Broken Bonds and Big Money: Conference Summary

This summary of the Broken Bonds and Big Money International Conference on Surrogacy, which took place March 15-16, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia, was provided by conference organizers. 

Dr Caroline Norma from RMIT welcomed conference participants to her university and acknowledged the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation as the traditional owners on whose land this conference took place. She continued with a brief note on the state of surrogacy in Australia: only altruistic surrogacy is permitted and in New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory travelling overseas for surrogacy is a criminal act punishable by one to three years of jail (but unfortunately not enforced).

Jennifer Lahl, President of the US Center for Bioethics and Culture and originator of Stop Surrogacy Now, presented an overview of the international state of surrogacy – Western Europe mostly allows no surrogacy, India, Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia have banned commercial surrogacy, rogue operators in Ukraine and Russia are becoming the new go-to destinations for cheap, unregulated surrogacy – and went on to describe surrogacy in the USA. Contrary to the view often expressed by Australian pro-surrogacy supporters, surrogacy in the US is unregulated, and exploitation of so-called surrogates and egg ‘donors’ is rife. Her remarks were confirmed by her documentary #Big Fertility: It’s All About the Money. The film features the upsetting story of three-time surrogate Kelly Martinez who was not only lied to and treated badly by the various baby buyers, but almost lost her life in a difficult pregnancy and birth. Kelly’s story – which is by no means unique – shows the exploitative nature of commercial surrogacy in which low-income women with a good heart are preyed upon. Kelly continues to live from paycheck to paycheck and now suffers ill health including infertility and PTSD. The audience, which included adoptee rights activists, donor conceived adults, academics, students, social policy advisors, nurses and social workers, etc, shared their concerns about the human rights violations of birth mothers, egg suppliers and the children born from surrogacy.

Next, Professor S. Caroline Taylor AM launched the international anthology Broken Bonds: Surrogate Mothers Speak Out (Spinifex Press). She mentioned the most sinister aspects of surrogacy when babies are made for international paedophile rings to be abused. In her previous capacity as an academic advisor to Interpol, Caroline had herself come face to face with these unspeakable crimes. We were lucky to have contributors ‘Odette’ (a pseudonym for an Australian birthmother), Rob (the partner of an Australian ‘surrogate’), egg ‘donor’ Maggie Eastman from the USA, ethnographer Dr Sheela Saravanan from India, and the three editors Jennifer Lahl, Melinda Tankard Reist and Dr Renate Klein at the book launch. We all hope that Broken Bonds, with 15 stories from nine countries by so-called surrogate mothers, two egg ‘donors’ and the partner of a ‘surrogate’, will travel far and wide around the globe in our quest to abolish all forms of surrogacy everywhere.

The second day of the conference began with a powerful panel on adoption and surrogacy. Dr Catherine Lynch, Jo Fraser and Penny Mackieson spoke about the deep life-long hurt that having been adopted at birth or having her child taken away causes. As Catherine reminded the audience, because of the biological process of pregnancy, the moral right of a mother to parent her child is greater than anyone else’s – including the father’s – it cannot be transferred. The speakers were unanimous in their condemnation of surrogacy where babies are not only taken away from their mothers after they are born (like in adoption), but in fact explicitly conceived so they can be removed from their mothers immediately after birth.

The next panel dealt with ‘weasel words and other reversals’. Professor Kate Rose talked us through US radical philosopher Mary Daly’s formidable rejection of the necrophilia of patriarchy and contrasted it with mythical images of women giving birth in peaceful circumstances. Her message was that in the international frenzy around surrogacy we need to listen to century-old wisdom about living in and with our bodies instead of renting or selling ourselves: ‘Not for rent, not for sale’. Pauline Hopkins followed Kate with her speech on the ongoing discrimination against women who ‘choose’ to be childfree or are not able to bear their own children. It is the deep-seated patriarchal belief that a ‘proper’ woman has to be a mother that makes it possible for dehumanising practices such as the surrogacy industry to flourish.

After lively audience discussions and a break for lunch we moved into the session on International Perspectives. Dr Sheela Saravanan from India and Germany presented heartbreaking examples from her ethnographic research in India that showed how racist and colonialist attitudes by Western baby buyers exploit poor Indian women who often suffer deep long-lasting grief over the babies they have to give up. Dr Susan Hawthorne spoke next, putting to rest the idea that being critical of gay men using women as ‘surrogates’ amounted to homophobia. As Susan pointed out, we oppose surrogacy for everyone whether they are straight, gay, single or coupled. It can never be right to insist on one’s narcissistic desire to procure a genetically related baby in the making of which two women, the birth mother and egg ‘donor’, are at serious risk of being harmed. She argued that a practice that is classist, racist, ablist and misogynist can never be seen as ‘progressive’.

‘Odette’, a pseudonym for an Australian birth mother who had been a ‘surrogate’ for her infertile cousin, and Maggie Eastman, a multiple egg ‘donor’ from the US who now suffers from terminal breast cancer, spoke next. Their powerful testimonies full of grief and loss, but also rightful anger at being mistreated and lied to, showed us why we oppose surrogacy in all its forms. There were no dry eyes in the auditorium as we listened to the painful experiences of these two brave women: it was the high point of the conference.

Melinda Tankard Reist and Dr Renate Klein concluded the formal conference presentations with a warning on ‘mother erasure’ and indeed ‘women erasure’. Melinda referred to the countless situations in surrogacy where the birth mother is erased and men are seen as substitute ‘mothers’. Renate added that the aim of some researchers had always been to disappear women as givers of life, and substitute us with artificial wombs. While this feat has not been achieved, the research is ongoing. Will future generations be bred from quality-checked ‘CRISPRed’ embryos in ‘Biobags’ in the lab, she asked?

The final panel consisting of Jo Fraser, Jennifer Lahl, ‘Odette’, Melinda Tankard Reist and Renate Klein restated our strong opposition to all forms of surrogacy. The audience agreed with our suggestion to form a new group ‘Abolish Surrogacy (Australia)’ which in close co-operation with Stop Surrogacy Now will lobby politicians and ordinary Australians to see surrogacy for what it is: a gross human rights violation of the birth mother, the egg provider and the resulting children.

Conference participants and speakers alike left the conference convinced more than ever to stand up to prosurrogacy proponents and speak the truth about this dirty business that breaks bonds and makes big money.

Broken Bonds: Surrogate Mothers Speak Out is available from Spinifex Press in Australia and New Zealand (www.spinifexpress.com.au) and can be purchased from all good booksellers and online bookshops including Amazon (www.amazon.com) and Booktopia (www.booktopia.com).

The book is distributed in North America by IPG (www.ipgbook.com) and in the UK by Gazelle Book Services (www.gazellebookservices.co.uk).