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Assisted reproduction crime network in Greece highlights need for monitoring surrogacy

21 October 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1020

This September, news broke of the dismantling of an organised crime group involved in illegal adoptions, egg-selling and commercial surrogacy in Thessaloniki, Greece. An eight-month-long secret investigation by Greek law enforcement authorities, supported by Interpol, led to the arrest of 22 people suspected of engaging in a criminal network of assisted reproduction in Greece. 

Police say that it 'was one of the biggest and best-organised gangs of its kind in Europe'.

There is already a plethora of evidence against 20 people who reportedly ran the criminal organisation, including a lawyer, an obstetrician-gynecologist, four employees of private clinics suspected of illegally brokering assisted reproduction activities, and at least three people suspected of acting as 'intermediaries' for money.

Additionally, charges were brought against women suspected of having sold their children, women who possibly sold their eggs, women suspected of having been paid to act as surrogates, and couples suspected of having paid to become parents.

According to police reports, the women were mostly Bulgarian and Georgian living in Greece and in need of money (some were reportedly sex-workers) and Roma women from poor villages near the Greek-Bulgarian borders. A total of 66 people have been reportedly involved in the illegal activities and more than €500,000 has been generated since 2016 by the criminal organisation.

Couples would pay between €20,000-30,000 to the organisation for a baby through adoption or surrogacy. The charges correspond to 22 illegal adoption cases, four cases of attempted illegal adoption, 24 egg-selling cases, and six illegal surrogacy cases. Based on official court reports, those suspected of running the organisation also face charges for money laundering and trafficking. 

Although the police evidence concerning illegal surrogacy is limited, an important question arises: what does this case mean for Greek surrogacy? Surrogacy has been legal in Greece since 2002 and it is one of the few countries worldwide, and the only one in EU where surrogacy agreements are – under strict conditions – enforceable regarding legal parenthood. Surrogacy practice and parenthood following it is comprehensively regulated by Law 3089/2002 and Law 3305/2005, as amended by Law 4272/2014, and professional regulation. 

Greek law regulates altruistic gestational surrogacy based on a written agreement that must be authorised by the judiciary before conception. Intended parents (IPs) are automatically recognised as the child's parents from birth and, in this sense, surrogacy agreements can be enforceable.

The process entails the examination of the written surrogacy agreement that the parties drafted and signed, an examination of the IPs' medical need for surrogacy and the altruistic nature of the relationship between the parties. However, the judicial authorisation of surrogacy can best be described as a rubber-stamp, since there is no mechanism for the Greek judges to check if 'true' altruism exists. In practice, Greek judges have rarely refused permission for surrogacy if there is a medical need. 

This pathway is available to heterosexual couples (married, unmarried or in a legal partnership), single women and people who need double donation. Payment for 'reasonable' expenses up to €10,000 is allowed, based on a 2008 decision of the Greek National Authority for Assisted Reproduction (NAMAR) the equivalent of the UK's HFEA.

Surrogacy where the surrogate is biologically related to the child, is unregulated. In fact, if the surrogate can prove a biological link to the child, she can ask to the court to recognise her as the child's legal mother within six-months of the birth.

Same-sex couples' access to surrogacy is unregulated, though they can, since 2015, form legal partnerships and, since 2018, foster children.

As in the UK, surrogacy brokering and advertising for surrogacy are criminal offences. 

Yet, how is Greek surrogacy working in practice? Sadly, evidence is extremely limited, outside the above-mentioned criminal case and some other anecdotal evidence, including reports that Greek surrogacy has become more popular, especially since the 2014 Law made it legal for foreign couples.

One Greek study examining surrogacy authorisation cases claimed that many surrogates are foreigners living in Greece, but did not show whether exploitation is happening. Empirical evidence that I collected during my PhD research on surrogacy in Greece and the UK demonstrated that Greek surrogacy generally works well, but this is, in part, due to the good intentions of the parties, rather than because of regulation.

Additionally, I found that payments for 'reasonable expenses' were almost double the legal limit set by NAMAR, but there was no evidence of direct and intentional exploitation and/or commercialisation. Admittedly, my evidence was based on a relatively small pool of interviewees, including Greek surrogates, IPs, medical and legal practitioners, academics, and policymakers, but there was a high level of consensus amongst them.

What becomes apparent from my research and the September arrests is that Greek surrogacy is seriously lacking proper and efficient monitoring processes. NAMAR, established in 2005, never fully functioned, and its members resigned in 2010. In 2017, NAMAR was reinstated. NAMAR is responsible for licensing clinics where surrogacy and all other assisted reproduction treatments take place, but Greek law still lacks rules regarding how NAMAR can and should monitor surrogacy. Luckily, the recently uncovered criminal racket is the only one of its kind to emerge so far, but this is probably in spite of the regulatory situation, not because of it.

It is imperative that Greek authorities pay more attention to how surrogacy is and should be working. Improved state-regulation will hopefully offer better protection to the interests of everyone involved and, importantly, the interests of the surrogate-born child who is most vulnerable.

18 November 2019 - by Dr Lea Goetz 
The UN has called on Cambodia to repeal the criminalisation of surrogates...
7 October 2019 - by Suzi Denton 
A pregnant surrogate has died at hospital in New Delhi, while a new surrogacy law awaits approval by the Indian Parliament...
29 July 2019 - by Annabel Slater 
Wealth buys everything. Joanne Ramos' novel The Farm paints a vision of commercial surrogacy unfettered and taken to its extreme: high-end surrogacy for the rich. In her story, not only can the rich and successful outsource childcare to nannies and au pairs, but they can also purchase the bodies of young women to gestate their embryos...
10 June 2019 - by Sam Everingham 
The question of whether the UN will develop an international treaty relating to surrogacy arrangements - as it did a quarter century ago in relation to adoption, is up for discussion...
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