Is Surrogate Pregnancy Another Form of Human Trafficking?

Touching stories of infertile couples are blinding us to the devastating human consequences of some fertility technologies.

A recent People magazine story reported on a “paralyzed bride” whose college friend offered to be her pregnancy surrogate. Rachelle Friedman’s neck had been broken at her bachelorette party when one of her bridesmaids playfully pushed her. Fast forward a few years later, and Friedman and her husband Chris Chapman anxiously await the birth of their first child via Rachelle’s college friend Laurel Humes, who has agreed to be their surrogate.

“My husband was a sperm donor for some of our friends, a same-sex couple, and that inspired me to think about surrogacy,” said Humes. “I’m really excited. I know Chris and Rachelle will be great parents and I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when they get to hold their baby for the first time.”

Media accounts of modern-day reproductive technologies often lead with such narratives — tragic stories that make addressing the ethical issues in play difficult, if not impossible. First, we hear of a couple struggling with infertility, and then of the gracious fertile person who provides said couple with the “gift of life.” Sometimes, the people who seek surrogacy are biologically unable to conceive (as with same-sex couples or people who have chosen to be single). Sometimes, it’s a heterosexual couple struggling with infertility, in some cases because the couple simply waited too long while pursuing advancements in their careers or education. In all these stories, the third party donor is selfless and saintly, offering their eggs, sperm, and/or wombs. In the Friedman case, Laurel Humes’ husband had already “given the gift of life” in donating sperm to a same-sex couple.

Visitors to fertility websites see only slick advertising — they do not hear the stories of the surrogates.

For a nation needing to examine the issue of surrogacy, these stories are insufficient. Much of my work and documentary filmmaking seeks to educate people on the complexities of these technologies, the use of which has thus far lacked sufficient serious moral, ethical, medical, legal or theological reflection — and has led us to a crisis.

Here are just a few of the problems facing us in the current landscape:

In the United States alone, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) has created more than half a million frozen human embryos. Federal law in Germany prohibits the freezing of human embryos, but in the U.S. the number grows daily. Currently, no policy exists to stop the creation of more frozen embryos, and there is little discussion in the legal sphere on what to do with these “souls on ice.”

Fertility technologies’ tremendously high failure rate also remains a significant yet underreported issue, even as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual reports on assisted reproductive technologies reveal that that the majority of these costly (often hundreds of thousands of dollars) IVF cycles fail.

The human costs of these practices are also often ignored: the sale or donation of eggs and the practice of offering wombs for surrogacy has led to serious physical and psychological harm to the women involved in these transactions. Visitors to fertility websites see only slick advertising — they do not hear the stories of the surrogates.

Our films Eggsploitation and Breeders: A Subclass of Women? highlight the many dangers women who serve as surrogates face to their immediate and long-term health and to their fertility.

And what of the struggles of children who arrive in the world as the result of a commercial contract? The term “human trafficking” is applied to the sale and exchange of children who have already been born, but not to those yet to be born. Only now are important studies coming out about the health and well-being of children created via assisted reproductive technologies. Our film Anonymous Father’s Day allows the voices of many “donor-conceived” people to be heard, and their voices are a powerful indictment of such arrangements.

Some years ago, a New York State task force convened after the controversial Baby M surrogacy case stated that “the practice [of surrogacy] could not be distinguished from the sale of children and . . . it placed children at significant risk of harm.” This same committee also agreed that surrogacy unilaterally undermines the dignity of women, children, and human reproduction.

A 2011 European Union resolution to combat widespread violence against women asked member states to “acknowledge the serious problem of surrogacy which constitutes an exploitation of the female body and her reproductive organs.” The resolution also stated that “women and children are subjects to the same forms of exploitation and both can be regarded as commodities on the international reproductive market, and . . . these new reproductive arrangements, such as surrogacy, augment the trafficking of women and children and illegal adoption across national borders.”

While Rachelle’s tragic story may have had a seemingly uplifting ending, we should not fail to ask serious questions about how the use of fertility technologies fits into our moral and ethical framework. The womb is not an inert vessel independent of the thinking, feeling woman to whom it belongs. Countless studies from a variety of scientific disciplines reveal that the maternal-child bond plays a vital role in the developmental and emotional well-being of both mother and child. These issues cannot be ignored.

The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.

Jennifer Lahl
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  • Jalara

    Allow me to address some on the ‘problem’ on your ‘landscape’.

    1.”Currently, no policy exists to stop the creation of more frozen embryos, and there is little discussion in the legal sphere on what to do with these “souls on ice.”

    ^This issue is a self made issue. A moral one that is personal, not national. “Souls on ice” exist only if you believe that they are souls. Personally, I believe that embryos are life in that they are a collection of cells that begin a human baby – a natural and amazing thing, but if you take moral issue with it then that is your personal position and not one that is a national issue. Granted, I do understand that it is something you may feel strongly that should become a national issue but that doesn’t make it so. If the federal government won’t weigh in on abortion you can bet they aren’t going to make a decision about this.

    2. “Fertility technologies’ tremendously high failure rate also remains a significant yet underreported issue, even as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual reports on assisted reproductive technologies reveal that that the majority of these costly (often hundreds of thousands of dollars) IVF cycles fail.”

    ^ Yes, and naturally so. It takes an average, healthy couple up to 1 year (or 12 natural cycles) to conceive. That means that 11/12 times, if they do everything right, Mother Nature still may not result in a baby. People tend to forget this part. Fertility treatment is still greatly increasing the odds and, while it may still fail, those odds are greatly improved. Creating a healthy, viable pregnancy is never a certainty but the statistics of the science do increase considerable with medical intervention.

    3. “The human costs of these practices are also often ignored: the sale or donation of eggs and the practice of offering wombs for surrogacy has led to serious physical and psychological harm to the women involved in these transactions. Visitors to fertility websites see only slick advertising — they do not hear the stories of the surrogates.”

    ^The “human costs” of these practices are never ignored. Who do you think is ignoring them? The would-be parents are all-too aware of how raw and precious fertility is. If there is a clinic that isn’t caring for their clients and surrogates/donors then they should be held accountable but that in no way blackens the entire system anymore that one religious radical group – such as ISIS – blackens all religions. The medical community isn’t ignoring them. There is a reason that psychological screenings are required for all involved – everyone must be well aware of what is involved and be competent enough to understand what the reality of it will be.

    And ofcourse there is advertising. Where there is a business there will always be advertising. I found your site through “slick advertising”.

    The middle portion of your article on serves to promote other works from your organization, so I won’t address those.

    As for the European standards. I will say this. If your organization wishes to live by European standards and upholds the European Unions beliefs then you must also acknowledge and be comfortable with non-medically indicated abortion.

    Personally, I believe that what one person chooses to do with their body is no one else’s business. But the problem with that is that an individual’s personal beliefs should have no bearing on the law whatsoever.

  • Laurel

    Well said, Jalara.

    I don’t understand why Lahl used my family’s story as an example in this piece. I most often hear assisted reproduction criticized for the anonymity and the exchange of money. Neither my husband nor I have been financially compensated for helping our friends grow their families. There is no anonymity in our case. Why use a happy story when attempting to illustrate the negatives?