Taking surrogacy seriously in the Arab world
In 2013, a young Egyptian widow named Taghrid sat across a small table in a television studio for an interview. What followed caused a nationwide uproar. Taghrid, whilst hiding behind a black niqab, announced that she was renting her womb to a Lebanese couple for 40,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,375). She went on to explain: “I am a widow and I have a little son. We do not have any source of income after my husband’s death. I found a married Muslim couple who have been trying for 10 years without success.”
What Taghrid did is known as surrogacy, a method of assisted reproduction where the intended parents agree with a woman, or surrogate, to carry their baby for them until birth. The process is carried out in a lab at a fertility clinic. Through in vitro fertilization (IVF), the egg of the intended mother is fertilized using the sperm of the intended father and then placed inside the surrogate mother. The baby is thus fully genetically theirs. There are numerous reasons why couples resort to surrogacy, most often related to them struggling to conceive or carry a child to term.
The industry of renting wombs is surely booming, and profitable, depending on the party. On average, surrogate mothers are paid anything from $10,000 to $40,000, not including the medical costs of the procedure and other benefits, which can raise the costs up to $100,000. Many fertility clinics and surrogacy organizations profit greatly from these procedures. Underground and illegal arrangements also exploit poor and illiterate women in an unregulated and unprotected environment.
Despite the growing social acceptance of surrogacy, which has been normalized by international celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Elton John, the practice is still prohibited in most countries. For instance, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal prohibit surrogacy in all its forms. The UK, Ireland and Denmark allow the procedure under strict conditions, and not for commercial purposes. The rules are, however, more flexible in countries like the US, India, Thailand and Russia.
The subject of surrogacy is still a matter of fierce public debate, and for good reason. An article published by the Guardian reported many cases of abuse and exploitation. The stories, some heartbreaking and others down right nonsensical, included a Japanese billionaire who ordered 16 children from different Thai clinics. A Google search is enough to find many cases that went awry, including surrogates who refused to hand over the baby or parents that refused to accept a disabled child, even forcing the surrogate to abort. However, the most appalling is the case of the baby factory in China, where mothers were kept in unhygienic and poor living conditions until they gave birth.
Despite the growing social acceptance of surrogacy, the practice is still prohibited in most countries
Asma I. Abdulmalik
Surrogacy comes with complications and controversies. The growing number of scandals as a result of unregulated and exploitative practices has led countries like India to propose measures to ban commercial surrogacy, with only a few “altruistic” exceptions. Sweden took a firm stand against the practice and banned it altogether, as well as taking measures to ban its citizens from going to clinics abroad.
Closer to home, surrogacy has garnered little debate, as the region has been very clear on its stance. It is considered unanimously forbidden in Islam and thus Arab countries do not allow it. Muslim scholars and clerics view surrogacy as akin to “zina” or adultery, since the surrogate is carrying the baby of someone who is not her husband. As such, the child that is born is considered illegitimate and the process itself is deemed un-Islamic.
In 2001, the Egyptian parliament introduced a law criminalizing surrogacy and making it punishable with a five-year jail sentence. Just last month, the Federal National Council of the UAE passed a draft law that would ban surrogacy, in addition to egg and sperm donation. Those who violate the law can face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 1 million dirhams ($272,000).
Several secular opinions have, however, supported the practice as a method to help married couples who cannot get pregnant on their own or through fertility treatments. According to an article by Tawfique Al-Mubarak titled “Surrogacy and Islam: Between Permissibility and Prohibition,” proponents of surrogacy “consider it permissible on the analogy of ‘wet-nursing’ in Islam. As the foster mother who breastfed the baby and provides nutrition through it, similarly in surrogacy, the surrogate mother nourishes the baby.”
The commercialization of human life has made it easy for those with the means to exploit surrogacy. However, banning it altogether would be difficult to implement considering how the practice is both thriving and lucrative. People will always find loopholes and ways around it, which will ultimately create a black market. With increasing cases of infertility challenges among couples, is it perhaps time to start seriously talking about surrogacy in the Arab world?
• Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik