Surrogacy: What, Why, How?

Surrogate motherhood is changing the nature of reproduction for some modern American families. Women and couples now have a range of options that allow them to achieve a much desired pregnancy when all hope seems to be lost, but surrogacy offers even the most impossible of cases the opportunity to experience a pregnancy. The only difference is that they are not actually carrying the child. In order to understand the nature of parenthood in America today, one must consider surrogate parenting among the array of reproductive choices.

Surrogacy is the practice wherein a woman carries and delivers a baby for someone else. A contract is usually involved and the surrogate agrees to surrender the baby at birth. The contract may or may not include a financial arrangement. There are two alternative forms of surrogacy: traditional surrogacy and gestational surrogacy. Traditional surrogacy is where the surrogate donates her ovum and is artificially inseminated with the sperm of the man who will become the custodial father. In gestational surrogacy, the embryo (usually resulting from the sperm and egg of the future custodial parents) is implanted in the surrogate. Surrogacy becomes more confusing in a few cases, with donor egg and semen being implanted in a surrogate.

Commercial surrogacy began in the United States in the late 1970s. A lawyer named Noel Keane organized the first third-party arranged surrogacies and opened a surrogacy agency. The term itself does not seem to have appeared until 1981.

Surrogacy quickly raised a number of ethical and legal dilemmas. Those who support the practice argue that it provides infertile couples with a means to becoming parents. Opponents claim that surrogacy is nothing more than a form of baby farming, wherein women are reduced to breeders, exploited physically and emotionally by wealthy couples who take advantage of the surrogate’s financial need. Concerns have also been raised about the wellbeing of the surrogate after the birth of the child.

Not until the mid 1980s did surrogacy become a national talking point with the Baby M case entering the media spotlight. In 1985, William Stern and his wife Elizabeth, decided that, rather than face the risks of pregnancy, they would find a surrogate so that Mr. Stern might have a child genetically related to him. He contracted with Mary-Beth Whitehead, a working-class mother of two. The contract stipulated that, upon the birth of the child, Whitehead, in exchange for $10,000, was to terminate all parental rights to the child, allowing Elizabeth Stern to adopt. A daughter was born in 1986 but Whitehead decided that she could not go through with the agreement. A legal battle followed in which the courts ruled the surrogacy contract valid, thus granting custody to the Sterns. An appeal later ruled the contract illegal and invalid, but it was decided that Baby M should remain in the custody of the Sterns, with Whitehead being awarded visitation rights. The case led to lively public debate about the legality of surrogacy, and the varying definitions of motherhood. To this day, surrogacy remains illegal in New Jersey, where the case took place.

Since the 1970s, an estimated 35,000 children have been born through surrogate arrangements. Surrogacy offers the infertile, the unmarried, gay and lesbian couples, and many more, the opportunity to become parents. Surrogate mothers come from a range of backgrounds. They may be married or single mothers. Due to demand, they are often Caucasian, although there is increasing demand for surrogates of other races. Surrogacy has been criticized as exploiting poor, women of color, and indeed the typical surrogate mother is from a lower-income background, and, in the case of gestational surrogacy, may be of a different race to the genetic parents (the belief being that a woman will be less likely to change her mind or be awarded custody of a child that is a different race).

There are still many concerns about avoiding exploitation of the surrogates, preventing a black market of baby carriers, and protecting the interests of all parties involved, but some states are putting procedures into place to safeguard surrogacy contracts. Despite the media controversy surrounding surrogacy, only a very small percentage of surrogate contracts have ever been contested in the courts. The majority of surrogacy contracts are fulfilled to the satisfaction of all involved. Surrogacy has provided many couples with the opportunity to experience pregnancy and childbirth, albeit from a nontraditional standpoint.

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