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.