BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 21 October 2014
Presented by Isabel Oakeshott
'Not being able to have children can be a desperate thing,' says political journalist and commentator Isabel Oakeshott. After losing four pregnancies herself, Oakeshott came to a 'drastic solution': she was going to use a surrogate, and one in India at that.
In the UK, where around one in seven couples experiences difficulties conceiving, surrogacy is an option often considered by many; however, it is also an option wrought with complex, often agonising, ethical decisions.
In fact, Oakeshott went on to have a baby naturally. But in this two-part episode of Radio 4's One to One, she speaks to two women who have used surrogates - Natalie and Rekha - to see what the road to surrogacy might have entailed.
In the first part, Natalie describes her experience of using a surrogate in the UK, through support organisation Surrogacy UK.
Advertising for a surrogate is illegal in the UK and so women seeking to find or become a surrogate will often meet through support network events, and this was the case for Natalie.
What do you wear to such a potentially life-changing event? How do you, desperate - but not wanting to show it - behave in a room full of potential surrogates? If there were ever a situation perfectly calibrated for maximum British conversational awkwardness, surely this would be it.
Yet Natalie described how relaxed and chatty everyone was, even if they were nervous to begin with. Natalie felt an instant rapport with her eventual surrogate, Jenny, with the pair becoming friends throughout the process.
Commercial surrogacy is illegal in the UK, meaning only reasonable expenses like travel reimbursements, clothes, and childcare for any existing children can be offered, irrespective of the inconveniences invariably caused.
For Oakeshott, such total reliance on the surrogate's goodwill presented too much of a risk. What if the surrogate changed her mind part way through the process? Could she really be trusted?
Trust, Natalie replied, was a two-way requirement: how does the surrogate know, for example, that the intended parents aren't going to abandon their baby with the surrogate either?
While surrogacy laws in the UK seek to promote socially desirable relations between surrogates and intended parents - a so-called 'gift-relationship' in a coinage by the pioneering social researcher Richard Titmuss - such relations often fail to incentivise the levels of supply that are required to meet the demand. Which brings us to international surrogacy.
In the second interview, Rekha recounts how she travelled to India, which allows commercial surrogacy, to find a surrogate. By entering into a commercial, as opposed to altruistic arrangement, Rekha felt that she would be more in control of the process, and that her surrogate would gain something tangible from the exchange.
Commercial surrogacy arrangements, however, make some feel squeamish; there is something about them that many just don't think is right.
Surrogates in India, for example, often come from poor backgrounds and are perhaps suckered into performing a service for cash that most others would refuse. Asked by Oakeshott whether she felt she was exploiting the surrogate, Rekha replied with a resounding 'no'. The women at the clinic she used, she said, were being well looked after, and had agreed to do this of their own free will.
Interestingly, while the UK prohibits commercial surrogacy domestically, it is silent as to the legality of the cross-border arrangements it knows many of its citizens undertake, as is shown by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's decision to publicise information and advice on the practice.
As an interviewer, Oakeshott struck the right balance between exploring some of the ethical concerns at stake in surrogacy arrangements, and probing Natalie and Rekha for their personal experiences. Worth a listen.