MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Tue 01-Oct-13 11:52:21

BBC4's House of Surrogates - what did you think?

A BBC4 documentary last night explored the ethics of commercial surrogacy in India. Critics accuse Dr Nayna Patel of running a 'baby farm' for childless Western couples; the doctor counters that the sums the surrogates earn will change their lives forever. Read Sarah Ditum on a 'subtly questioning' film - and let us know what you think on the thread.

Sarah Ditum

Paperhouse

Posted on: Tue 01-Oct-13 11:52:21

(86 comments )

Lead photo

House of Surrogates: tonight (Tuesday), 9pm, BBC4

Humans have two fundamental drives, explains Dr Nayna Patel in House of Surrogates, a carefully observed and subtly questioning documentary about commercial surrogacy in India. We have a drive to reproduce, and a drive to survive. Commercial surrogacy fulfils both of these, says Dr Patel. The client couple get a child, the surrogate gets a life changing sum of money. Who could object to the mutual satisfaction of our most elemental desires?

The fee for the surrogate is paid in instalments through the pregnancy, adding up to $8,000 if the surrogate carries a single baby to term – a little over six times the GDP per capita for India. Vasanti, one of the surrogates and mother to two children of her own, puts it another way: “They’re all here out of their own desperation,” she says, looking at her fellow residents in the dormitory they share.

Dr Patel makes sure the surrogates get much more than just the money, though. For starters, they are given food, medication and accommodation for the duration of the pregnancy. (This isn’t just generosity, of course. Residency is compulsory for women, because controlling their nutrition and sanitation reduces the risk of miscarriage. It’s a way of protecting the clinic’s investment.)

They get advice, too: Dr Patel isn’t content to turn her surrogates loose with their sudden wealth, and during the film we see her advise her charges on getting bank accounts, purchasing property and disposing of abusive husbands. Dr Patel calls herself a feminist, and I don’t doubt her principles. If you feared seeing a reproductive class that looked something like the brutalised Handmaids of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, this will be reassuring viewing.

Neither simple exploitation nor an uncomplicated exchange of money for goods and services, commercial surrogacy is where two great needs collide.


At times, House of Surrogates feels like an advert for international sisterhood: this is redistribution by way of the uterus. And then, you catch sight of the profound inequality in which this common womanhood exists. In a consulting room, a Canadian couple size up a prospective surrogate with an agricultural eye: is she sturdy enough, do they trust their precious genetic material to the width of her hips?

Next to the Canadians, an Indian woman holds a baby: the baby is the Canadians’, and she is their first surrogate mother, retained as a wetnurse for the first few weeks. For Barbara, the Canadian mother, this is clearly a kindness: “What could be wrong with more than one woman loving my son?” she asks. The implicit opposing question – what could be wrong with taking a baby away from a woman who loves and cares for him? – hangs unasked.

While Dr Patel is clear that the women understand the rights they have to the child (none whatsoever), the surrogates do bond with the babies they carry, and they do grieve when the legal parents carry them off. However rationally it is accepted, that combination of empty belly, sore breasts and empty arms seems a terribly wrenching one. And it’s not only the physical cost that the surrogates bear. There’s a stigma against surrogacy in India, one that means Dr Patel must live under heavy security while Vasanti talks about using her money to move so she won’t have to live with neighbours who know what she’s done.

Surrogacy is an act of altruism, but even when the client parents take the time to thank the birth mother of their child (which most do, but not all), do they truly understand what they’ve been given? Not simply a child, but the pain, shame and sacrifice borne by another woman so that they could reproduce? Barbara speaks of wanting her newborn son (born from egg donation) to explore the Indian side of his heritage; Vasanti, having delivered the baby of a Japanese couple (she calls it “my baby” though she never gets to see it) and bought her new house, only hopes that her own daughter will never have to take the decision to become a surrogate.

Neither simple exploitation nor an uncomplicated exchange of money for goods and services, commercial surrogacy is where two great needs collide. Both sides clearly benefit, but how can it be possible for hundreds of families and individuals to meet like this without great hurt occurring? After watching House of Surrogates, the moral consequences of this collision are felt more keenly but not necessarily any clearer - Dr Patel’s calm and smiling certainty the only beacon in the mist.

If you missed it, you can catch up with 'House of Surrogates' on iPlayer. Do come back and tell us what you thought here on the thread.

By Sarah Ditum

Twitter: @SarahDitum

SunshineSailing Sat 05-Oct-13 09:12:54

Have just finished watching the programme and was in tears at the end when the Canadian lady's surrogate said goodbye to 'her' son. Think the programme was good for highlighting an issue which isn't always talked about and agree with other comments that the Western husbands weren't involved and the couples were all older.

Salbertina Fri 04-Oct-13 07:22:42

Horry that was my expectation and actual impression of the doctor too. I genuinely believe she wanted to uplift those women and their children, she had solid feminist principles in my book.

The Canadian was a cow - getting change for her 500 rupee notes (about £5) to tip the people who had looked after her and her precious son for four months. I don't think she would have tipped at all if the cameras hadn't been there.

She was excruciating during the interview of the new surrogate, basically wanting her to stand up so she could check her pelvis was big enough to carry her husband's fat baby.

To her, the surrogates were just there to fulfill her dream. You could hear her sneering about the drug-addicted, FAS or older children. It was all about her dream, not the children's futures. And yes, racist attitudes to Indians and non-Christians, as if Hindu/Muslim womb would taint her baby. Twat.

On the other hand, I didn't expect to like or sympathise with the doctor so much. Her impassioned speech about feminism, and the LTB chat with the woman with the abusive cocklodger husband felt very very MN grin She might have been patronising and controlling but I have no doubt she genuinely cares about all her surrogates purely because they're female. She was lovely at the end when she insisted that it takes a special woman to be a surrogate.

I wanted to know more about the British/Russian couple. Theirs was the only case where I thought the husband was as interested/invested in the process as the wife. He was accepting and non-judgemental and encouraging where the other men were detached and absent. The Canadian, Australian and American fathers definitely seemed to be content to buy a commodity for their wives to play with, essentially. Unsettling.

DaleyBump Thu 03-Oct-13 15:10:08

And yeah, the Canadian woman made me stabby too.

DaleyBump Thu 03-Oct-13 15:09:17

Hmm. I'm torn with this.

It seemed to be alright but that's just on the face of it. I have a funny feeling that there is a whole other side to it that we didn't get shown. The women are forced to sleep all day and are pumped full of medication even if they "sneeze once" but the programme didn't really show you any of that. It also didn't show you the backgrounds of the women and what they were going home to - are they being surrogates of their own choice or do they have an abusive partner at home using their body and taking all the money? I think the programme only just scratched the surface, it seems that there's a whole lot going on underneath it.

That said, if I couldn't feed my kids/have a roof over their heads, I wouldn't think twice before carrying a baby for someone else for that amount of money.

russetbella1000 Thu 03-Oct-13 14:55:49

....haven't read all posts I'm afraid...
I have no problem with surrogacy although definitely couldn't do it myself.
Certainly the programme makers would have edited to achieve what they wanted to and with that in mind I found it hard to watch.

Put rather simply perhaps, I felt the surrogates while lacking money of course showed the most compassion and humanity which quite frankly I didn't see in anybody else. Everyone else seemed so far away from their own humanity and just wrapped up in superficiality of life which of course money or the pursuit of it brings. The Australian couldn't wait to get back to his barbie and there was a sense from all of them that they had to just grin and bare the experience in India to get what they wanted...All seemed ignoramuses who the indian women just had to tolerate..Par of the course when you have no money and have to subjugate what you really think/feel I suppose just to survive. WHO wouldn't do this in that situation?

As an avid 'non-believer' too I found the Canadian woman really irritating when she spoke of praying for them blah di blah.....Then at the end dishing out her dollars-really patronising and the way she spoke about the potential next surrogate was just weird...IMO.Sizing her up like a thoroughbred horse.

...This is the world we live in though. Wealth is still the measure of how valued you are as a human being...

Marisson546 Thu 03-Oct-13 13:25:11

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bonkersLFDT20 Thu 03-Oct-13 12:39:13

I tuned into this expecting to be shown corruption and exploitation but came away thinking that the complex issue of surrogacy is being handled pretty well by the doctor/owner.

These are desperate, poor, ill-educated women. Sure, in an ideal world no one would be driven to surrogacy (both sides) or women would go into it w/o payment, but we don't live in an ideal world.

I thought the doctor was completely open with them, wasn't just using them as "baby factories" but wanted them them to use the time in the house and the money earned wisely.

The person I disliked most was the Australian man who said he missed his home comforts. Not his family or his bed...no, his flat screen tv and a steak. Then he went on to say he couldn't think of a reason he'd ever come to India other than to get his baby. Ignorant fool. India is one of the most culturally diverse and rich countries I have visited.

The programme could have been way more sensationalist and I'm thankful that it wasn't.

ColdTeaAgain Thu 03-Oct-13 12:16:34

In the case of the Canadian couple and the American lady, I got the feeling that there will be a full time nanny involved when they got the babies home, but to be honest if that means they get all the attention they need then so be it. Obviously I'm making big assumptions here but its just a hunch I got. Neither women seemed very natural or maternal with the babies.

The Australian couple however did really seem so happy and excited and I felt they would be good parents, I hope that's the case for all the babies from the clinic and the Canadian and American women were just bad examples.

Obviously these films can be carefully edited but the American lady appeared to have no concern for the surrogate. She did say thank you but the poor woman had just given birth, and she didn't even ask how she was! Maybe she did off camera, lets hope so!

AmandaPandtheNightmareMonsters Thu 03-Oct-13 12:01:19

I really cannot imagine you could get through life without your child discovering that they were a surrogate birth. For a start, their birth certificate will say that they were born in India, which would be a hard one to explain away. Plus, as others have said, others would know that the mother had never been pregnant. If you attempted to lie about all that surely it would destroy trust in a parent?

Wellithink - I found the scene with the American woman difficult as well. Where she was saying to the interviewer that the baby had fallen asleep whilst feeding and the surrogate was saying 'he wakes up if you change his nappy' and was being totally ignored.

I don't want to sound heartless here, but before having children myself I know I would probably have underestimated the feelings of 'carrying' a baby. The way you know them a bit before they are born. The way they show their personality. The intense emotions of having given birth. I wonder if, as childless couples, there is an element of that underestimating going on also. Or whether distancing is a coping mechanism for what must be emotionally difficult for the parents too. Either way, I felt that the post natal stage was very troubling.

purpleroses Thu 03-Oct-13 10:57:21

She was 53 I think - which is pretty old to become a mum, with plans for a second one too! She did come across as quite obnoxious, though never quite sure how much they could have editted it to seem that way.

Still think that it's harsh to say that the women using surrogates are in the wrong though. I can't see how the Indian women's lives would be improved by not being allowed to do it. They did seem to be entering into it freely as, all things considered, it would improve their lives and their children's lives.

Underlying issue is poverty in India, though this is one route (amougst many others) by which people can better themselves. The children of the surrogates who were able to attend good schools might have a different future resulting from the surrogacy money. That's fewer people in dire poverty being driven to surrogacy or any other thing that ideally they wouldn't want to do but need to just to survive.

marissab Thu 03-Oct-13 10:21:41

The Canadian woman was hateful. We wouldn't adopt a baby as most of them are damaged goods and that won't fit in with our dream :-o and no one has mentioned her age. Wasn't she nearly 60? I just hope her boy is easy going coz my asd 10 yo had a massive meltdown this morning and trashed his room. I can't imagine trying to deal with that at nearly 70! I think there should be some age restriction but thats a personal view. As for paying £300k for a surrogacy, where do i sign up! I'd be first in the queue. I don't think there's anythibg wrong with it. I looked in to egg donation, unpaid. But i didn't realise the discomfort and ton of meds needed before they can even harvest an egg. I couldn't put my family through that for nothing. Same with surrogacy. Nice idea to help others, but in reality, only a few very special women would do it for free. Again just my opinion.

wellithink Wed 02-Oct-13 23:17:23

There are far worse things happening in this world and very difficult to judge. This 'Surrogate House' did seem well run, but even here the idea of the surrogate mothers forming relationships with the mother going to take the baby home, seems a recipe for alot of heartache. The blond American Lady who arrived after the baby had been born appeared very cold towards the surrogate mother, I thought, although she may have just not wanted to bond. I felt the poor surrogate thought she was handing over the baby to a cold and heartless person and this memory would live with her. Also, with these huge sums of money it is far too tempting to force women into being surrogates and as Dr Patel explained it takes a very special person to be a surrogate.

Wonderstuff Wed 02-Oct-13 22:18:14

I found it really interesting. I'm undecided on the morals of it, obviously for the surrogate mother the emotional cost is great, and though I think she had good intentions the doctor very much underplayed and minimised this, I wonder if this was a true reflection of her attitude or if, as a recipient of much criticism and threats she was merely on the defensive.

I felt that some of the women seemed unprepared and unsupported postnatally, that worried me the most.

That said it did seem life changing for both parties and I wonder what the alternative choices were for the surrogates.

My instinct is that this is acceptable, women are going into it for mutual gain and fully consenting. I think that we should allow adults to make decisions for themselves. Having said that watching the Canadian couple was very uncomfortable viewing.

Grennie Wed 02-Oct-13 20:39:22

And what do you do when the child asks about their birth? I asked my mum this, and I am sure many children do. Children can usually tell when they are being lied to about things like this, even when they don't know why they are being lied to. And being children, the reasons they may invent in their heads could be much more alarming than the truth.

Grennie Wed 02-Oct-13 20:37:24

wanna - These things have a way of getting out. Since the mother won't have been pregnant and given birth, others will certainly know. We know that children who find out by chance that they were conceived using IVF or sperm donation, are often devastated at being lied to. That is why UK clinics now advise honesty.

And no the woman is not just a host. She grows a fertilised egg into a baby and gives birth to the baby. The egg may not be hers, but she is still one of the mothers.

wannaBe Wed 02-Oct-13 20:32:42

it's different obviously if the child is not related to the parents, in which case they have a right to know.

But I think that the notion of being created in a test tube is enough to make a child feel a bit like they are different without the need to be. so if they don't need to know, then there's no need to tell IMO.

wannaBe Wed 02-Oct-13 20:31:18

most of the babies though are biologically related to the couple - the surrogate is merely the host iyswim. In that regard there is possibly no need for the child to ever know that they were a surrogate baby, in much the same way a child shouldn't need to know if they're an IVF baby.

What point is there creating this sense of potential loss which isn't actually real iyswim.

Grennie Wed 02-Oct-13 18:47:09

That is a good point potato. Psychologically this would be hard for some of those grown up babies to cope with.

Also some children and adults do have a real need to know where they come from. I am guessing there is no chance for them to be able to contact the woman who grew them in her body and gave birth to them. She is also their mother.

morethanpotatoprints Wed 02-Oct-13 18:37:02

I don't think anybody has thought about the long term effects on the bm and the child. It is hard enough growing up knowing that your parents aren't yours biologically, even in a loving family with wonderful parents.
I certainly wouldn't have liked to have got my head round being bought and sold like a commodity.
Heaven forbid anything should happen to the Canadian couple, but what about the child then?
I know that can happen with birth parents but to me it must be harder for family to step in if the child has no biological connection to the extended family.

Salbertina Wed 02-Oct-13 17:55:38

I agree Coldtea- recipients cant gave it both ways. Though imagine complicated reality of making up baby formula with unreliable water/lengthy exit process for baby make the wet nurse option attractive to the new parents. And the women too poor to turn them down hmm
Wonder what a documentary revisiting all this in 25 years time would make of it all? What would the grown up children think?

ColdTeaAgain Wed 02-Oct-13 17:47:53

I don't agree with the clinic, it is a form of exploitation. But I felt that what the Canadian lady did took it to a far darker level and it should be illegal for her to of done that. I'm sure somewhere in the documentary they were talking about how the surrogate has no rights over the child once born, yet the "customer" was able to employ her to help raise the baby. She had no rights but was intrinsic to the first few months of his life. Just so wrong. And watching the Canadian lady laughing and joking as she chose her next surrogate to who she will probably carry out the same cruel trick, urgh it just made me sick to my stomach. I wondered how common this practise is or whether this case was unusual.

handcream Wed 02-Oct-13 17:30:24

Putting the money to one side. What if you did it for your sister and she started bringing up a child in a way you dont agree with. Would you feel the need to help them out if they got into financial difficulties?

I have to say I would not be able to be silent so it wouldnt be for me (and I'm too old!)

morethanpotatoprints Wed 02-Oct-13 17:28:57

ColdTea

I have seen documentaries and met women who bonded with their babies before giving them up, it is so heart breaking and even just listening can make you quite poorly, I am really not exaggerating many have never got over the wrench. It just seems so wrong and unnecessary.

I have also listened to my own mum telling me how awful it is to live with the fact you are infertile, and how it can consume your every minute. So of course I sympathise, but there are other ways than buying a baby.

Salbertina Wed 02-Oct-13 17:24:25

I seriously considered offering to be a surrogate for a family member, would have been but their circs change.

Otherwise wouldn't do it. But in the position of those women? Like a shot.

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