This is part of a series of articles about surrogacy in China. The first article can be found here.
In 2011, I undertook an investigation into China’s surrogacy industry. The average starting price for children born by surrogate mothers hovered around 300,000 yuan (about $44,000). A guaranteed baby boy cost 600,000 yuan, and the cost of using an overseas surrogate mother in the United States came in at 1 million yuan. Successful surrogate mothers at that time stood to earn anywhere between 120,000 and 160,000 yuan in payment. By 2014, I learned that the industry starting price had risen to 600,000 yuan. More recently, some surrogate mothers have been taking home around 200,000 yuan for their services.
Over the last few years, the Chinese government has come under increased pressure to legalize surrogacy. Doing so would provide much-needed regulation to the industry: The costs of surrogacy have increased dramatically over the years, while the amount paid to surrogate mothers has not risen at the same rate.
As demand for legalization grows, the industry will be forced to address the issue of exploitation in the employment of surrogate mothers. Once the surrogacy process is fully legalized, the influx of women into the industry will raise the minimum standards required to become a surrogate. Attributes such as educational background, height, and appearance will be taken into consideration; women who are disadvantaged in these areas may, in turn, lose out on job opportunities.
During my investigation, I posed as a potential surrogate mother in the city of Wuhan, in central China’s Hubei province. An average company in the industry employed around 10 surrogate mothers, some of whom started out as factory workers in southern China’s Pearl River Delta region with little education or hope of earning a viable income. For many of these women, becoming a surrogate mother was a respectable means of earning a living.
In the course of my undercover research, I came across a 22-year-old woman from rural Shanxi province in northern China whom I shall call Xiao Mei for confidentiality purposes. She was a simple village girl of average height, with dark skin and honest-looking rosy cheeks. From her appearance, I would have guessed that she was a middle school student; little did I know that she already had a 3-year-old daughter of her own. Xiao Mei was raised by her grandmother until the age of 6, after losing her mother in childbirth and her father when she was 3.
Having never attended school beyond third grade, at 17 years old Xiao Mei was married off by her adoptive father to an abusive husband. Later, her fellow villagers took her to find work in Wuhan. For women of her background, this type of labor fell into two categories: sex work or surrogacy. With the latter, pending a successful insemination and a healthy pregnancy, women could make up to 130,000 yuan in less than a year — an amount that would take 10 years to earn through factory work, for example.
“So many women are already doing this, not just me,” Xiao Mei once told me. Her demeanor radiated enthusiasm despite the exploitative nature of the work, as if to prove to me that she earned her money virtuously. Certainly, as an alternative to socially stigmatized sex work, surrogacy allows women not only to feed themselves, but also to feed their families.
Surrogacy still exists in a gray area in China. If the fetus is aborted or there are complications during pregnancy, and the surrogate mother is considered responsible for what has happened, not only will she not be paid, she may also be held liable for the family’s losses. Contracts signed between surrogate mothers and third-party companies often operate on such a basis. Problems during labor and even death during childbirth are, of course, potential risks that every surrogate mother faces, not to mention that the process of harvesting and implanting eggs is often fraught with difficulty, with many surrogates having to carry multiple fertilized eggs simultaneously in order to ensure a successful pregnancy.
At the crux of the legalization debate is whether all of the risk associated with surrogacy will disappear once proper laws are put into place. In addition, will legalization truly diminish the exploitation of women’s bodies by third-party companies? But equally, what happens if increased regulation excludes China’s most desperate young women from choosing surrogacy? Will this mean that those who do not fit the criteria for surrogacy work could turn to the sex industry?
Some analysts state that the legalization of surrogacy may be one of China’s more realistic solutions to the decline of population growth. However, this view ignores the fact that legalizing surrogacy will not necessarily make couples choose to have children. This is a complex and personal decision dependent on a host of factors.
China’s social welfare shortfall definitely affects whether women choose to have children. Sexologist and sociologist Li Yinhe believes that instead of talking about surrogacy, we should first allow single women to have children outside of marriage. Chinese law currently does not permit unmarried women to register births. Such an initiative would allow all women, regardless of marital status, to fulfill their own individual desires to reproduce.
More broadly, policy debates on surrogacy touch both upon the prevailing politics of human-assisted reproductive technology and upon Chinese gender politics. In my opinion, regardless of whether surrogacy is legalized, the debate should not be allowed to cloud women’s actual reproductive rights. Ignoring the legal question for a moment, the fact remains that Chinese women must be given the power to choose what they do with their bodies.
Respecting choice ensures that Chinese women who are willing and able to reproduce, who don’t want to go through pregnancy, or who wish to engage in surrogacy for other reasons can do so in a safe, relaxed, and supportive environment. Addressing this main issue may help to alleviate China’s reproduction problems and, in turn, go some way toward solving the country’s population crisis.
(Header image: A newborn baby is weighed at a hospital in Zibo, Shandong province, Oct. 16, 2013. VCG)