By Milly Downing
During at least one point in our lives we’ve all imagined what having kids will be like, with varying degrees of romanticism. It’s the most natural human instinct we’ve got, to bump and grind and reproduce. But if you’re someone like me, a proud LGBTQ+ member, having kids means imagining going down routes like IVF, sperm donations, egg donations and surrogacy.
Obviously it’s early to be thinking about kids, you don’t have to tell me that. But when it comes to alternative fertility, our largest exposure is Kim and Kanye’s second surrogate baby on the way. It isn’t something commonly discussed in detail amongst us young folks, meaning the premature daydreams of LGBTQ+ people like me are lacking in detail. Fertility is a massive industry and not all parts of the industry are good. We’ve all heard of Big Tobacco, but what about Big Fertility?
The face of fertility is a Shutterstock image of a happy family rolling on grass laughing at nothing. Sometimes this is a gay family, but the overall image associated with alternative fertility is a pretty shallow one. We don’t see the broken legal arrangements, the doctors appointments and clinics, injunctions and drugs, and the psychological damage. And we don’t see the big money being made. This certainly was never a part of my daydream.
Let’s consider this: you’ve just given birth. You’ve grown an entire human being for nine months, felt them inside of your tummy and now you’ve pushed them out of you. Your brain is losing it with catecholamine – the fight-or-flight hormone. It’s pretty excruciating hurling another person out of your insides. You’ve torn cartilage, you’re bleeding from your genitals, and you’ll need stitches. To deal with this your brain is throwing out heaps of oxytocin, that hormone that makes you high as hell. It’s responsible for that undeniable feeling of love, which your brain will be releasing tons of, from labour until weeks after. All in all, your brain is making you fall in love with someone through trauma. That’s a pretty hard bond to break, and an extremely hard one to understand if you’re like me and haven’t given birth before.
Now I want you to think about surrogacy. There’s a fair chance you’d want to be a part of that person’s life despite whether you have a biological link to the embryo that was planted inside of you or not, but it’d be extremely hard to truly grasp what you’re getting yourself into before you’ve begun carrying someone else’s kid. Or maybe donated an egg. Or sperm. And now there’s a person somewhere who you helped bring to life that may not know a thing about you.
Of course, in Australia, there are vague, state-by-state systems in place to prevent the stickiness of this emotional trauma.
Before conception, a legal arrangement must be made to decide who pays for what, what involvement the donor will have in the child’s life, and what rights the surrogate may relinquish. She may have to give up control over what she eats, where she goes, the fertility drugs she takes, what doctor she sees, work, exercise and more. Until that baby is born, she is carrying someone else’s property.
Only altruistic surrogacy is legal in Australia, which means you cannot be compensated for your fertility services either through money or goods. You can only do it to help, out of your own free will and desire. Only medical expenses can be compensated for. That doesn’t mean someone isn’t making money however; it’s just not the surrogate or donor, and certainly not the intended parents, who are forking out thousands.
However, and this is where is becomes real sticky, these legal arrangements made before conception aren’t legally binding. This means that either side can break their end of the deal that they decided nine months ago, before the baby was even conceived. A lot can happen in that time. Relationships can sour between couples or families, or donors and receivers.
What if the intending parents decide they don’t want the baby in the end?
What if the surrogate decides they want to keep the baby, or have more involvement in the child’s life?
What if the intended parents cut the surrogate or donor out of the child’s life?
What if the intending parents don’t pay for the medical expenses?
Where does this leave the kid once they are born?
These aren’t uncommon outcomes since both sides have little to no legal backing. When looking at the education and psychological support for both sides, it’s also despairingly lacking. On paper they look great, with mandatory psych sessions and check-ins done by the fertility clinics, and there are age and experience restrictions put on who can be a surrogate. But do they really work? President of Surrogacy Australia Sam Everingham said there was a “reality check” women need to face regarding their “ignorance” of what it’s like to be a surrogate. He assured me that a new educational system was being implemented, despite the already presumably rigorous one in place. These fertility services are expensive, and when the surrogate or donor isn’t being paid, who do you think is profiting? Even when the surrogates are receiving payment, it is drastically lower than what the clinics are receiving. Why would you reveal the ugly risk of alternative fertility when it could hurt sales?
Due to the risk of a surrogate wanting to keep the child, many Aussie couples reach out overseas into commercial surrogacy despite this being illegal in Australia. Commercial surrogacy, in which you do pay for fertility services, has been increasingly banned across counties, most recently in Thailand during 2015 and India in 2018. Women from generally low socio-economic positions are the people most vulnerable to Big Fertility exploitation. Without proper education, medical services or psychological support, struggling women are renting their wombs without a sound understanding of what they’re getting themselves into. In America, however, commercial surrogacy is legal. Although the ‘industry’ appears to be flourishing, it has the same vague, unrestricted laws state by state, which fail to protect the women in similar vulnerable economic positions.
It’s difficult to not be consumed with the celebratory image of a desperate couple finally able to have kids of their own, and by all means these people deserve our empathy and love. But it’s not as black and white as that image.
As we only permit altruistic surrogacy in Australia, it might seem like we aren’t allowing the same exploitation, but our laws aren’t much better at protecting the people involved in alternative fertility either. There is plenty of information online for intending parents, as there should be, but it is severely lacking for those who want to be surrogates or donors. When speaking in legal terms, intending parents are warned of the non-binding contracts, yet what if things go wrong for the surrogate? Fertility clinics aren’t doing much to promote full risk-awareness education either. This is quite obvious by the nuclear family on the Shutterstock image they use as their websites poster front, when in reality there’s a team of doctors, lawyers, and a third parental figure standing in the background.
When considering all of this, it leaves people like me in a strange position. Alternative fertility can go very wrong, and is going wrong more than we realise, yet it can also go right. Although there are loving, wholesome families that have had the opportunity to have kids thanks to this technology, I have found that these families who have had this good fortune hated the fertility clinics, describing them as ‘cold’, and providing little to no emotional understanding or support. These ‘industry’ services are just that: services. We buy and sell wombs, sperm and eggs to ultimately purchase a child. I’d like to have my own biological kids, but how can I ensure that no one is hurt along the way, including the child themselves? Even if we restructured the entire industry and legal system behind alternative fertility, would it really stop the complications of buying and selling body parts, genetics and, realistically, kids? It made me question something about my position as a LGBTQ+ person that I had assumed before:
Is it my right to have a child, or is it a privilege?