30 November 2015
ByAppeared in BioNews 830
Channel 4, Friday 13 November 2015
Presented by Kiki King
This documentary about surrogacy in Mexico begins in a clinic in Tabasco, with one-day-old Sophia and her 'new' Spanish parents. The parents bring Sophia to her surrogate, 23-year-old Diana, who cries as she holds the baby and tells the parents, 'I am so happy. Look after her.' It is an emotional scene, but Diana tells the reporter, Kiki King, that the parents wanted a baby so much, and she wanted to make their dreams come true.
Next we see potential surrogates in the waiting room of a fertility clinic. They appear happy and hopeful as they have the opportunity to help other people while earning money for their own families.
But the positivity of the documentary ends there, and the remainder of the film focuses on the dark side of surrogacy in Mexico. We are told that the FBI is investigating Planet Hospital, an American surrogacy firm operating in Mexico that closed suddenly in 2014, causing prospective parents to lose large sums of money.
According to Mexican law, surrogates cannot be paid directly, but there are ways around this as agencies pay surrogates through charitable foundations. While commercial surrogacy is legal in the US, it is expensive, and a successful surrogacy in Mexico can cost half the price. With just a short trip across the border, it's no wonder the surrogacy industry in Mexico is rapidly expanding.
Many surrogates in the film say they are unhappy with one particular American surrogacy agency operating in Mexico – Surrogacy Beyond Borders. Michelle Velarde, a former coordinator for the agency, says she left her job as she was unhappy with the company. During their pregnancies, the surrogates live in a house owned by Surrogacy Beyond Borders, and the agency send money to the coordinator to provide food. The women are only paid (up to a maximum of $10,000) after they give birth. But Michelle claims that money provided for food was inadequate, and contracts were not signed.
Kiki meets several surrogates for Surrogacy Beyond Borders. Diana Gisel Islas, who is six months' pregnant, tells Kiki that there is not enough food in the surrogate house, even though nutrition is critical for the baby. Diana is understandably angry; she says she was desperate for money but she and her son have 'never eaten as badly'.
The most alarming story told in the documentary is that of surrogate Alejandra Mendiola, a single mother with four children, who alleges that she was not told that the prospective father and sperm donor was HIV positive. Alejandra said she would never have given her consent had she been told about the man's HIV status. She is now worried for her health, and in her opinion it is not possible to have an ethical surrogacy in Mexico as the American companies will 'deceive you'.
Kiki develops a good rapport with the surrogates, and I felt sympathetic towards these women who had such bad experiences during their surrogacies. I got the impression that the surrogates were not respected by the agency, and they should have been offered more support.
Later, Kiki speaks via Skype to the US director of Surrogacy Beyond Borders, Lilly Frost. I found it shocking how blasé Lilly seemed during the interview. She argued that it doesn't matter if a contract is signed or not, as 'if someone doesn't come to pick up the baby, they're not coming not pick up the baby'. Carlos Rosillo, who runs a reputable surrogacy agency in Mexico, says that contracts are essential to protect everyone involved and confirm the parentage of the child.
Lilly says that she regrets that a contract confirming Alejandra Mendiola's consent was not obtained and understands why Alejandra is angry, but claims that there is zero risk of HIV transmission. In fact, although the procedure to remove the virus from sperm greatly reduces the risk of HIV transmission, the World Health Organisation says it cannot completely exclude it.
Lilly attempts to defend herself, saying that it has not been a 'pleasant' two years, but that the agency has learned a lot and now has systems in place to deal with such situations. I did not find this is particularly reassuring as she did not appear to care about the surrogates, so it's difficult to believe that the agency is likely to improve.
In this short documentary we hear about the problems encountered by surrogates and the response by the agency to the allegations. But another group I would have liked to have heard from was the prospective parents to find out about their experience with Surrogacy Beyond Borders. For example, did the prospective HIV-positive father know and feel comfortable that the surrogate was not told about his HIV status? I imagine that prospective parents would also be concerned that proper contracts were not in place and that surrogates were going hungry.
The documentary ends with baby Sophia, reminding us of the happiness that surrogacy can bring to prospective parents as well as the surrogates and their families, who desperately need the money.
Overall, this documentary is a worthwhile watch. It highlights the need for strict regulation of the surrogacy industry in Mexico, in order to protect the surrogates, prospective parents and, of course, the babies themselves.