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Is It Time To Ban Commercial Surrogacy?

Staff writer Mila Stricevic investigates how Ollie Locke’s misogynistic comments revealed a darker side to assisted reproduction

If you’ve ever listened to Jamie Laing’s podcast, you’ll know the usual format; a click-bait title followed by 45 minutes of rather harmless gossip with another C-list celebrity. 

In other words, light entertainment. 

I wasn’t expecting anything more when last Friday’s episode dropped with Ex-Made in Chelsea stars and now married couple, Ollie and Gareth Locke. Very quickly however, the two-part interview, which could have been a beautiful celebration of their journey to parenthood, or indeed a raw conversation about the difficulties of having children through assisted means, descended into a disturbingly dark tale about commercial surrogacy punctuated by a few MIC throwbacks.

The commercial surrogacy industry is a deeply contentious one. There is no escaping the fact that commercial surrogacy commodifies women’s bodies in much the same way that prostitution does.

As Gareth Locke so aptly pointed out “It’s a bit prostitutey”.

The labour of commercial surrogacy falls particularly hard on working-class women from countries in the Global South such as India, Mexico, and Cambodia who are much more likely to find themselves in exploitative and unregulated work in order to survive. It is common for the surrogate and egg donor to be two different women where the surrogate’s womb is ‘rented’ out for 9 months while the donor’s eggs, often carefully selected in for certain genes, are transferred into another’s womb. As Julie Bindel commented, “the process is not that far removed from eugenics”. 

In the since-deleted episode on Spotify, Ollie Locke stated the requirements for his egg donor: “I wanted to find someone that I know is going to be an absolute smoke show”. His partner then described finding an agency that matches couples with “supermodels who are ivy-league educated”. During their discussion, Ollie offered the view that finding an egg donor is equivalent to sleeping with someone you meet at the bar but are we really to accept these are in any way comparable? Of course, to a certain degree, people are attracted to each other for certain physical characteristics, personality traits…etc and that will inform the type of children you would have together. Yet there is something so sinister about framing the act of producing children as an exercise in how ‘attractive’ they could be. 

And lost in all this performative language are the feelings, bodies, and rights of the women who have sacrificed their eggs, their wombs and often their health, just to make this happen. 

Of course, we don’t know the financial, mental, or physical situation which either the surrogate or the egg donor were in with regards to the Locke’s surrogacy journey. Nevertheless, the way that three white, British, wealthy men could sit on a podcast and joke together so openly about the sale of women’s bodies reveals just how little consideration is given to the thousands of women who are exploited each year in the commercial surrogacy market. A market which CNBC reported was worth $14 billion globally last year – a staggering number that could only be reached with “women as the raw material”.

One of the most important issues raised by critics of the practice of surrogacy is that of rights. Namely, is it anyone’s right to have a child? Producing children can be an incredibly dangerous undertaking, especially for women who are living in poverty and without proper medical care. While it’s a natural human instinct to want to have children, should it come at the cost of exploitation? 

Not all instances of surrogacy are so bleak. There are many cases of altruistic surrogacy where women – usually friends or relatives – volunteer to carry the child and can give complete consent, be treated with respect and safely carry a baby to term.

The problem is that while this might be the dominant surrogacy narrative in the media, it’s not representative of the real world. Commercial surrogacy is far more popular than the altruistic alternative and far more corrupt.

This year, the Italian government took steps to ban citizens from going abroad for surrogacy, demonstrating its salience as a political issue. In Italy, it is only legal for heterosexual couples to undergo IVF and its far-right government were heavily criticised at the time for what was seen as a further crackdown on the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Of course, as Gareth and Ollie Locke described, gay couples face enormous barriers to having their own biological children and it’s not my intention to discredit the legitimate grief it can cause but I also argue this; there is no world in which the exchanging of money for unfettered access to a woman’s body does not invite exploitation. As long as this remains a risk, the commercial surrogacy industry puts some of the poorest and most vulnerable women at risk of serious mental and physical harm – we must not let the success of one couple’s surrogacy experience legitimise this. 

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