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The unhappy truth about surrogacy BBC drama The Nest romanticises — and normalises — the renting of women's wombs

Is this a happy ending? Credit: BBC One/YouTube

Is this a happy ending? Credit: BBC One/YouTube


April 20, 2020   6 mins

Dan and Emily are having a baby. But Emily isn’t pregnant. Kaya is. After years of trying for a baby, Dan and Emily have decided to try surrogacy and are paying the 18-year-old £50,000 for the use of her womb.

It’s not real life, but it could be. It’s the underlying premise of The Nest, a gripping drama that concluded last week. The plot has more twists and turns than a Zumba class, involving murder, DNA tests, changed identities and drug trafficking — all kicked off by the couple’s desire to have ‘their own’ baby. There is some considerable illegality, to add to the dubious morality of the surrogacy plot, but all is neatly resolved in the last 10 minutes, with Dan and Emily excused all their exploitative behaviour, handed a gurgling baby and credits roll.

So, it’s a win-win for all. Isn’t it? A childless couple gets the baby they longed for. A poor surrogate is set up financially. And the baby will grow up loved.

Give me a break.

The Nest is a cracking drama. Brilliantly acted, full of suspense. But it tells us little about the agonising realities of surrogacy. If anything, it has added to the problem.

The trouble is, at the heart of the drama lies an alarming truth: the growing normalisation of commercial surrogacy in Britain. A UK government consultation is reviewing the current laws. Some campaigners are arguing that commercial surrogacy, which is currently illegal, should be allowed in this country. This would bring us closer to somewhere like California, where outsourcing your pregnancy is as standard as paying someone to mow your lawn.

Currently in Britain, a surrogate can claim £15,000 in expenses. But in The Nest, the couple decide to pay the much higher amount demanded by the young woman — which many couples do, regardless of legal stipulation.

I have long been concerned about the harms of surrogacy, as has the WHO and many children’s charities which take a dim view of the commercialisation of childbirth. And I have travelled widely to speak to surrogates, clinicians and other profiteers in Big Fertility, as well as the ‘commissioning parents’. It’s an industry that pulls in big money: in 2012 it was worth an estimated £4.7bn a year worldwide. And it is growing.

Back in 2016, I visited Gujarat in India, known as the ‘baby factory’ because it is the site of almost half of India’s surrogacy market. I visited five clinics and not once did anyone mention my age (54: I’m no spring chicken) or make any background checks. All, though, were very willing to take my business.

Had I gone ahead, the process would have cost me something in the region of £20,000. The surrogate would be paid approximately £4,000, but if she needed medical treatment or clinical supervision, the costs would be deducted from her fee. The egg, meanwhile, would have been harvested from a young white woman who needed the money. A ‘package’ of IVF and egg ‘donation’ costs around £7,000 in Ukraine, which is the cheapest rate in Europe. But I have met British gay couples who paid around £200,000 in the US for surrogacy services.

India, though, according to research by the academic Sheela Saravanan, was the most important international global surrogacy destinations until foreigners were banned from the industry in September 2015. It still manages to operate, though, by providing wombs for rent to any foreign couple if one of them is ‘a person of Indian heritage’, no matter where they are based.

This is a deeply disturbing and destructive industry. As Saravanan’s research details, serious violations of human rights take place in the rent-a-womb market: women are detained in hostels with other surrogates, often sleeping several to a room, and told what and when they can eat and drink. Many are subjected to illegal sex selective abortions. The women are required to sign a contract — the vast majority cannot read — agreeing to hand over the baby on delivery. Almost all the surrogate mothers in the study described the practice as a form of slavery.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “India is an extreme example because the women are poor and uneducated.” But, it’s the same story the world over. I’ve heard women telling it. Women like Gloria, from the US. The white, university-educated mother-of-two, based in San Francisco, planned on starting her own business doing tax accountancy from home to solve the problem of childcare. But the bank refused her a loan because of her single mother status. Seeing an advertisement for surrogates on a social media website, Gloria decided to offer her services to the clinic.

“From the beginning, I was treated like a sub-human,” says Gloria. “I wasn’t told by the clinic or the [commissioning parents] that they planted two embryos in order to have a better chance of one of them taking, so I ended up pregnant with twins, and I was told I had to have one aborted. It was horrendous.”

Gloria, as with the vast majority of surrogates, gave birth by C-Section a week before her due date. “They wanted the baby earlier because it was more convenient to get the birth over with before he started his new job,” says Gloria. “As I handed [the baby] over she asked me if I would mind expressing some of my breast milk so she did not have to buy formula until her frozen supply arrived from overseas. It felt barbaric – I regret ever seeing that ad.”

Nicola Taylor, writer and director of The Nest told me that she, too, feels a sense of conflict around commercial surrogacy. “Obviously there can be issues with altruistic surrogacy too but the drama is specifically about a pact between two women which bundles together hopes of healing and helping with a cash payment.”

Many, including Taylor, would argue that altruistic surrogacy — when a sister, say, or a friend carries the baby — is largely unproblematic. Alas, most altruistic surrogates I spoke to expressed bitter regret; the pain of giving up the baby had had been unbearable. One woman told me how she was cast aside and made to feel like nothing but a vessel and worries how the child will feel when it discovers its origins.

Meanwhile, the growing trend for surrogacy is being given a new veneer of respectability by gay couples. Their right to have children through surrogacy is increasingly seen as an advance for equality, and a triumph of tolerance over prejudice. Gay men often claim that to deny them this right is akin to homophobia. As I am a lesbian, it would be hard to make a claim of homophobia stick; nonetheless, I have been accused of bigotry in my attempts to expose this trend as an abusive commodification of women. I am resolutely in favour of same-sex parenting, but I am angry that my community is currently leading the way in destigmatising a deeply unethical practice.

It’s no small irony that as commercial surrogacy becomes increasingly fashionable, and as famous men — Tom Daley, Elton John and Yotam Ottolenghi, for example — use their wealth to rent women’s wombs, child welfare authorities are struggling to find foster or adoptive parents for those many thousands of children in residential care. There is no tabloid fawning over those unwanted babies.

The attitude of some towards their surrogate is telling. In a piece by Ottolenghi for the Guardian, the chef describes how he received a call from the LA clinic asking ‘how many’ eggs they wanted to be planted in their surrogate. “Inserting two or three eggs increases the likelihood of pregnancy, but also of a multiple birth,” writes Ottolenghi. “So we decided on just one. But then our previous failures made me panic. I phoned Karl and said, ‘Fuck it, we’re putting in two.'”

Supporters of the surrogacy trade — the medical professionals who see the dollar signs, as well as the wealthy infertile couples who can easily afford to buy a baby — would argue that women are paid handsomely for their ‘service’ and therefore not exploited. Essentially, they say, it is a woman’s right to use her body as a workplace — as a sort of vending machine. Their rhetoric is exactly the same as that used by pro-prostitution apologists. “If a woman chooses it, who are you to say she shouldn’t do it?”

But in my view, all surrogacy, including the altruistic sort, is exploitation. These women are seen as nothing more than walking wombs, whose human needs will be disregarded in favour of those of the “commissioners” who own the baby she is growing.

And this is my problem with The Nest. True, the series does emphasise Kaya’s age and desperation, but it does not tackle the reasons why surrogacy has been destigmatised to the point where, for some, renting a womb is seen as no more problematic than hiring a nanny.

It does not interrogate the reasons why commercial surrogacy is becoming more of a possibility in the UK, or underline what an inhuman process it is. Nor does it properly attempt to untangle the ethical implications of a practice in which a person carrying a child for another person is seen as a job like any other. The Nest, I fear, will not help the viewer see the grim reality of this vile trade.


Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.

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Sam C
Sam C
1 year ago

I agree wholeheartedly, but I would like to see a discussion of surrogacy that goes into more detail about the impact of surrogacy on the resulting child.

I’m an adoptee, and like many others, have “unexplained” trauma symptoms, despite being raised by a family who loved and wanted me. Years of my own research has led me to increasing evidence that removing an infant from its birth mother in any circumstances can be traumatic. We don’t take puppies and kittens away from their mothers until >8 weeks, but a human infant can be handed over immediately, away from the sole human being it has developed a bond with.

Children are not commodities to be bought and sold, they are not blank slates who can be handed off to anyone with no effects. In some cases this is unavoidable, but to manufacture situation that will traumatise a child from birth to satisfy personal vanity and narcissism is barbaric.

roslynross3
roslynross3
4 years ago

We are well aware of the trauma created by forced adoption in times past. We are well aware of the desperate and often traumatic search by adoptees who want to be reunited with parents, siblings or any biological family.

And yet here we have a situation where a bunch of adults choose to deny a child its biological family, whether through purchased egg, sperm or womb!! Madness writ large in the name of self-serving selfishness. The DNA of the baby passes to the mother in utero and vice-versa, and only a fool would think that does not create a biological connection which matters.

Mechanistic, materialist-reductionist, profit-driven science-medicine is criminal when it plays with human life. And sure, all very well-intentioned but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and since it will not be known for another 100 years, what the effects of artificial conception might be, and there will be effects – that is when a first generation has grown up to live a reasonably healthy life and given birth to children who do the same, taking an average of 70years, that means 140 years before we know what harm could be done by this artificial process – can we not introduce some sanity, some ethics, even integrity into this process of playing with human lives? Indeed, can we stop playing and demand that adults who are infertile grow up and deal with it and adopt if they can and if they cannot then make the best of the hand life has dealt them?

A cute baby for a few years, followed by a reasonably cute child for ten more, is not the reality of a dysfunctional, damaged, angry, frustrated, wounded adult for another 50 years or more. Science-medicine has acted disgracefully in terms of IVF.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago

This is what happens when we as a society adopt mental illness as normal. Two men cannot conceive a child. Two women cannot conceive a child. Let us not even go down the Trans rabbit hole. The magic formula in nature is male + female = child.

Whether you are a supporter of biological or environmental construct of the LGBT dogma trying to fit the cult of Neo-Marxist SJW ideology has a destructive effect to the core of society, which is family unit.

I do have a beautiful surrogacy story though. One sister gets leukaemia and has her eggs harvested prior to chemotherapy. Her sister becomes the surrogate for her sister’s child. This is a true story. Whenever I see this child and those sisters I know that surrogacy itself is not the evil, that lies in the cult commercialization by the Neo-Marxist SJW ideology cult.

We know that from all research children do so much better with both a father and mother. Not only that Warren Farrell’s new book “The Boy Crisis” outlines the research that especially for boys a connection to the biological father assists their development.

So what happens when there isn’t two natural parents? 5 times more likely to grow up in poverty, 9 times more likely not to graduate high school, 11 times more likely to have mental illness and 20 times more likely to be incarcerated.

The CULT of Neo-Marxist SJW ideology has failed. We need to accept it and return to traditional values and common sense. This means that front line support must be given to keeping children with their natural parents. Outside of that possibility, best interests for the child are to keep the maximum connection to their biological roots even if surrogate parents, including fostering LGBT parents, are needed to provide a stable home environment.

If you are an LGBT person try to love the child more than your pride. If you do, your “desire” for a child will be superceded by what is best for any child. Otherwise that child is really just a Gucci handbag that makes you feel better. That is not the job of a parent. Our job is doing what is best for our children even when it hurts us, the natural parent.

Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
4 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allan

Have you noticed that close to the majority of children born in the UK (almost entirely to heterosexuals) are born to unmarried parents, something which is clearly correlated with poor outcomes for the children? In case you’re finding that difficult to process, here’s a translation:

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye;
and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

roslynross3
roslynross3
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

It is utterly dishonest to compare worst-case situations in this instance. The optimal situation for a child is to be raised by loving and functional biological parents.

Everything else is second-best. Next comes being raised by family members.Next is being raised by a mother and a father as adoptive parents.

After that comes the rest with two mother or two fathers with no biological connection absolutely bottom of the list because it is a totally alien situation for which no human has yet evolved.

Oliver Wright
Oliver Wright
3 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allan

Correlation isn’t causation. Isn’t it possible that the correlation between not having two natural parents and all the bad outcomes you list is a result of low intelligence and self-destructive tendencies being heritable?

Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
3 years ago

“Almost all the surrogate mothers in the study described the practice as a form of slavery.”…if they chose it, and got paid for it, it cannot be compared to “slavery”. The fact that it feels like slavery is just their instincts telling them how wrong and unnatural surrogacy is.

David Bell
David Bell
4 years ago

Unfortunately questioning the rights of Homosexuals or Transgender people is not allowed!

John Jones
John Jones
4 years ago

As usual, Bindel and feminists like her are all in favour of women controlling their own bodies- unless they choose to do something that feminists don’t like.

Suddenly, these women become “victims” of the “patriarchy” because sometimes the consequences of their behaviour are not entirely satisfactory.

Sorry Julie, but once you accept the libertarian idea that people have the right to control their own bodies (a principle with which I agree), then you are precluded from complaining about the logical consequences of those choices.

After all, the principle of self-determination is the moral justification for abortion, isn’t it?
But when have we ever heard that abortion may be ethically problematic because of the consequence of death for the unborn child?

It’s a strange notion of morality that supports the abortion of a child on the grounds of a woman’s right to choose, but condemns women who give birth to help another woman as somehow morally repugnant.

And women can control their own bodies unless they choose to be prostitutes. Suddenly they are cast as victims because they have absorbed “unconscious sexism” and therefore are not making legitimate choices.

For feminists like Bindel, women’s rights must always take precedence in any situation- unless, of course, the exercise of those rights offends their sense of what rights women should exercise.

Then feminists become as judgmental and controlling as any male chauvanist.

j flood
j flood
4 years ago

The fact that some farm workers are mistreated does not cause you to argue that nobody should do farm work – does it?

We would all starve.

Similarly, potential or actual mistreatment is not a good argument against prostitution or surrogacy.

I believe they should both be legal. We are all entitled to have opinions about the “morality” of prostitution and surrogacy.., but i am not sure why your moral vision should outweigh mine.

In the end, it comes down to practicality – if there is something that a significant number of adults wish to do.., it is very difficult to enforce laws against that behaviour. We could turn our country into a police state, and still not succeed. This is essentially my view about abortion – it is a difficult subject, but in the end, i am forced to admit i am uncomfortable with it.., much more uncomfortable than i am with either prostitution or surrogacy. Do I support making it illegal? No.., It would be impossible to police.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago
Reply to  j flood

I find your connection between prostitution and surrogacy an incongruent connection because you have only considered the rights of adults. But there are also the rights of the child. This is the set of rights ignored. The child has a right to biological family. As such surrogacy is an issue to be navigated from the morality of child rights and not adult rights.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allan

Feminist pieces seldom give any real thought or attention to the child. Unless it relates to so-called ‘toxic masculinity’ in boys or ‘barbie-fication’ in girls.

Feminism has, to say the least, a complex relationship with child bearing and rearing.

Raising a child requires one to relinquish a considerable portion of one’s narcissism in order to care for something infinitely more vulnerable and needy than yourself. As modern radical feminism is essentially based on being the number one victim, all of the time, and in every situation, it clashes with the need to prioritise a child’s life.

Additionally, observing children closely makes you realise that most of feminism is a complete myth when confronted with the real behaviours of girls and boys.

j flood
j flood
4 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allan

i make the connection only because the author does.

with respect to the rights of the child – i am sympathetic to your argument about the “morality of child rights” versus adult rights.

However, as I say, i do not base my argument in favour of legality of both prostitution and surrogacy on the morality of the issues.., but rather on the impossibility of enforcing laws against behaviour that is essentially un-policeable, and that significant mumbers of consenting adults wish to practice.

roslynross3
roslynross3
4 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allan

IVF in any form totally disregards the rights of any child involved and is an abuse of human rights fullstop. We have yet to find out what it does to a human being to be so artificially conceived in ways and form, impossible in nature, drowning in synthetic chemicals in a process which nature never intended.

Peter Kriens
Peter Kriens
4 years ago

The surrogate mother issue is an _ethical_ problem for humanity, not yet another sob story that is supposed to illustrate how awful life is for women. (As if not many more men make choices for money to do dangerous or extremely dirty work.)

Bindel’s stories seem always that women need to be protected against the consequences of their own choices. Life is hard for many people. However, in general women have more options and get better paid for them. A sperm donor gets a nothing or a few hundred dollar, surrogate mothers get tens of thousands of dollars. The liberty that Bindel’s predecessors fought for has consequences, you cannot get the old conservative protection and at the same time have unlimited freedom.

That said, the commercialization of parenthood opens some very disturbing questions over our long term future. It would be interesting to read an article that actually is about surrogate parenthood.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago
Reply to  Peter Kriens

Agreed.

Brindell writes; “But in my view, all surrogacy, including the altruistic sort, is exploitation”.

I would say that in her view there is nothing in the whole history of humankind that when related to women is not exploitation.

Peter Kriens
Peter Kriens
4 years ago

Yeah, it is quite surprising Unherd pays these professional sobbers, the rest of the magazine seems much more even handed.