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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


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


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

Grennie Wed 02-Oct-13 14:11:15

"Rented a womb.." That womb belongs to a live woman.

Genetically the baby is the couples. But it only exists because the woman grew it. It was her body that allowed a fertilised egg to become a baby.

PoopMaster Wed 02-Oct-13 14:15:55

I would be willing to be a surrogate for 300k...but I also seriously thought about doing it for free (DH was dead set against it though)...for me that's where the ethical line is really, if it's not something you'd do for free it's no longer an act of charity done for positive reasons. If you keep payment out of it then economics no longer come into it - a rich woman could be just as willing to be a surrogate as a poorer woman, if she's seen a couple desperate for a child and wants to help them.

Of course this charitable way doesn't encourage as many surrogates to come forward, but to be honest (and possibly harsh) - in the same way that these people in India don't get a choice about being born into poverty, some people in the west just won't get a choice about becoming parents either. What's the difference? Life can be shit for different people in different ways and why should one group be allowed to exploit the other just because they can?

PoopMaster Wed 02-Oct-13 14:22:53

But they're not just "renting a womb" are they...if that was the case then the women wouldn't be upset sad

Salbertina Wed 02-Oct-13 14:52:04

It is v v complex and emotional, isn't it? Thought the programme explored this well.

slinky1975 Wed 02-Oct-13 15:09:07

I found the programme interesting.

I too would be spouting my morals here, if I had been fortunate to have borne children the natural way.

Unfortunately, when you have exhausted most of your funds on unsuccessful ivf cycles, couples do start to seek other avenues. The majority of the couples 'are not rich'. They skrimp and save and are eternally grateful to have a chance of having their own genetic child. The couples who enter into 'Surrogacy' have not done so lightly. They have mulled over it for years, hence the age of the couples on the programme. The only reason the couples have ended up at this particular clinic is due to:
- the encouragement of the surrogate and couple to keep in touch
- the surrogate is really looked after
- the surrogate will benefit 'financially'
- the couple will hopefully have a child

Couples who have had children naturally, just expect childless couples to explore the 'adoption' route. You don't see many couples who have children naturally explore adoption. Unless the fertile couple has explored 'adoption'. Please don't give advice to childless couples to 'adopt'. You are the hypocrites!

In my mind - all couples now have the same options open to them:
- bring up their own genetic child
- adopt
- foster
- remain childless

Grennie Wed 02-Oct-13 15:12:52

The couples are all rich by Indian standards. Yes I do understand desperate couples exploiting women in this way. In the same way desperate couples buy babies abroad aka paying a large adoption fee. That doesn't make it right. We should be making international surrogacy illegal in the UK.

wannaBe Wed 02-Oct-13 15:42:20

but all surrogates do it for the money, even those in the UK. The only difference is that in the UK it is dressed up as "expenses," in order to legitimise it.

I have far more issue with a surrogate who uses her own eggs and uterus in order to then pass over her own biological child to a couple in return for hmm "expenses." Now that is buying/selling a baby.

I do think the notion of encouraging couples to take the adoption route is hypocritical because adoption is a long, hard, deeply emotional process that is not for everyone.

But I am also of the opinion that just because something can be done, doesn't mean that it should, and as heartbreaking as it is to be unable to conceive, doesn't mean that morally it is ok to use whatever means necessary in order to have a baby, such as exploiting women in third world countries in order to buy their eggs/use of their uterus (for surrogacy/egg donation).

I also don't believe that only the infertile have the right to judge, infertility does not absolve one of moral responsibility, and there are roads which IMO should not be taken.

I was unable to conceive a second child, but even when trying for my first I struggled, and I faced the possibility that it might not happen. But no amount of desperation would have changed my opinion that buying a baby, or indeed an egg, is wrong, and I would haverremained childless rather than enter down that route.

OddBoots Wed 02-Oct-13 15:56:20

"but all surrogates do it for the money, even those in the UK. The only difference is that in the UK it is dressed up as "expenses," in order to legitimise it. " That's really unfair and offensive wannaBe, I've been a surrogate three times and each time my expenses were exactly that and not in the least dressed up, I painstakingly documented them all and presented them down to the penny to the court each time. I know I'm not alone in that, just situations like mine don't hit the media.

handcream Wed 02-Oct-13 16:02:47

Would any of us be surrogates on this thread? I guess the question is how much? If someone offered me £500k maybe I would consider. For others much less would be enough.

These ladies in Indian. £10k is a fotune for them and we ARE taking advantage of them. My SIL completly disagrees with me, she doesnt see any issue with this at all but then I guess she would say that having used a surrogate herself.

morethanpotatoprints Wed 02-Oct-13 16:50:54

OMG, this is wrong on so many levels.
Allowing mother and baby to bond, and baby to feed from birth mother totally wrong.
Its vomit inducing for me, I'm afraid

rhetorician Wed 02-Oct-13 16:52:58

I agree with that morethan, and that's why I was curious about guidelines.

ColdTeaAgain Wed 02-Oct-13 17:07:31

I would consider being a surrogate for someone I love where I would have a continued relationship with the baby for the rest of its life but I honestly don't think I could be a surrogate just for money however large the sum. The heartbreak of giving up a baby I'd carried and felt growing inside me is not worth the gain of wealth. But then, I am not living in a third world country and desperate to provide a better life for my family. It's easy to see why these women do it and, lets face it, in India there are many ways for women to earn money which have very questionable morality and for a pittance of a wage which makes little difference to their situation.

The Canadian woman featured came across as very selfish. To employ her surrogate as a nanny/wet nurse while she waited for her green light to take her baby home was just so cruel. This in my opinion was a far greater form of exploitation than that carried out by the clinic. The Canadian lady used the surrogate mothers desire to earn more money and to stay with her baby (because it is her baby as well, she gave him life and nurtured him). The poor woman had as strong a bond as any other mother and to see her having to say goodbye after caring for him everyday for 4/5months (?) was just heartbreaking. What help does she receive to deal with the grief she will feel?? My heart bled for her hmm

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.

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


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.

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!)

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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