Winifred Badaiki describes exploitation in the surrogacy industry in the Republic of Georgia and urges decision-makers to change the status quo.
Recently, a 23-year-old Russian woman went viral in the Russian media for her use of surrogacy services. She and her 56-year-old husband currently have ten children (nine via surrogacy). They say that their goal is to have 105 children. While she later claimed that this number had been taken out of context, she admits that she and her husband still want to have more children via surrogacy. As a wealthy couple living in the Republic of Georgia with a thriving surrogacy industry, they have the financial capability and option to use surrogacy to achieve their desired number of children.
Commercial surrogacy became legal in Georgia in 1992. Currently, there are no limits on the number of surrogacy arrangements one can solicit. Georgia’s surrogacy market is unregulated and has laws that grant little to no rights to gestational carriers. For example, irrespective of whether she donated a gamete, a carrier cannot have her name on the birth certificate, and does not have any parental rights to the child, even if she wishes to terminate the contract with the intended parents.
Many surrogacy agencies advertise themselves as stress-free and cheap for people seeking these services. The surrogacy cost in Georgia is considered among the cheapest in the world. Packages range from $30,000 to $60,000 compared to the United States where the cost is between $120,000 and $180,000. On average, surrogates in Georgia are paid $10,000 to $12,000 depending on if it is a single or multiple pregnancy.
An interview conducted with women who signed up to be gestational carriers revealed that money is a significant motivation for embarking on this task. While they initially parrot the typical mantra of helping infertile couples have children, these women eventually admit that they become gestational surrogates to get out of poverty or leave abusive situations. Some surrogate carriers have minimal survival options and surrogacy agencies in Georgia convince them that this opportunity is bound to change their lives. Women who are homeless or who live in shelters and safe houses are usually targets of these agencies. For some, surrogacy improves their financial situation. For others, it is a nightmare. Some women revealed that they were left unpaid if they could not successfully carry the fetus to term. The exploitation situation is obvious.
Many couples who seek Georgian surrogacy services are from foreign countries, because of the affordability compared to their resident countries. While surrogacy in Georgia is more expensive than in countries like India, it is quite affordable for middle-class and wealthy foreigners. The only restriction for foreign couples seeking access to surrogacy is a prohibition on same-sex couples. Many transnational surrogacy supporters laud the surrogacy system in Georgia because they consider it to be a win for all involved. Intending parents achieve their goal of having children, while gestational carriers have their burden of poverty eased. However, as noted in other studies, the money does not last. The women have many dependants to care for, and surrogacy is not a long-term, sustainable solution for many of their financial problems.
There is a general role that class differences play in surrogacy arrangements. Surrogates in Georgia are typically low-income earners, and the intending parents are often middle-class foreigners. The Georgian surrogacy industry has taken advantage of this dynamic to build a thriving industry rife with exploitation. The victims, unfortunately, are the gestational carriers. For some women, in the absence of other options to break free from precarious situations, becoming gestational carriers appears to be their best option at escaping poverty, even if only for a short period.
The Georgian and Canadian surrogacy industries have one thing in common. People seek surrogacy services in these countries to cut costs. Like Georgia, Canada is a choice destination for tourists who cannot afford surrogacy costs in their home countries. Canada’s altruistic surrogacy system only requires intending parents to reimburse the surrogate expenses, rather than paying for surrogacy services. These expenses are sometimes in the range of $20,000 to $45,000 (CAD), which can be more affordable for these intending parents. However, the difference between Georgia and Canada is the lack of willing carriers in Canada. Canada’s economic situation does not have many women (yet) looking for alternative methods, such as surrogacy, to earn money.
Exploitation is a problem for the Georgian surrogacy industry and many other countries with booming industries globally, and something must be done. The onus of preventing the exploitation of gestational carriers does not lie on these Georgian women. The responsibility largely rests upon the Georgian government to regulate the industry to ensure that these carriers are not grossly commercialized by the surrogacy agencies. There is also a need for international health bodies to create an international legal framework to guide transnational surrogacy. Countries must follow basic guidelines that prevent exploitation. Unless changes are made, parents like the Russian couple will continue to avail of systems that fail to prohibit exploitation.
Georgian women deserve better.
Winifred Badaiki is a graduate of the Master of Health Ethics program at Memorial University, and is a member of the MUN Centre for Bioethics. @WinnieOmo