baby. Some countries are cheap and close-by, but only for married or heterosexual couples; some are only for people with infertility issues. Others may be more expensive and far away, but there’s not much limit to anything. For example, iIn California consumers can simply pick an egg and a sperm from their catalogs, choose a surrogate to ‘gestate’ the embryo, without ever giving a personal gamete before grabbing  a baby out of the production line.

We also learned that in some jurisdictions like California, consumers can obtain a Pre-Birth Order. This legal judgment ensures the names of “intended parents” appear on the child’s birth certificate, even before any medical procedure begins. Thus, anyone who contracts a woman for surrogacy can remove all her claims to the baby by enforcing legal parenthood before birth.  Such a “guarantee” happens to be recognized in Germany. This legal exercise seems to function as a patriarchal protection against women claiming motherhood after giving birth, as happened in the Baby M. Case. On this point, Canaday from Utah Fertility Center shamelessly asserted that parents should choose institutions which can assure that “the child is always gonna be yours.” 

To make surrogacy seem less unethical, intended parents today can try to build relationships with the women they exploit. In case the surrogate mother does not understand the language of the intended parents, some agencies “assist with language barriers” by managing the communication between all parties. If the desired relationship does not develop organically, the consumer can of course default to a “minimal contact” contract, which authorizes the surrogate mother to receive annual pictures of the child she birthed, Canaday explained.

From the program, we learned that the desire to have a baby is often conceptualized as a human right designed for men to have babies without the discomfort of sharing their offspring with a mother. This ‘human right’ is no more than an entitlement with a price tag, which legally eliminates the ability of women to claim rights over their own body (parts) and babies. Not to our surprise, the seminar on worldwide surrogacy legislation was attended by 90% men, and the presenter emphasized in which countries it is possible for single men to purchase babies with full guarantees of legal parenthood.

Legislation in some countries like Canada allow only altruistic surrogacy, but the people we spoke with were quite openly admitting that it is not so different from commercial surrogacy. We were told that from a legal standpoint, women who want to become surrogate mothers should “choose” intended parents in Canada. There is no set price for renting a surrogate mother in Canada as in some other countries, but her cost of living and medical procedures during pregnancy are somehow calculated and paid. We asked how all this is arranged and learned that Canadian agencies simply matched women with consumers, similar to how agencies in other countries operate commercially.

Speaking of costs, representatives of “fertility” companies gladly gave us various packages of surrogacy services with competitive prices. These included many different medical procedures and legal services with varying levels of guarantees, a certain amount of “fertility” trials included for a set price, or a premium price for unlimited trials. Costs ranged  from 40.000 to more than 200.000 Euros. These advertisements looked no different than all-inclusive holiday packages, except they showed winking, smiling, or sleeping babies instead of sea or mountain views.

As if to show how nice and cuddly a family can be using a surrogate mother, one seminar was titled, “You and your surrogate: the most important relationship.” This seminar offered a seemingly ethical and humane way of putting a price tag on a baby; the target audience was clearly people who want to buy babies but need to feel good about first renting a woman’s womb. We listened to the first-hand experiences of Adrienne Black, CEO and Founder of Heart to Hands Surrogacy, and surrogate mother of six children. In her view, the ethics of surrogacy depend on “how it’s done”, with most responsibility resting on the consumer to “follow gut instincts” and find a good agency. After all, the intended parents “need to feel safe in this process.” Black also questioned the motives of a surrogate mother: “Is she really doing it from the heart, or only for the money?” She argued that the surrogate process is too long for just a cash reward, since it takes on average 18 months of a surrogate mother’s life.

Black spoke about a system of exploitation that not only she endured, but that she now benefits from and actively perpetuates. She used personal anecdotes to portray her relationships with families and the children she birthed as healthy and fulfilling. By creating a positive image of surrogacy, she allowed potential customers to ignore the horrors and conflicts, heartbreaks and health problems that are likely to appear in the picture. Just as fairy tales sell the patriarchal concept of marriage by re-packaging it as romantic love, Black encouraged consumers to exploit women on the path of their “beautiful journeys” to parenthood.

What are the consequences of surrogacy for women?

That is really a problem from time immemorial until today that they (men) can not accept that human life comes out of a mother, out of a woman…. If men do not respect that they are not the beginning of life, then there’s no hope for a better world.”

Maria Mies

We left the convention distressed. Its overly friendly vibe and happy-go-lucky attitudes infuriated us, because they betrayed the fact that exploitation is central to this industry. Surrogacy treats women as vessels and raw material. At the fair, we heard no mention of any risks or injuries a mother can face, like complications from medical procedures, during pregnancy and birth, or long-term side effects of fertility treatments. Surrogate mothers and women who “donate” eggs must endure harrowing ordeals in order for the industry to thrive. And today it indeed is thriving.

Companies and agencies that offer “fertility treatments” use medical technology, networks, and resources to exploit the female body as a natural resource. Human life is already commodified in different ways in capitalism, but in surrogacy it reaches its ultimate manifestation: creating a machine out of women’s life-giving capacities and with babies as the final products for sale. In surrogacy, eggs are extracted from one woman’s ovaries, then gestation occurs preferably in a second woman’s womb. After the baby is born, it is taken away from its birth mother to its “intended parent(s)”. Every step of this process uses women’s bodies as mines, labs and factories to satisfy the patriarchal need for progeny.

Maternal links are rendered unimportant in patriarchal laws and societies. Historically the father’s identity is stressed, highlighting patrilineality as the key to inheritance. Now, men can use surrogate mothers to solidify their patrilineal connections to the next generation. The dominance of a fatherline was in itself not enough to evaporate the mother before, but now the mother of a baby can be claimed technologically and legally vague or even non-existent. Surrogacy creates a consciously designed complexity against each woman in the process to claim motherhood. There is no mother-line, as the mother is obscured, contractually silenced into oblivion. For some, surrogacy means no nagging wife to worry about. Single or gay men who desire and can afford to buy babies can then outsource the child’s care to maids, nurses, and tutors unrelated to the child, with no risk of divorce or loss of wealth or custody.

Feminists have thematized reproductive labor and care work for decades. The solution is not to dissociate  women from their own flesh and blood, nor from their humane emotional bonds. Many feminists argue against turning women into sole reproductive robots who happen to be paid for the “job” of giving birth, and this criticism naturally includes the societal pressures on women to become mothers. If one of the “intended parents” is indeed a woman, then she is authorized with legal rights of motherhood. The whole industry has flourished in the beginning to answer the woman’s desire to have a baby in case of infertility, which itself grows mostly out of patriarchal social expectations. Society strongly inflicts the desire to be a mother on women based on the role they should embrace and the conformity of women to the homogenized mother role has also been a need for sex based oppression. Then, when the desires of women are not realized for various reasons, they either become a laboratory themselves or turned into consumers of a commercial surrogacy market in which other women are used as raw materials and breeding machines.

The surrogacy industry requires total control over a woman’s reproductive capacities, and yet for the system to function – for the consumers to stay happy and companies to reap profits – her maternal connection is necessarily undermined. This system of reproductive exploitation is accepted, just as systems of sexual exploitation are accepted, because patriarchy designates a group of women for whom exploitation is acceptable. 

Surrogacy mechanizes the female body to a degree likely unthinkable a century ago, but today it achieves legitimacy under the cover of women’s hard-won agency. As feminists, we understand that the slogan “the personal is political” reveals the political conditioning of our desires and choices. Women are conditioned to believe they will be relatively safe and economically stable if they become devoted wives and bear children for their families. Similarly, a woman’s choice to bear children for another family, and risk her health in the process, in return for compensation is also a socially constructed political condition.

This industry of medicine and progeny is sparked by male fantasy, but people don’t always understand it this way. Often women are not conscious of their role in fulfilling such a male fantasy, since they are merely socialized to believe that the natural progression of a woman’s life includes motherhood. But are women truly happy to be baby factories? We may easily compare the image of the “happy surrogate” to the notion of the “happy hooker”, since both concepts are used to sanitize and glorify the exploitation of women’s bodies. 

Just like prostitution, some people see surrogacy as a part of life, a potential avenue for making their own happy family. Just as prostitution is rebranded as “sex-work”, surrogacy is advertised in a nice package to make people believe the industry is harmless. But this covers up the brutalities inherent to the system. The most extreme forms of surrogacy resemble those of prostituted women: held in captivity for their sexual or reproductive labor. The “Wish for a Baby” convention sanitizes this image to make the inherent exploitation palatable. Indeed people learn to justify and defend these systems if they are rebranded and legalized, as prostitution and surrogacy are in some countries. But the implications of these industries are dire: if babies are products to be bought and sold – if sexual and reproductive access to women is for sale – then all human organs and interactions have a price.

In reality, the “Wish for a Baby” offers a handbook on how to do surrogacy: where to go, who to pay, and how much it costs. It explains how to lobby governments to legalize surrogacy. But it is not the exploitation only that is a problem. Surrogacy alienates women from their own bodies and rips apart the fabric of the most primal connection: that of the mother and child. One thing we noticed during our visit to the convention was not contradictory to this mindset in the surrogacy industry: the lack of the word ‘mother’. As many feminists have already stated, the current shift in patriarchy includes totally getting rid of the knowledge that human life comes out of the female body and the acknowledgement of women’s creative power. To have any hope for a better world, women should rise up to stop this trend.

“Under the guise of ‘doing good’ and the catch cry ‘women want it’ (i.e. allegedly to alleviate the suffering of infertility/too much fertility, or eliminate genetic imperfection), reproductive and genetic engineers have reduced women — and their babies — to a series of body parts and tissues that can be traded, screened and eliminated at will…. how long it will be before cloning of human beings is justified as ‘for our own good’ and women’s alienation to their own body (parts) will lead to their annihilation.”

Renate Klein