The morality of surrogacy

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


Surrogacy is a complicated transaction involving at least three individuals, usually more, with moral complications and grey areas around the rights and responsibilities of the two active parties – surrogate and intended parent(s) – and the best interests of the child. The issue was thrust back into the headlines earlier this year with the Law Commission recommending changes to the law in the name of ‘benefitting the child, surrogate and intended parents’. Surrogacy divides its advocates on the specifics of its implementation, as well as there still being opponents of the process altogether.

Pro-surrogacy campaigners defend the bodily autonomy of surrogates and the fantastic outcomes it can have for families unable to bear their own children. It is argued that it is nobody else’s prerogative to decide what a woman does with her body and being a surrogate has been a rewarding and fulfilling experience for countless women. Complications in surrogacy arrangements are unusual, with their frequency sensationalised by the media.

For example, while the practice of the rich and famous paying another woman to have their child can create shocking headlines about wombs for hire, commercial surrogacy is illegal in the UK. Surrogacy is also a biologically practical answer for many infertile or gay male couples, providing a way for people to raise the family they always wanted. Where is the harm if all are consenting adults? Moreover, pro-surrogacy activists suggest that children of surrogacy have performed better in life than the average, perhaps because every child of surrogacy is genuinely wanted and therefore loved.

Some feminists have argued surrogacy exploits vulnerable women and reduces them to vessels of people’s biological narcissism in a world where thousands of children are waiting to be adopted. Surrogacy now also features in contemporary rows on sex and gender identity with the accusation that surrogacy reduces women and their wombs to commodities in the reproductive marketplace, reducing the role of mother to that of egg provider and gestator. This criticism has a particular salience in an era in which it has become acceptable to refer to women in dehumanised terms such as ‘menstruators’ or ‘birthing bodies’.

There are also ‘post-feminists’ who argue surrogacy undermines the idea of motherhood per se, feeding the many social ills caused by the sexual revolution. From this perspective, surrogacy is an assault on an essential and foundational human relationship and contributes to gradual societal breakdown.

Surrogacy is not always an easy issue to debate. Those who have questioned the morality of gay celebs, such as Elton John and Tom Daley, having children via surrogates have been accused of homophobia. However, these morally charged questions need to be addressed.

With a declining birth-rate and growing prevalence of ‘non-traditional’ families, do we need to make all forms of reproductive technology easier to access and come to a moral and legal consensus? How can we balance the bodily autonomy of the surrogate with the interests of the intended parents, all while prioritising what is best for the child? And given the complex moral field in which surrogacy stands, can the process ultimately be justified at all?

Lexi Ellingsworth
co-founder, Stop Surrogacy Now UK

Sarah Jones
chief executive, Surrogacy UK

Gary Powell
European special consultant, Center for Bioethics and Culture; research fellow, sexual orientation and gender identity, Bow Group

Ella Whelan
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist; author, What Women Want

Dr Jan Macvarish
education and events director, Free Speech Union; author, Neuroparenting: the expert invasion of family life