When couples or single people who wish to have children are not in a position to bear a child themselves, surrogacy can offer a solution. In the Netherlands, commercial surrogacy is forbidden, and only women who do not have a (functioning) uterus, or for whom a pregnancy could be life-threatening, are eligible. There is no provision for gay male couples who desire to have their own biological children. They have to go abroad to pursue the surrogacy route.
Even if it were also permitted for men to use a “womb for rent”, there are other legal problems in the way. In the Netherlands, it is possible for surrogacy to come about as a result of insemination, where the surrogate mother becomes pregnant with her own egg and the sperm of the intended parent. This is not a popular option, as the surrogate mother then has to hand over her own biological child, and it does not happen often. A second, more common possibility, is impregnation with an embryo made from the genetic material of the intended parents. It is not permitted to impregnate a surrogate mother using an embryo made from a donated egg cell. For couples consisting of two men, who do not have their own egg cell, it is impossible to have a child legally in the Netherlands with the assistance of a surrogate mother.
There is an increasing call in the Netherlands to relax these rules. According to those who object, the exclusion of gay men from surrogacy arrangements forces them to go abroad, and that is discrimination. “Nonsense,” says Gary Powell, who is himself gay and a champion of equal rights for the LGBT community. “There is no universal right to be a parent, and it cannot be a universal LGBT right to have children via a surrogate mother. Surrogacy simply reduces women and children to a means to a desired end product.”
The universal right to a child does not exist. Yet I believe that a climate has arisen where anyone who expresses this view is called a “homophobe”.
You are fighting for equal rights for the LGBT community. Doesn’t that also mean the right to a child for male gay couples?
“I myself grew up in a time when homophobia and discrimination against gay and lesbian people were commonplace. I have repeatedly been a victim of discrimination because of my sexual orientation. When I first had a relationship with a man, at the age of eighteen, his mother reported us to the police, because what we were doing was illegal. All of this encouraged me to make a commitment in my life to the fight for equal rights. I share all this because I believe it gives me the right to speak critically about the modern gay rights movement, or as it is now called, the LGBT rights movement. There is a lot in the modern LGBT rights movement that I don’t agree with. A climate prevails of, “If it’s gay, it’s ok.” People act as though it is an LGBT right to be able to have a child. I do not believe that such a right exists. Not for gay people, but also not for other couples. The universal right to have a child does not exist. It seems to me that an atmosphere has developed where anyone who expresses a contrary view such as this is put down as a homophobe. Even though I am gay and have advocated for gay rights for years, I am often called homophobic because of my opinion. But I stand by my point: it cannot be a universal LGBT right to have children via a surrogate mother.”
But why are you so strongly opposed to the use of surrogate mothers?
“A large surrogacy tourism industry has developed where rich people pay poor women to carry their children for them. Surrogacy creates victims left, right and centre, and few people worry about it, or know anything about it at all. It exploits women: the term “womb for rent” is current and is also accurate. They often have to sign a very intrusive contract in which the intended parents want to enforce control over the lifestyle of the woman. Even worse, there is the stipulation that an abortion should take place in the case of any foetal abnormality. Women in a financially vulnerable situation will often choose to sign such a contract, even if they do not support it. If that happens, no-one can force a woman to have an abortion, of course, but the fear of not getting paid can put enough pressure on her to submit to a procedure like this. Women who do refuse can end up not only without payment, but also with a child they had not reckoned on.”
You are not very positive about the world of commercial surrogacy tourism. How do you view altruistic surrogacy?
“I honestly do not believe it exists. It remains a moral minefield. In the United Kingdom, these so-called “altruistic” surrogate mothers can receive an allowance for reasonable expenses. Yet there is no definition of what is “reasonable”, and I have heard people talk about amounts as high as £15,000. There are a lot of people who earn less than that amount in a period of nine months, and I think that even that sum can be regarded as a salary. So it’s commercial. And even in genuine situations where family members want to help one another, for example a sister who wants to support her brother and his partner, there is the possibility of emotional duress. It might be that she does not dare to say no, or that it starts out as a nice idea, but that she comes to think differently afterwards. And then I have not even mentioned the physical dangers that a surrogate mother runs. Being pregnant with her own child is not without risks to a woman, let alone being pregnant with a child who is not genetically related to her. But what I actually find worst of all are the consequences to the children. Babies being snatched away from the women who have brought them into the world, as soon as they arrive in the world. In my view, the trauma that results from this should not be overlooked.”
If all of this is true, how is it possible that surrogacy, commercial or altruistic, is permitted in so many countries?
“Intended parents, and particularly gay men, have great influence with the lobby for this legislation. Everyone can understand what it is like to want to have a child, and politicians are jumping on the bandwagon of this popular sympathy. To a great extent I think it has to do with what we in Britain call the “Pink Pound”. Households that enjoy two male incomes often have a lot of money to spend, so surrogacy agencies are only too happy to respond to this desire to have children.”
Of course, I also understand that adopting or fostering will not be enough for some, and that they will continue to long for their own biological child. But if meeting this need can only happen at the expense and well-being of women and children, then I think that is too great a price to pay.
Is there then no way to fulfil this desire to have children?
“Not via the surrogacy route, as far as I am concerned. I believe there are various ways that the desire to have a parenting role can be expressed. People can take foster children into their home or opt for adoption. Of course, I also understand that this will not be enough for some people, and that they will continue to long for their own genetic child. But if what they are missing can only be provided at the expense of the health and well-being of women and children, then I think it is too great a price to pay. We sometimes simply cannot have what we want. The fact that we want something does not mean that we can always get it. It might be a bitter pill to swallow, but that’s the way life is. Everyone experiences insufficiencies and disadvantages in life. It is very natural that we try to get our needs met, but when this is at the expense of other people, we need to take a step back.”
Gary Powell is a longstanding advocate for equal rights for the LGBT community and serves on Aylesbury Vale District Council.