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TV Review: The Surrogates

19 April 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1091

'Would you get pregnant for someone else and then agree to give the baby away?' The Surrogates narrator Anna Krippa asked the audience. This loaded question sets up the three-part series following five families formed through surrogacy.

The Surrogates is a BBC Three documentary that follows surrogates and intended parents through their journeys into the world of surrogacy. Within the three episodes, we're taken through the stories of five families formed through surrogacy, from the surrogates' and intended parents' perspective.

Caitlin is a first-time gestational surrogate and we follow her journey, as she gestates for her manager, Kate. Kate jokes to Caitlin about how she shouldn't feel she has 'to rent out [her] womb' to talk about her children in the office, demonstrating how the pre-existing power dynamic could play a role in their current arrangement. We're constantly reminded of the relationship between Caitlin and Kate, as if to highlight a necessary imbalance. As the surrogacy proceeds, we're privy to the tension surrogacy places on Caitlin's relationship, until it reaches breaking point.

Emma is a traditional surrogate for Kevin and Aki. She matched with them on an app ('like Tinder for fertility') and their first home insemination was successful. As her pregnancy progresses, Emma discusses the finances involved in surrogacy in a matter-of-fact way, explaining how the money covers the expenses incurred only. Referring to the potential health risks, she states 'there's no amount of money that takes away that edge of being a surrogate.'  She reiterates consistently that she's not giving away the baby but giving the baby 'back.'

After meeting at a social, Maddie and intended parents, Alex and Rich, decide to formalise their intention to enter into a surrogacy arrangement, going over key issues with an advisor. Free to start their journey, the trio takes us through the awkwardness of home insemination and the pressure to fall pregnant. However, as the episode progresses, falling pregnant isn't as straightforward as they expected. Their journey depicts the emotional toll that surrogacy can take, especially from Maddie's perspective.

David's story reflects the difficulties and length of his journey to fatherhood. As a single gay man, he is acutely aware of the hurdles in his way to have a genetically related child. As we follow his journey, we learn more about the anxiety he feels relating to meeting a surrogate at the socials. However, David does meet a surrogate, Faye, and when his embryo, nicknamed 'Bob,' is successfully transferred into Faye's womb, relief washed over me, as David is almost a dad.

The final surrogate in the series is Jemma, who is at the end of her surrogate pregnancy. After going into early labour, Jemma is next seen at a social just two weeks after giving birth, ready to meet her next set of intended parents.

The Surrogates present an idealised image of surrogacy. The intended parents are shown through a family-focused lens, playing and interacting with their surrogate's children in a way that demonstrates their suitability and eagerness to parent. This ties into the underlying motivation shared by all the surrogates: wanting to help start a family. Caitlin, Emma and Jemma share how their own pregnancies had changed their lives, and how surrogacy allowed them to overcome emotional lows and feel useful. Maddie discusses how her non-traditional upbringing fuelled her desire to help create a traditional family 'even if it is two dads,' she jokes, and Faye was drawn to surrogacy specifically due to her empathy for the childless. Each woman carefully thought through her decision to become a surrogate, conscious of the potential difficulties at every step.  

Each woman highlights how surrogacy is not maternal, as their bond is not with the baby, but instead with the intended parents. However, the documentary introduces each woman as a mum, using that as their primary identity and as a marker of their suitability as surrogates. Their maternal role is emphasised throughout the documentary, as they are seen playing with their own children. This reinforces a narrow – and condescending – view that surrogates should have their own children, or at the very least, have given birth. This is an issue under consideration by the Law Commission, who are unpersuaded that prior experience of giving birth would be necessary for a potential surrogate.

Similarly, their maternal role is not questioned with regards to the birth certificate. When Faye's husband expresses concern about being on the birth certificate, an opportunity to discuss the surrogates' views on the birth certificate is missed. All of the surrogates state their lack of maternal bond with the baby. However, the law does not accommodate their desire, and until the Parental Order reflects the parenting reality, they are necessarily legal mothers to the babies they've gestated.

Throughout the documentary, surrogacy is necessarily presented as an emotional experience, motivated solely by compassion and altruism. This theme of 'for love not for money' is carried throughout the series. In part, this is due to Surrogacy UK's involvement, as each family is related in some way to the organisation, and friendship is a requirement. Additionally, as the law stands, only reasonable expenses may be incurred – however 'reasonable' has never been defined. The Surrogates could have delved into the unnecessary binary drawn between economics and care, especially when related to women's reproductive matters.

At the end of the series, each surrogate has successfully achieved her goal and created a family. I would have found it interesting to see some of the disagreements that may arise during surrogacy. The surrogates are aware that they could change their mind and keep the baby, which is mentioned outlining the necessary trust involved in surrogacy. With the exception of Maddie and Alex and Rich's agreement, there is little discussion about surrogacy agreements and how they are currently unenforceable.

Throughout the show, surrogacy is shown as requiring a stable support system. The surrogates and intended parents are in a mutually supportive relationship, providing care and love as needed.

The Surrogates presents a palatable overview of surrogacy in the UK, underpinned by moralistic connotations of altruism and deserving intended parents. The value-laden tone taken by the narrator at the start of each episode is carried through the episodes' unfolding, ensuring that the audience views the surrogates as the epitome of good mothers, while shying away from more emotive topics, such as law reform, emotional wellbeing, and finances.

The Surrogates
BBC |  14 March 2021
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