They go through all the challenges of pregnancy and labour so that strangers can have a baby. And they willingly do so free of charge. Who are these women who volunteer to become surrogate mothers? And why do they do it?
For his new documentary, titled Having Our Baby: The Surrogacy Boom, Vancouver filmmaker Nick Orchard spent more than two years examining these questions, as well as the legal and ethical issues around surrogacy in Canada.
The film, which premieres on CBC’s Documentary Channel on Feb. 28 at 10 p.m. ET (repeating at 1 a.m. on March 1), takes viewers around the world, from hospital rooms in Alberta and Ontario, where surrogate babies are born; to England, where Britain’s first commercial surrogacy raised highly publicized debate; to India, where – until recently – foreign intended parents flocked to hire local surrogates.
Director Nick Orchard, right, and director of photography John Collins spent more than two years making the documentary film Having Our Baby: The Surrogacy Boom.
The number of surrogate births in Canada is not officially tracked, but it’s estimated that hundreds of women in this country agree to carry other people’s babies each year. While it’s illegal to pay surrogates in Canada, Orchard highlights in his film the gaps in regulations that leave all parties unclear about what expenses can be reimbursed. And he raises questions about whether our laws should be changed to allow surrogates to accept money for bearing another person’s child.
We reached Orchard at his office in North Vancouver.
What did you find motivates women to volunteer as surrogates?
Just big hearts. Certainly all of the surrogates I met were just very kind and open people. They can’t be paid for doing this. And it really blew me away that women would be willing to do it. When one of the women, Eilise, talked about her experience just after her surrogate child was born, she said: “I’ve never done anything like this in my life. I gave someone else a family.” That’s pretty powerful.
What are the arguments for paying surrogates?
For me, the big one is everyone else is making money off this. You start with the agencies who put the surrogates and the intended parents together and monitor the process. Don’t get me wrong, they do a very valuable job and they rightly get paid for it. You’ve also got the lawyers, who draw up all the legal agreements, and the clinics that are creating and implanting the embryos. So everyone’s making money on this process except the woman who is doing all the work. As one of our subjects says in our documentary, “They call it labour for a reason; it’s work.”
I was surprised to hear many surrogates say they, in fact, wouldn’t like the law changed so you could pay money for a surrogate. They like the idea that it’s altruistic and they’re doing it from the goodness of their heart, and not because they can put some money in their bank account.
But I still think there are good reasons that you should be able to pay some money. I would say there should be a limit on it, so it doesn’t become some sort of horrible money-making venture, where you have some surrogate desperate for money, for example, and doing it for the wrong reasons, who might not care about a baby the same way other women will.
Heather Chaput left, was a surrogate mother for Sarah and Jason Geisler.
How does Canadian law leave surrogacy in legal limbo?
When the original laws were created, they didn’t do a complete job. They created a law which is actually fairly draconian. Then, they were supposed to define what expenses were allowed [for surrogates to claim], and they never did that. So that’s left everybody scrambling trying to figure out what they can charge and what they can’t charge, and always worried there might be a knock on the door from some policeman, saying you’ve violated this law.
The agency the government set up to oversee all of this, they’ve disbanded as well. So there’s no guidance coming from anyone. It’s kind of just a grey area and it needs looking at and sorting out.
But at the moment the priorities of the government are not high enough. They’re more interested these days in medically assisted dying and all that sort of thing.
What are some of the common misconceptions about surrogacy?
Probably the biggest one is that surrogates are providing the egg in the transaction. That’s called traditional surrogacy, and that rarely happens now. It’s all gestational surrogacy, where the egg is either from the intended mother or a donor. And I think most people wouldn’t know there are altruistic surrogates beyond friends and family helping out. And they probably don’t know about the laws in Canada. Most people probably think you can just hire a surrogate because you can hire a surrogate in California, for example, and that’s all right.
Why are foreign intended parents increasingly coming to Canada in search of surrogates?
When we first started working on the show, the title was actually Reproductive Tourism and the Surrogacy Boom because in those days, Canadian couples were going to countries like India, Thailand and Mexico to have their surrogate children.
But then the Baby Gammy case happened in Thailand, where an Australian couple who had twins left the one with Down syndrome with the surrogate and took the other child. I think this embarrassed Thailand, so they shut down the border.
India probably was the biggest country for reproductive tourism and it was huge business. For me, it was an ethical dilemma: How do I feel about rich Canadians going over there and hiring poor Indian women to have their children? But I was kind of reconciled to it in that I learned their lives were changed for the good. They were able to do things they could never have done before, like buy a house or put their children in school. But India, too, closed its door to foreigners.
Director Nick Orchard thinks there are good reasons for paying a surrogate, but believes there should be limits.
All of the outgoing surrogacy stopped, and everybody asked, “Okay, where do we go next?” and suddenly, all of these foreigners are seizing on Canada because the surrogates are free. And the health-care system is free.
Because this falls under provincial jurisdiction, a lot of provinces are now looking at the situation with an eye to possibly have the foreign intended parents cover all the medical costs so they can’t get away with what they were getting away with, and the Canadian taxpayers aren’t subsidizing foreigners having their babies.
Can you explain the debate raised in the film around whether parenthood is a right?
There’s a small, and decreasing, faction in Canada that is still opposed to surrogacy and messing around with human reproduction and things like that. They feel strongly that it shouldn’t be allowed, and motherhood is sacred. If someone can’t have a child, then tough luck. Get over it.
But that view was countered in the documentary by people like Kim Cotton, who was the first commercial surrogate in the U.K., saying, “Well, you say you can’t do this, but how many children do you yourself have?” and “It’s easy for you to say that until you’ve been in the shoes of those people who desperately want to have a child.”
Is it a right? I don’t know. But if there is a way that you can have a child and it’s a willing relationship, where the surrogate is willing to do it under the rules of Canada, then why not?
This interview has been condensed and edited.