Sandra Lee Bartky has outlined how ‘sexual objectification occurs whenever a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are separated out from her person, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or regarded as if they were capable of representing her’.1 This is clear in surrogacy where a woman’s reproductive function is separated from the women’s self and becomes an instrument for others. Susan Hawthorne has assessed that ‘power is at the centre of surrogacy. It is misuse of power that we are talking about here’2: the assertion of power over women’s reproductive capabilities.
As Julie Bindel and Gary Powell argue, ‘supporting surrogacy is inconsistent with feminist principles. In renting the womb of a woman, her reproductive rights are removed’.3 Anna Fisher, Chair of Nordic Model Now, asserts that the ‘undervaluing of women and their human rights is a direct consequence of their objectification and commodification – of which surrogacy is a just one example’.4
Objectification is about making one person a mere instrument for another’s will. As Lauren Hamstead has outlined the ‘language that has developed to describe surrogacy is highly prejudicial, it is deployed to hide some relationships within the transaction and emphasise others. ‘Surrogate mother’ would highlight the maternal relationship and so is often shortened to ‘surrogate’, alternatively ‘gestational carrier’, ‘carrier’ or ‘host’ are used. This has the effect of dehumanising the woman who is pregnant and casting her as an incubator’.5
Hamstead has outlined how ‘the raw material of the surrogacy industry is women. The fact that gestational surrogacy accounts for almost all surrogacy arrangements ensures maximum value from the available resources’.6 Despite the fact that in 2015, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Mexico, once the major markets for commercial surrogacy, banned the practice for foreigners due to exploitation and human rights abuses causing international outcry, the ‘Global Surrogacy market is expected to beat USD 27.5 billion by 2025, according to a new research report by Global Market Insights, Inc.’.7
As Glosswitch has argued, ‘paid surrogacy makes disadvantaged women into walking wombs – an unacceptable solution to infertility’.8 Speaking about a steady push to normalise commercial surrogacy through media puff pieces, Glosswitch highlighted how ‘the difficulties are portrayed almost entirely from the perspective of those wanting easier access to rentable wombs. The fact that surrogates are people too, not pieces of property in an unstable market, would be easy to miss’.9 It is ‘an industry which places poor women of colour in closely monitored residences and treats them as potting soil for the planting and growing of children for wealthier, usually white clients’.10 The wealth inequalities are startling and undeniable.
In Thailand when the international commercial surrogacy business was booming before being outlawed in 2015, rape, baby farming and human trafficking grew to meet demand. In 2011, ‘15 Vietnamese women were found in a Bangkok apartment, seven of them pregnant. Some of them said they had been lured there with the promise of well-paid jobs; two said they had been raped. A Taiwanese company called Babe-101 was accused by anti-trafficking groups of being behind the operation, but the police never pressed charges, and the doctor who supervised the conceptions and the births is still practising at a well-known Bangkok hospital’.11 That surrogates are used as instruments for male desires is highlighted by the Japanese case of then-24 year-old Mitsutoki Shigeta who fathered 13 children using Thai surrogacy clinic All-IVF. During the resulting legal dispute Mr Shigeta did not visit the children and it emerged he had already fathered 4 children in Japan and 2 children in Cambodia through surrogacy.12
Males deny women’s minds and emotions, and view them as mere bodies and instruments for their wishes. This is highlighted when men refuse to allow mothers to change their minds and keep the babies they have carried for 9 months. For example, in 2015 a gay couple claimed they were in hiding in Thailand (because they had broken the law by purchasing a woman’s womb and body) to ‘fight a custody battle with the surrogate mother of a seven-month-old baby girl’.13
Once criminal gangs specialised in drugs and weapons: now they have turned their attentions to women as a resource for exploitation. In July 2020, ‘The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division (ATPD) of Thailand on Wednesday (July 15) summoned 10 people suspected of being part of an illegal surrogacy gang… Five are gynaecologists (three from private hospitals, two from a public hospital near Victory Monument), one is a lab technician whose duty was to mix the eggs and sperm of good-looking models, and four are female agents who found women willing to hire out their wombs’.14 Surrogacy trade in Thailand has continued. The BBC detailed how trade is now using its border location, ‘transporting the embryo to Laos to be implanted in the surrogate’.15 The mechanical language highlights the woman’s use as instrument rather than person.
Global trends show that commercial surrogacy targets the poorest women to exploit. Since the economic depression of 2008 criminal gangs have turned to women as a resource in Greece. In September 2019 ‘news broke of the dismantling of an organised crime group involved in illegal adoptions, egg-selling and commercial surrogacy in Thessaloniki. An eight-month-long secret investigation by Greek law enforcement, supported by Interpol, led to the arrest of 22 people suspected of engaging in a criminal network of assisted reproduction’.16 ‘
According to police reports, the women were mostly Bulgarian and Georgian living in Greece and in need of money (some were reportedly in prostitution) and Roma women from poor villages near the Greek-Bulgarian border. A total of 66 people were reportedly involved in the illegal activities and more than €500,000 has been generated since 2016 by the criminal organisation’.17 Womb rental is legal in Greece: ‘Greece is home to about 60 assisted reproduction centers, a considerable figure given its population of under 11 million’.18
Speaking of the legalisation of exploitation in 2002 in Greece, Sisi Vovu, head of the To mov feminist movement, said“Everything was done very secretly,” to prevent protest.19
In 2014 international surrogacy was legally opened up, and ‘Greece differs to other countries in that the child legally belongs to the paying couple before insemination which negates the need for adoption papers. The child is then officially registered within the first 10 days of life and the surrogate disappears from the records without a trace’.20 The mother is erased, discarded as a mere tool which has served its purpose. .
One growing site of international womb rental is Ukraine where companies use women’s poverty as a marketing strategy. The largest womb rental business, BioTexCom, cheerily points out on its website that ‘the cheapest surrogacy in Europe is in Ukraine, the poorest European country’.21 Madeline Roache has reported how ‘Ukraine has become an increasingly popular destination for foreign couples seeking affordable surrogacy services since they became legal in 2002.
The average package costs around $30,000, compared with prices between $80,00 and $120,000 in the United States. Demand has surged since 2015 when Thailand, India and Nepal outlawed commercial surrogacy following reports of widespread exploitation of women’.22 Samantha Hawley, who has investigated cases of surrogacy commissioners abandoning babies globally, says of surrogacy ‘while the country has changed, the story remains the same’.23 Alina, a surrogate mother in Ukraine described how ‘BioTexCom put her up in a small apartment 32 weeks into her pregnancy with four other women, where she was forced to share a bed with another surrogate mother.
“We were all very stressed. Most of the women come from small villages and are in hopeless situations,” she said. “We spent the first week just lying around, crying. We couldn’t eat. This is a typical situation for surrogates”.24 Describing giving birth Alina said that “We were treated like cattle and mocked by doctors,” Alina said. “There was no hot water, we washed with plastic bottles over the toilet with water that was preheated in a kettle”.25
Covid-19 travel bans highlighted the hundreds to thousands of women rented by foreign purchasers in Ukraine. The New York Times reported ‘authorities say that at least 100 babies are stranded already and that as many as 1,000 may be born before Ukraine’s travel ban for foreigners is lifted’.26 From the article one would think that these babies arrived by stork as only the buyers (termed parents) are mentioned. As Fisher alerts us, ‘the surrogacy industry promotes the misconception that the birth mother is a passive, impersonal, interchangeable incubator. This is reflected in the terminology – for example US birth mothers are called ‘carriers,’ as if they were plastic bags’.27
In earlier centuries, black people were instrumentalised for commercial reasons in slavery. It was justified in many ways but now seems inexcusable. We have the opportunity in the 21st century to avoid mass instrumentalisation of women and sale of children. Let’s look very carefully before we leap.’
1 S. Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (Routledge, London,1990), p.26.
2 S. Hawthorne, ‘Questions of Power and Rights in Surrogacy’, #StopSurrogacyNow (16 March 2019), http://www.stopsurrogacynow.com/questions-of-power-and-rights-in-surrogacy/#sthash.jDh0uokt.JQ0pMwkQ.dpbs
3 J. Bindel & G. Powell, ‘Gay Rights and Surrogacy Wrongs: Say “No” to Wombs-for-Rent’, #StopSurrogacyNow, http://www.stopsurrogacynow.com/gay-rights-and-surrogacy-wrongs-say-no-to-wombs-for-rent/#sthash.bHZ7o5ve.UvddKySc.dpbs
4 ‘Surrogacy at the crossroads: The lure of commercial baby farming’, Nordic Model Now (24 August 2020), https://nordicmodelnow.org/2020/08/24/surrogacy-at-the-crossroads-the-lure-of-commercial-baby-farming/
5 L. Hamstead, ‘How do ‘altruistic’ and commercial surrogacy affect the rights of women and children?’,Object! (18 July 2020), https://objectnow.org/how-do-altruistic-and-commercial-surrogacy-affect-the-rights-of-women-and-children/
6 L. Hamstead, ‘How do ‘altruistic’ and commercial surrogacy affect the rights of women and children?’,Object! (18 July 2020), https://objectnow.org/how-do-altruistic-and-commercial-surrogacy-affect-the-rights-of-women-and-children/
7 ‘Surrogacy Market revenue to cross $27.5 billion by 2025: Global Market Insights, Inc.’, GlobeNewswire (16 December 2019), https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2019/12/16/1960684/0/en/Surrogacy-Market-revenue-to-cross-27-5-billion-by-2025-Global-Market-Insights-Inc.html
8 Glosswitch, ‘Paid surrogacy makes disadvantaged women into walking wombs – an unacceptable solution to infertility’, New Statesman (26 February 2016), https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2016/02/paid-surrogacy-makes-disadvantaged-women-walking-wombs-unacceptable
9 Glosswitch, ‘Paid surrogacy makes disadvantaged women into walking wombs – an unacceptable solution to infertility’, New Statesman (26 February 2016), https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2016/02/paid-surrogacy-makes-disadvantaged-women-walking-wombs-unacceptable
10 Glosswitch, ‘Paid surrogacy makes disadvantaged women into walking wombs – an unacceptable solution to infertility’, New Statesman (26 February 2016), https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2016/02/paid-surrogacy-makes-disadvantaged-women-walking-wombs-unacceptable
11 J. Head, ‘Thailand’s crackdown on ‘wombs for rent’’, BBC News (20 February 2015), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-31556597
12 J. Head, ‘Baby factory’ mystery: Thailand’s surrogacy saga reaches uneasy end’, BBC News (26 February 2018), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-43169974
13 ‘Gay couple in Thai custody battle over surrogate baby’, BBC News (21 July 2015), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-33618441
14 T. Nguyen, ‘Thailand arrests illegal gynaecologists connected to surrogacy ring’, Vietnam Times (16 July 2020),
15 J. Head, ‘Baby factory’ mystery: Thailand’s surrogacy saga reaches uneasy end’, BBC News (26 February 2018), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-43169974
16 Dr K. Neofytou, ‘Assisted reproduction crime network in Greece highlights need for monitoring surrogacy’, Bio News (21 October 2019), https://www.bionews.org.uk/page_145701
17 Dr K. Neofytou, ‘Assisted reproduction crime network in Greece highlights need for monitoring surrogacy’, Bio News (21 October 2019), https://www.bionews.org.uk/page_145701
18 ‘Greece, Europe’s Door to Reproductive Exploitation’, Latin American Herald Tribune http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2490099&CategoryId=13936
19 ‘Greece, Europe’s Door to Reproductive Exploitation’, Latin American Herald Tribune http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2490099&CategoryId=13936
20 ‘Greece, Europe’s Door to Reproductive Exploitation’, Latin American Herald Tribune http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2490099&CategoryId=13936
21 ‘How Surrogacy Business Works in Ukraine’, BioTexCom, https://biotexcom.com/how-surrogacy-business-works-in-ukraine/
22 M. Roache, ‘Ukraine’s ‘baby factories’: The human cost of surrogacy’, Al Jazeera (13 September 2018), https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/ukraine-baby-factories-human-cost-surrogacy-180912201251153.html
23 S. Hawley, ‘Damaged babies and broken hearts: Ukraine’s commercial surrogacy industry leaves a trail of disasters’, ABC News (19 August 2019),
24 M. Roache, ‘Ukraine’s ‘baby factories’: The human cost of surrogacy’, Al Jazeera (13 September 2018),
25 M. Roache, ‘Ukraine’s ‘baby factories’: The human cost of surrogacy’, Al Jazeera (13 September 2018), https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/ukraine-baby-factories-human-cost-surrogacy-180912201251153.html
26 A. E. Kramer, ‘100 Babies Stranded in Ukraine After Surrogate Births’, The New York Times (24 June 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/16/world/europe/ukraine-coronavirus-surrogate-babies.html
27 ‘Surrogacy at the crossroads: The lure of commercial baby farming’, Nordic Model Now (24 August 2020), https://nordicmodelnow.org/2020/08/24/surrogacy-at-the-crossroads-the-lure-of-commercial-baby-farming/