Surrogacy & The Night Ferry: Life imitating crime fiction

Night_070531123240552_wideweb__300x462Last 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.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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19 Responses to Surrogacy & The Night Ferry: Life imitating crime fiction

  1. This is a powerful and eloquent post, Angela. In my opinion, we need a frank, international discussion on some of these issues. As you know from your own reading and research, the issues are complicated, and as you say, too often lead to a thinly disguised ‘human marketplace.’ This is tragic for those caught up in it. We need to first admit what is going on world wide, and then find ways to respond to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for your comment, Margot. I agree that discussion is needed. But the issue is so polarising, it’s hard to know how to even begin framing the questions. In Australia, there are those who say legalising commercial surrogacy here is the way to reduce demand for overseas commercial surrogacy. Others point to the USA, where commercial surrogacy is legal in many states, and say it doesn’t stop people from turning to cheaper markets overseas. As you point out, even using the term ‘markets’ when we are talking about human reproduction feels wrong.

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  2. FictionFan says:

    I’m afraid whenever money enters the equation morality seems to be the loser. And unfortunately I can’t see a time coming any time soon when there isn’t a huge pool of people living in dire poverty and open to exploitation of all kinds. And I must say I ceased to be convinced that genetic parents are always the best for a child after working with what we euphemistically termed ‘boys with behavioural difficulties’ – children who almost invariably were the severely damaged product of appalling and often cruel parenting, but whom the state still deemed were better off with their genetic parents than with adoptive ones. No matter what words governments use, the parents are still favoured over the child.

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    • angelasavage says:

      You make a good point, FF, about genetic parenting — and how we seldom question what is taken for granted, i.e. that children are always better off with their genetic parents. I think well-functioning (dare I say, happy) blended families and adoptive families suggest otherwise. By no means every family member or friend I know experiences ‘genetic bewilderment’ and a burning desire to meet their genetic parents; it’s probably about 50-50. Yet Australia has a terrible legacy of forced separations: of Indigenous children from their families, and of single mothers from their babies. I think the pendulum has swung to the other extreme largely as a result.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi, Angela.
    Interesting and timely post.
    I am personally opposed to commercial surrogacy and would not take that route to extend my family, even though my own baby yearning is still very strong at times.
    But in debating the pros and cons of commercial surrogacy, I don’t think a line should be drawn between those who don’t or already do have children. Every child is an individual person. They don’t replace each other. And the yearning for that individual child, or grief that they will never come to you, is just as strong each time.

    Anyway, I am looking forward to reading your novel when you eventually publish it. I’ll be interested to see what you make of this complex area in fiction.

    Regards

    Liked by 1 person

    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for these comments. They are a good reminder not to ‘universalise’ my own experience (i.e. being the contented mother of one). You quite rightly point out that having one child doesn’t lessen the yearning for (nor the loss of) another. Where it gets tricky is when one person’s baby yearning is seen as another person’s sense of entitlement. Academic and social commentators on surrogacy will often say having a child is not a human right. I keep pointing out that most people who desperately want to have children don’t use the language of rights. They use the language of emotion: desire, longing, grief, hope.

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      • Anonymous says:

        Which brings me to the main reason I can’t easily oppose commercial surrogacy altogether. Namely that it’s probably the only viable option for many gay men who want to have children. I know some make parenting arrangements with lesbian couples or straight women, but co-parenting between couples can be a pretty complicated situation and bring its own issues. And I do think that anyone who would be a fit and loving parent should not be prevented from having a child by virtue of their sexuality.

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        • angelasavage says:

          One of the characters in my work in progress struggles with exactly the same issue, i.e. surrogacy as one of the few pathways to parenthood for gay men. I’m also in favour of removing obstacles for gay men who want to have children, including making adoption easier. I still have questions about why we lionise/invest in genetic over social parenting (see comments above from FictionFan & in response), which apply regardless of whether the parents are gay or straight.

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          • Anonymous says:

            Hi, Angela.
            There’s an interesting article on page 9 of today’s “Sunday Age” titled “Rainbow parents call for adoption rights”. Unfortunately, I can’t find a link to it online. It’s not exactly on point for this blog post (ie. commercial surrogacy) but does relate to the wider parenting issues raised here. I thought it might be interesting to you and your readers.
            Regards.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. What an amazing post, Angela. I’m pulled in all sorts of directions by the issues you raise. And Robotham’s book sounds on the edge and so out there that it’s plausible (you know what I mean). It’s a brilliantly complex subject and I hope to hear more about it.

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    • angelasavage says:

      You and me both, Kirsten – pulled in all sorts of directions, that is. Just when I think I’ve got a line on overseas commercial surrogacy, something like Baby Y happens to raise a whole suite of new questions. It helps to write these reflective posts, so chances are you will hear more about it!

      Like

    • angelasavage says:

      Incidentally, Michael said (in response to this post): “I often feel that my task as a novelist is to tone down the truth because it is too unbelievable for fiction. Then life comes and proves me wrong.” Spot on!

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  5. kathy d. says:

    I can’t even begin to respond on this very fraught issue. In the U.S., sometimes surrogacy arrangements work out; sometimes not. Laws vary in different states. I do not think it’s legal in mine, New York. If money is changing hands in exchange for a baby, it’s really commodifying the baby — and with conditions, for a healthy baby, etc. It is also very much based on finances — those who have funds hire those who need them.
    I remember a New York Times magazine article about a very wealthy and entitled woman who hired a woman whose house was run down and who needed money for her daughter’s education.
    The woman who contracted the other one’s “labor” didn’t even introduce her to other people at appointments. She was nameless, just a vehicle for producing something the other woman wanted.
    I think I agree with Keshwar Desai, whose premise in “Origins of Love,” about the surrogacy industry in India, is that there are millions of homeless, parentless children in India who need families. Before people create more children, adopt those who exist and need parents.
    (And by the way, women in India give up their legal rights while they stay in facilities while they’re pregnant where every aspect of their lives are controlled.)
    And, hmmm, about gay men, there are some states where they can adopt. And sometimes they adopt children who are in foster care. I’ve read a lot of articles about these adoptions.
    But there are so many horror stories about surrogacy-gone-wrong here I don’t even want to think about it.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for your comments, Kathy. I agree that this is a fraught area, which is why I find it so alluring as a fiction writer.

      I know that infertile couples hate nothing more than to be asked, ‘Why don’t you adopt?’ after years of failed IVF attempts. I guess sometimes they are exhausted at the thought. I also suspect their expectations of genetic progeny via IVF have been raised too high to be rolled back.

      I totally understand the desire to be a parent, though I don’t fully understand why, for some (most?) people, that desire is inseparable from the drive to genetically reproduce. All part of humankind’s glorious diversity, I guess.

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  6. kathy d. says:

    I have relatives who tried hard to have a second child, resorting to hormones and IVF, which didn’t work.
    I know biologically reproducing is a drive that many people want to fulfill.
    But one thing I have read is that most men want to have their own biological children, whereas most women are motivated by wanting to have children, a baby, and are much more willing to adopt if they have biological children.
    With surrogacy, the people doing the contracting can use their own sperm and eggs, or if the woman is older, the man’s sperm and a donor egg can be used.
    So many cultures and communities take care of children who’ve been orphaned or abandoned, if they can.
    My main worry right now is Ebola and the number of people dying in West Africa. A note in this is that so many children have been orphaned. It’s heart-breaking. And it’s about poverty, woefully inadequate resources and health care systems, lack of health care workers.
    The U.N. just said that 19,000 doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians are urgently needed. I hope countries step up to the plate. And donors do, too. Sadly, people aren’t donating as much as to prior catastrophes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Kathy, I know equally of cases where the woman wants her biological child or nothing and the man has been the instigator of adoption. No hard and fast rules seem to apply in the minefield that is assisted reproduction.

      I share you concerns about Ebola and the situation in West Africa. Our own government’s response has been abysmal. I’m encouraging everyone I know to sign this petition calling on the Australian government to do more: https://www.oxfam.org.au/my/act/pm-abbott-act-now-on-ebola/

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  7. A great post, thanks Angela. The more we discuss complex issues like this one, the better the chances of the government taking notice and making changes for the better. I read recently that the federal government was looking into establishing an agency to help Australian families negotiate the process of overseas surrogacy. This has to be a step in the right direction.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for your comments, Catherine. We definitely need a national discussion on assisted reproduction. I would love to see it incorporate what I’ve heard called ‘reproductive justice’, where we not only talk about the reproductive health needs of Australians, but also how Australia could contribute to improving maternal and child health more broadly, especially in our region.

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  8. kathy d. says:

    Over here the term “reproductive justice,” is used by the pro-choice, pro-women’s health care movement, and pro-jobs and social services advocates. It goes beyond “pro-choice,” and carries with it not only the right to all reproductive health services, but the right to jobs, housing, education, health care, nutritious food — and all that women need to have and raise healthy children. Millions of women live in states in which governments have not expanded Medicaid, the government’s health coverage program for lower-income individuals and families. This is a disaster for so many women who earn low wages and are raising children — and do not have health coverage.
    I think if there is a system that regulates surrogacy at home or abroad that the rights of the women who are bearing the children, as well as the children’s rights must be protected.
    The “surrogate” takes the health risks in the process, and often, as depicted by Kishwar Desai,
    gives up legal and civil rights.
    While prospective adoptive parents go through a gamut of requirements and background checks and need character and employer references, prospective contractors for surrogacy usually don’t have to do that. And there have been some disasters for children born out of surrogacy arrangements, even in the States, in addition to the one you mentioned..

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