Last week, as I read Michael Robotham’s dark and gripping thriller The Night Ferry, another scandal came to light that made me wonder whether crime writers can ever hope keep pace with reality when it comes to the murky world of overseas commercial surrogacy.
In The Night Ferry, an orphaned Afghan asylum seeker is given a choice between prostitution and surrogacy as a means of repaying her debt to the human traffickers who have brought her to Amsterdam. The young girl, Samira, a virgin and devout Muslim, chooses surrogacy; and in what is referred to as a ‘ritualised form of medical rape’, she is implanted with two embryos belonging to a couple in the UK.
The surrogacy is brokered by a charitable organisation, run by Julian Shawcroft, who believes he is ‘saving’ babies by facilitating their adoption, even if it involves cutting corners, breaking the law, and money changing hands. Meanwhile, the genetic mother of the embryos, Cate, is faking a pregnancy in preparation for the handover of the newborn. But she’s pretending to have one baby and Samira, the Afghan surrogate, is pregnant with twins. When Cate and her husband are killed in a hit and run, Cate’s friend, Detective Constable Alisha Barba, sets out on a mission to understand why Cate died and to find her child(ren).
Just when I was wondering about the plausibility of the plotline, news broke that an Australian couple, who used a surrogate in India to bear them healthy twins in 2012, had refused to take both babies home on the basis of gender preference. According to the ABC current affairs program Lateline, Australian consular officials in New Delhi alleged ‘the baby [boy] was passed to another family and that a sum of money changed hands’; they also alleged that a senior Australian federal politician intervened on the couple’s behalf to allow them to return with only one twin.
Not for the first time in the course of conducting my research into commercial surrogacy, I experienced shock at the lengths people will go to not only to have a child, but to have the child they want – lengths to match, if not exceed those imagined by crime writers like Robotham.
Cases such as this latest (which I’ll call ‘Baby Y’) and that of baby Gammy strengthen calls for a national inquiry into overseas commercial surrogacy with a view to greater regulation. For when a baby can be abandoned with the alleged collusion of a federal parliamentarian, possibly even sold; and when a convicted child sex offender can bring a newborn baby girl home from Thailand and leave a disabled child behind, what little regulation does exist in Australia seems woefully inadequate.
But regulation alone is unlikely to prevent abuses. Some states in Australia already have laws in place criminalising engagement in overseas commercial surrogacy. Yet, despite an increase in the number of babies born to Australians through overseas surrogacy in recent years, according to a recent Four Corners report, not a single prosecution has taken place. No doubt authorities in Australia, much like the characters in Robotham’s novel, are reluctant to initiate legal proceedings where they risk having to separate children from parents to whom they are genetically related, because they were born through illegal means. Not surprisingly, research shows the current laws do not deter Australians from seeking overseas commercial surrogacy services.
The issue seems to be not what legal protections are in place, but the lengths people will go to in order to get around them.
In The Night Ferry, DC Alisha Barba struggles to come to terms with how her late friend Cate, someone she knew and loved, might have knowingly participated in something as abhorrent as forced pregnancy and child trafficking:
It sounds preposterous but I’m still trying to justify Cate’s actions, trying to conjure up a friendship from the afterlife. She was an inept thief, a childless wife and a foolish dreamer. I don’t want to think about her any more. She has spoiled her own memory.
The other effect of cases like Baby Y and baby Gammy is that they stretch empathy for the plight of ‘intending parents’ to breaking point. While I genuinely feel for childless couples (and singles) who long have a baby, it hasn’t escaped my notice that in neither of the abandoned twin cases was surrogacy the solution to childlessness: the father of baby Gammy and his twin sister has grown up children from a previous marriage, the other couple said to have rejected the male twin because they already had a son.
The more I read, the more overseas commercial surrogacy looks less like a ‘pathway to parenthood’ for childless couples, and more like a marketplace where human beings are made to order and rejected if they fail to meet consumer satisfaction — if not what one of Robotham’s characters refers to as a ‘Goebbels-like fairy tale’.
It strikes me that among the questions that need to be addressed as part of a national inquiry is whether, as the Shawcroft character in Robotham’s novel believes, the ends justifies the means. Or whether, with each new scandal, the price we pay as a society for overseas commercial surrogacy becomes simply too high to justify the benefits for a select few.
The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham (2007) is published by Sphere.