Urge to be a parent fuels global baby trade

Infertile, gay and older couples are going to great lengths to become parents. Their family plans have created a growing international industry: IVF, egg and sperm donation, and surrogacy.

You've heard of outsourcing call-centres, IT support and office administration? Well, now there's another trend: outsourcing pregnancy. A growing number of Westerners are using clinics in the developing world to find surrogate mothers, who can provide them with the babies they crave.

Some disapproving reports call it fertility tourism: poor, often uneducated women being paid to carry and bear children for people in the rich world who are medically infertile, gay, or have left it till beyond the age of the mother's menopause to start a family. In India, where surrogacy was made legal in 2002, the clinics charge between $10,000 and $20,000 compared to between $50,000 and $100,000 in the US. The Indian women working as surrogates are paid between $5,000 and $7,000 for each successful pregnancy, more than years of their ordinary earnings but nothing like the good living being made by the medical entrepreneurs who run the business.

One clinic in Gujarat had its success guaranteed after it was featured on Oprah Winfrey's chatshow in 2007: the way the story was presented, one childless couple, after exhausting all the infertility treatments available in America, got the baby they longed for, while an impoverished Indian woman's material circumstances were dramatically improved.

Medical tourism, including surrogacy is predicted to bring $2.3bn into the Indian economy by next year. And India's national parliament is expected to debate introducing regulation for the booming offshore fertility industry within months, which should improve protection for the women who are hired.

Back in the US, the high cost of official, regulated donor and infertility services (a sperm donation from sperm banks costs around $2,000) has led a childless couple to become entrepreneurial: they have set up online networks of people willing to donate for free. The men say they are motivated by the desire to help and to spread their own genetic inheritance.

Maybe baby

This growing 'baby industry' is fuelled by families in the West for whom nature has denied the possibility of natural conception and childbirth. Where once only some couples, which included least one woman of childbearing age, could produce children, now almost anyone with sufficient resources can be helped to bear a child, through some combination of donation and surrogacy.

Some think this is unnatural and potentially dangerous, leading to exploitation of donors and surrogates. Others reply that the desire to reproduce is one of the strongest urges in human life – and that anything which helps people achieve their dreams of children can only be a good thing.

You Decide

  1. One older mother says her story brings out a 'moral gag reflex' in others. What is your instinctive reaction? Is it any different after you read the human stories in the links below?
  2. Is all medical 'adjustment' to prolong fertility legitimate? Which is preferable – extreme intervention by doctors or international surrogacy?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are 50 years old and having a birthday party. You make a speech about all things in your life you are proud of having achieved. Do children feature?
  2. Research the biological facts about when and how fertility declines in both men and women, and the medical risks of later parenthood. Make a presentation to your class.

Some People Say...

“Nature is over-rated. It's always behind human social trends.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Doesn't everyone go for IVF nowadays?
Test tube babies were the first medical step towards helping infertile couples conceive.IVF is now widespread in the West, but very expensive. And it doesn't work for everyone: success rates decline as the woman gets older, and gay couples still need to find a surrogate to bear the child.
Why do older women want to have children?
Longer lives, in which they may have missed out earlier for various reasons. 'The menopause is an evolutionary relic,' says one research biologist, 'left over from when humans died at 50.' Now women in many countries live into their 80s or even later. They have the time and money they didn't have in their 20s and 30s. But fertility declines from about age 35 until the menopause at around 50.

Word Watch

Surrogate mothers
A surrogate mother carries an implanted embryo in her womb, but is not the biological mother. The egg which created the embryo will have come from another woman – possibly an anonymous donor.
IVF
In Vitro Fertilisation, where eggs are fertilised in a laboratory before being implanted into the womb. In vitro babies are sometimes referred to as 'test-tube babies'.
Menopause
A set of complex hormonal changes which signal the end of a woman's fertility and the cycle of ovulation.

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