Pic: Asia Sentinel.

Pic: Asia Sentinel.

Wild variation in regulations worldwide ensure that surrogacy is both human right and exploitation writes Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin for Asia Sentinel.

What used to be a costly, sci-fi solution to childlessness has emerged as an everyday story. But as the procedure becomes more common, so do cross-border legal and ethical problems, as highlighted by a case after a Thai surrogate mother bore twins: The Australian parents took the healthy child and left the one with Down syndrome behind.

Such stories are just the tip of the iceberg of a global story. Surrogacy – having another woman bear a child for someone else – increasingly poses a troubling dilemma for governments, religious organizations, surrogates and intended parents, and even the children themselves. Surrogacy is a fundamental human right for some and exploitation of others, especially women who are poor.

The rising popularity of the procedure in the United States, India, Thailand and elsewhere has led to devious online brokers, questionable private clinics, clandestine trips abroad and a thriving underground market along with well-publicized abuses. Some governments, most recently in Thailand, have imposed stringent regulations.

Cross-border arrangements are even more complicated with varying laws, medical practices, customs or codes of ethics. Often problematic in cases of surrogacies undertaken abroad is establishing citizenship and parentage of the baby.

Critics argue that surrogacy, also known as “baby outsourcing,” constitutes exploitation of women encouraged to provide wombs-for-rent. Many surrogate mothers are destitute. Furthermore, when the only motivation is money, surrogacy may have negative health and social consequences for women. In contrast, supporters consider surrogacy a fundamental human right, consistent with the freedom of personal choice and the right to bear children. Surrogacy empowers women to choose whether to participate and gain financial compensation for their valued service. Surrogacy also permits otherwise childless men and women to have children.

Surrogacy has existed since antiquity. In the much of the past, surrogacy simply involved another woman – the surrogate was impregnated by the prospective father and bore the child for the intended couple. Babylonian couples relied on this practice to produce progeny and avoid divorce. The Bible relates the story of Abraham and his infertile wife, Sarah, who offered her handmaiden, Hagar, to her husband to bear a child.

The introduction in 1970 of in vitro fertilization – fertilization in a laboratory by mixing sperm with eggs surgically removed from an ovary followed by uterine implantation – radically altered the basic evolutionary process of human reproduction and the practice of surrogacy. The first in vitro fertilization leading to the birth of a child was in 1978, and an estimated 5 million babies have followed since, with about half born in the past six years.

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