The global rent-a-womb industry is starting to crumble

Shabnam, a surrogate mother, has an ultrasound at Patel's clinic in Anand, in the western Indian state of Gujarat on March 4, 2009.

BANGKOK, Thailand — In the era of globalized trade, there are few things Westerners can’t outsource. The clothes on our backs are made in Bangladesh. The gadgets we adore? China. Our morning dose of coffee comes from Brazil, Vietnam and beyond.

Even Western babies can be nurtured in the bellies of foreign women — each one paid to endure pregnancy and the pangs of childbirth. Those arrangements, facilitated by the global surrogacy industry, have boomed in the past decade.

But there are signs that this trade in surrogate services is up against a formidable backlash.

Westerners seeking offshore surrogate wombs have largely flocked to countries such as India, Nepal, Thailand and Mexico. After paying agencies roughly $50,000, couples find a woman willing to carry their embryo, which is implanted by willing doctors. Once agencies extract their fees, the payout to the surrogate is as little as $4,000.

That model is now failing. All of the above countries are issuing or finalizing laws that will make hiring surrogates difficult if not impossible for foreigners.

The countries’ common rationale: Ethical concerns trump economic gains — even in India, where the surrogacy trade is estimated at $400 million per year.

“They view their women’s wombs as being exploited,” says Donna Dickenson, a University of London medical ethics professor and an expert in the global surrogacy trade. “There is a history of colonialism, of extracting raw materials from colonies, and that is something these countries have to contend with.”

“For them to see their babies as another one of those raw materials? I think there there’s something to that,” Dickenson says. “Even though that’s clearly not how Western couples see it.”

More key lawmakers in these countries are troubled by the specter of wealthy foreigners tapping their women as proxy child bearers. And they are staking their claims on moral and nationalistic grounds.

One Thai lawmaker intends to “stop Thai women’s wombs from becoming the world’s womb.”

In India, legislators are passing laws restricting surrogacy to straight citizens who are “duly married.” In Mexico’s Tabasco State, once a hotbed of surrogacy, the trade is now barred to foreigners. One leading lawmaker calls it “a new form of exploitation of women.”

There is indeed a dark side to the global surrogacy trade. One agency that formerly operated in Thailand, previously investigated by GlobalPost, described pregnancy like an unfortunate illness in its marketing materials. The symptoms: “loss of intimacy” and “growing out of shape” as well as “birth pangs.”

This agency, called Baby 101, sought clients “who desire to have kids but have no time for pregnancy.”
It charged $32,000 to transfer a couple’s embryo into a woman living in an all-female dorm — essentially a baby farm — where surrogates lived under 24-hour surveillance.

The surrogates’ diets were strictly regulated. So was their time outdoors. The company was later shut down by Thai authorities, who found pregnant Vietnamese immigrants living like inmates.

As a Thai social worker explained: “Their bosses had their passports and money. They couldn’t go outside without someone going with them.”

“There are serious risks in the surrogacy process. When we write this off as ‘womb letting,’ or something flip like that, we tend to ignore these risks,” Dickenson says. “It’s correct for these governments to want to protect their women from risks that aren’t totally understood.”

Not all couples seeking surrogate moms are just trying to avoid “birth pangs” and stretch marks. Some want to get pregnant but can’t. Gay couples are a significant market for international surrogacy clinics, but they are increasingly shunned by countries known for surrogacy: Ukraine, India, Mexico, Thailand and others.

And when they do secure surrogates, same-sex couples can still face prejudice — a dilemma exemplified by the case of Baby Carmen, who became a media sensation in Thailand.

The child was borne by a Thai surrogate and is the product of an American man’s sperm and an anonymous, non-Thai egg donor. Though the child is not genetically related to the surrogate, she abruptly reneged on the deal and refused to give up the baby after birth.

Her rationale, according to the gay dads: She feared it would not be raised by an “ordinary family.”

But Western couples have also broken agreements with surrogates in scandalous fashion. In 2014, an Australian couple who hired a Thai woman to carry their child cruelly abandoned the baby upon realizing it had Down’s Syndrome — leaving the child in the care of its less-affluent surrogate.

The thicket of legal, cultural and moral issues swirling around international surrogacy are nudging many developing countries to drop the trade altogether. That could shift the industry to even more unruly places, such as Cambodia, where legal protections are notoriously lax.

Cambodia could emerge as the “new frontier for international surrogacy,” according to pro-surrogacy nonprofit Families Through Surrogacy. The group simultaneously concedes that Cambodia is one of the “most corrupt” nations in the world and has only a few fertilization clinics staffed by part-time doctors.

Extremely poor nations just don’t have enough modernized clinics to take on all of the parents who are now barred from places such as India and Thailand, Dickenson says. She suspects the trade is running out of room to expand.

“This clamping down does look to be universal or at least widespread,” Dickenson says. “All of the obvious candidates are shutting down. It’s not easy for the market to shift elsewhere.”