Surrogacy is not something new

Editor’s Note: This commentary generated a lot of questions and raised many issues around the argument of the piece: How far can legislation be an answer to the issue? Should compensated surrogacy be supported at all? What about health risks and the needs of the child? And what about the millions of babies who could be adopted by Intended Parents? We invite our readers to wade into the discussion in the commentary section below.

A somewhat recent article in the National Post entitled “‘Business has boomed’: Canadian surrogacy agent facing 27 charges continues her controversial work” brought me back to 2010 when I wrote a Master’s Thesis in anthropology on the world of compensated surrogacy. Compensated surrogacy is illegal here in Canada. Legitimate costs such as pre-natal vitamins can be reimbursed, but a surrogate cannot be paid a fee for her services. Paying a fee is equated to ‘baby selling’. Therefore, the work being performed by Leia Picard, a surrogacy agent, is also illegal. One could also argue that the work of agents is exploitative because of the prices they charge, but that is for another conversation. Although legislation banning the monetary compensation of Canadian surrogates is nothing new, the charges against her are. The RCMP has ignored Leia’s work and underground surrogacy deals for years, so why are they now choosing to invoke the legislation?  To me it is reminiscent of what I wrote in my thesis, that culturally we are not ready to accept surrogacy as something commercial; it is not a form of labour to be compensated monetarily; it is instead a gift.

Surrogacy is not something new; it has been around for centuries, with evidence of surrogacy in written texts, such as the Bible and throughout the middle ages. Rachel and her sister Lia both offered/coerced their slaves to lie with their husband Jacob in order to conceive on their behalf. In the Middle Ages wealthy women would pay a small price to a wet nurse, who took care of a child for its first year of life. In some cultures it is still normal for a member of a community who has many children, to give up her next child to a couple who are not able to conceive. Over time, things changed in the Western world, and the Western ideals of the monogamous heterosexual couple and conception to be found only within the bonds of marriage, became entrenched. If one were to have a surrogate it would be done quietly without anyone knowing, unlike the business model of surrogacy that has now appeared within the U.S.

Today the world of compensated surrogacy is a far cry from its early years. With the advent of the Internet, a new market has been created. One can surf the classified ads of egg donors, while at the same time search classified ads for a surrogate. In the same vein, surrogates, can post ads, contact several intending parents (those looking to hire a surrogate) or become surrogates with an agency. Agencies themselves have flashy interactive websites, and some American agencies even host conferences in Europe, advertising their services to people in countries where compensated surrogacy is illegal. If one cannot afford an American surrogate, fear not, for one can hire a surrogate in India or Eastern Europe for less; and all of this can be done from one’s computer. Technology has played a very important role in surrogacy becoming a global business and bringing with it fears of bodily commodification and exploitation.

Certain U.S states have legalized compensated surrogacy, but like Canada, some States have criminalized it. The idea of “renting a womb” or “selling a baby” is unfathomable to many within North America, because it suddenly puts motherhood and reproduction, which were once privy only to the family, into the public sphere and the commodity market. In a culture where we often feel uneasiness with mass consumption in general, compensated surrogacy goes one step too far. To render such compensation as a culturally acceptable fee for labour, the surrogacy is spoken of in terms of the altruistic gift, “the gift of life” – because a gift is not monetized.

It is much easier for us to accept that a surrogate would be providing the gift of a child to intending parents. Even surrogates (who are being compensated) speak about their roles as a vocation, a higher calling to help out a couple with the ultimate gift of a child. Surrogates are not immune to cultural dialogues that surround them, and using ‘gifting’ language provides them with a safe space in which to be surrogates. From my research I would say that they also truly believe that they are providing a gift. Imagine the reaction to a surrogate saying, “I’m just doing this for the money”? Even if we object, we know that it is her body, her right, and at the end of it she really is providing a couple with an amazing product (a baby).

The creation of legislation for morally ambiguous and/or culturally unfavourable issues, such as compensated surrogacy, does not usually stem from rational conversations. Instead, such legislation becomes a reflection of the meanings that compensated surrogacy provokes, such as what it means to broader debates around North American consumption patterns.  The charges against Leia Picard after years of breaking the law speak to our continued uneasiness with compensated surrogacy. If we accept that pregnancy and its products are acceptable commodities to be bought and sold, what does that say about us? Where do we now draw the line between the public and private spheres? I argue that creating legislation that reflects the realities of surrogates and intending parents, and one that does not bow to the needs of agents who stand to make money off of surrogacy deals, would be a start.


Blackwell, Tom. “‘Business has boomed’: Canadian surrogacy agent facing 27 charges continues her controversial work”. National Post (March 17, 2013)

Sharp, Lesley 2007. Bodies, Commodities and  Biotechnologies. Columbia University Press: New York

Spar, Deborah L. 2006.The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.