24 April 2017
ByAppeared in BioNews 897
CBC Documentary Channel, Saturday 25 March 2017
Directed by Nick Orchard
'Having our baby: The surrogacy boom' is an informative account of the processes involved in undergoing surrogacy in Canada. The documentary wrangles with the emotional, ethical and legal issues that stem from commissioning a Canadian surrogate, and looks at some of the perverse implications of Canada's criminalisation of commercial surrogacy.
At present, the Canadian Assisted Human Reproduction Act prevents surrogates from receiving a fee for their service; they can only be reimbursed for certain expenses – but what those expenses are is not well defined. Implementing the Act is tricky, however, as the Canadian agency set up to interpret and regulate it was disbanded in 2012. This leads to surrogates having to err on the side of caution and generally justify every menial expense they incur.
Effectively, Canadian surrogates are forced by law to provide their services altruistically; something even those involved in the process can find difficult to comprehend, as one of the intended fathers in the documentary describes: 'Most people are shocked that a surrogate doesn't get paid. They're blown away someone would do this, especially if it's not a direct relative. It's just a stranger helping another stranger out, and it's not just momentary helping or volunteering your time, you volunteer your whole life, your body, your health.'
The implications of such sacrifices are starkly borne out in the opening scenes of the film, where a nervous and pregnant surrogate, Heather Chaput, one of the surrogates filmed in the documentary, is rushed for an early hospital birth after developing preeclampsia, a condition with potentially life-threatening results for mother and baby alike.
Director Nick Orchard provides a fairly balanced snapshot of the differing strands of ethical debate surrounding surrogacy. The roots of anti-commercialisation commonly lie in fears of female objectification, said Professor Margaret Somerville, an ethicist at the University of Notre Dame Australia, and of a loss in the moral value of pregnancy and childbirth. The implications of taking such a stance, however, are twofold: one, women are expected to shoulder the entire burden of pregnancy without proper compensation for their efforts; and two, commercial surrogacy is outsourced to countries with much less regulation.
At this point the documentary notes that the Indian surrogacy market, for example, has boomed over the last 10 years and can today be valued at a whopping US $400 million a year. Typically, women from lower socio-economic backgrounds are enticed to spend up to nine months at a dormitory-style clinic where they gestate the children of invariably Western couples, with the promise of alluring financial rewards.
For some, this is a straightforward transaction entered into by autonomous adults for mutual gain. Dr Nayana Patel of the Akanksha Infertility Clinic in India noted that it is easy for critics to cast judgment on the procedure, but until they have helped an infertile couple begin a family or fulfilled a surrogate's dreams with life-changing sums of money, their comments – as far as she is concerned – fall upon deaf ears.
Others in the film were more sceptical, citing these Indian women's limited education, life opportunities and vulnerabilities as factors that ultimately detract from any true or global meaning of the autonomy they purport to be exercising. Cottoning on to the expansion of the market, and the need to protect its citizens, the Indian government is now developing a Bill to put an end to exploitative commercial surrogacy practices once and for all (see BioNews 866).
A further issue that is touched upon briefly is the worrying predicament of children resulting from international surrogacy. Many children born of surrogates are left legally stateless and parentless, as home states often fail to recognise the legal status of the intended parents on the return to their home country, as Natalie Gamble, a UK fertility lawyer, described. Gamble noted that even the UK is affected by issue, after representing a UK national who went to the Ukraine for surrogacy before finding Ukrainian law treated her as the parent, while British law treated the Ukrainian surrogate as the parent.
One thing the film does very well is to weave complex academic debate surrounding the ethical and legal issues of surrogacy with the simple human stories of love, and elemental desires for children that this process is generated by, as well as the selfless actions of the Canadian surrogates involved. One of the characters followed in the film is Eilise Marten, who is acting as surrogate for couple Phillipe Robert and Phillipe Malo. After following her story throughout the documentary, one could imagine an emotional anguish in having to hand over a newborn baby after nurturing it in her womb for nine months. For Marten, however, the transition seemed smooth: 'I wouldn't take back anything. This is the most amazing thing I've ever done and now I can say I created a family. I gave somebody hope, love and a family and that's the most important thing I gave.'
While at times it felt as though the documentary was jumping around between viewpoints and issues; this probably speaks more to Orchard's attempts to be balanced and comprehensive, qualities that overall make the documentary a compelling watch. 'Having our baby: The surrogacy boom' is highly recommended to all.