By Jennifer Lahl
Last month an Idaho mother and her twins died from complications during pregnancy — just days before the babies were scheduled to be born.
While tragic, there was little mention of the circumstances of the 34-year-old mother of three’s death in her obituary, and virtually no coverage in the mainstream news media.
If there were, you can be sure there would be collective gasps and calls for reform. Why?
This mother was acting as a paid surrogate — something she had done as many as three times in a short period of time, according to reports — for a couple in Spain, where the practice is illegal. Also unsettling is that she is believed to be one of the first women in the U.S. to die after being paid to give birth to someone else’s child.
Sadly, she won’t be the last. And Texas women, particularly military wives, ought to know more about how the surrogacy industry works and how it targets them. How it is in fact a human breeding industry.
It’s something straight out of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” where women were systematically used to birth children for the ruling class. Except that commercial surrogacy is not fiction: it’s proliferating and is going be one the most controversial human rights discussions of the 21st Century.
In the U.S., the laws are a hodge-podge mix of confusing and often inconsistent rules, rife with loopholes that range from outright bans to no regulation at all. With a going rate of $25,000 to $50,000 paid to surrogate moms — not to mention associated costs and fees for lawyers and agencies in the ballpark of $120,000 — the commercial sale and manufacturing of babies is a growth industry.
In fact, this multi-billion dollar market is set to explode in the coming years, in part because of the legalization of same sex marriage and couples wanting to have babies without giving birth. Some estimates peg this as a $8 billion a year industry. Even with data showing a 30 percent spike in surrogacies several years ago, industry experts say it’s much larger as far too many cases — as in the case of the Idaho mother — go unreported and unrecorded.
But it is happening in communities all across the United States and attracting overseas buyers.
The practice markets to and exploits low-income women — often targeting military wives — and clearly puts them at risk. With an abundance of military bases in Texas (at least 30 for all branches of the armed services) and roughly 200,000 people employed here, it’s no stretch to say that Texas is going to be a battlefront in the coming years.
It’s estimated that as many as 15 percent to 20 percent of surrogates are wives of our servicemen, even though less than one percent of the population is associated with the military. But when you think about why they are disproportionately involved, it becomes more clear. These woman are young, strong, disciplined, and often have limited job prospects as they sometimes move often and have families to tend to. They’ve given birth and know the drill. Only now, they are literally being paid to rent their wombs.
In any case, it’s an extreme exploitation of women and just another way of treating a woman’s body as a commodity to be bought and sold.
Currently Texas laws are favorable to gestational surrogacy, where a woman carries the embryo of another woman. But Texas courts are grappling with custody battles, as we’ve seen in recent years. In 2014, a Texas appeals court ruled that a Houston woman who gave birth is the mother, even though the same-sex couple argued that the woman had no relation to the child she birthed. In June 2015, the Texas Supreme Court essentially upheld that finding, but her custody battle continues.
The risks of surrogacy to women and children are real and they are significant, as the tragic deaths in Idaho demonstrate. When money enters the mix, those risks are downplayed or ignored. The fact is, commercial surrogacy degrades a pregnancy to a service and a baby to a product. Women, children, and families in Texas deserve better. Commercial surrogacy should be outlawed.
Jennifer Lahl is a registered nurse and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.
*The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Houston Family Magazine or its staff.