In April 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic when part of the world was in a state of lockdown and many States had imposed bans on the free movement of people, the Ukrainian surrogacy clinic BioTexCom uploaded a videoFootnote 1 showing about 40 babies crammed in the cradles of the Hotel Venezia in Kiev, waiting to be picked up by their parents from different areas of the world. The clinic invited its clients to contact their respective States of citizenship to ask the Ukrainian Government for special permits to enter the country and take their children home. Meanwhile, the video reassured that the children were in good hands: thanks to the work of nannies and paediatricians, they were all growing well, fed and washed, and their health was constantly monitored. The case was covered in the major international media and the images of the cradles next to each other in the hotel lounge went around the world, putting the spotlight on the growing phenomenon of transnational surrogacy, its organization, and what can go wrong.

Ukraine, starting from 2015 following restrictions introduced by Asian countries, such as India which until then was a leader in low-cost surrogacy, has established itself as one of the most popular destinations for would-be parents from mainly Western Europe. In Ukraine, commercial surrogacy is legal for heterosexual married couples with proven medical conditions that do not allow the woman to carry out a full-term pregnancy (Lance & Merchant, 2016). It is not known how many children are born from surrogacy each year in Ukraine or in the world, and how many have been in the same condition as the 40 shown in the video.

The children stuck in Hotel Venezia provoked reactions of concern both in the country and abroad (Guseva, 2020). These are the words of the Ukrainian Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, the: “Commercialization and permission to receive such a ‘service’ in Ukraine promote the uncontrolled sale of Ukrainian children abroad. The situation with babies in a hotel, which has become public, once again shows the lack of rights of children born to surrogate mothers. The birth of a child far from the mother is unnatural. In this way, Ukraine simply becomes an international online store for babies. And we don’t know the real number of such children that Ukraine ‘supplies’ in this way”.Footnote 2

The Byzantine and Catholic bishops of Ukraine signed a joint appeal against surrogacy, considering it “a double crime against the dignity of women and against children who are trafficked”, as well as “a demonstration of contempt for the dignity of the human person”.Footnote 3

Ukraine’s Democracy Development Centre launched a petition for a total ban on all forms of surrogacy in the country.Footnote 4 The same request was contained in the appeal received on June 3 by the International Coalition for the Abolition of Surrogate Motherhood (ICASM). The coalition, founded in 2015 from the initiative of a group of French feminists, asked the President of Ukraine to shut down all forms of “procreative tourism” as well as ban all forms of “trade in women and children”.Footnote 5 The letter was signed by as many as 200 women’s associations, some already engaged on the issue, others in other women’s issues, for the most part operating in Europe, and some based in Canada, the United States, Argentina, and Japan.

The case has had a significant echo in Italy, since Ukraine is one of the favourite countries of Italian couples (Long, 2017). On May 7, a network of Italian feminists wrote to the Italian Ambassador in Kiev: reminding him that surrogacy is prohibited in Italy, the network asked him to collect information on BioTexCom, to report the names of the Italian clients to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking that no special permission be granted as an exception to the lockdown. The network also proposed that the children be entrusted either to the “mothers who brought them into the world”, families willing to take care of them or that they be declared as adoptable. This same request was also shared by some pro-life organizations.

The Kiev case showed with the force of images and the impetuousness of an unforeseen event the vulnerability of the three protagonists of this procreative process, located in different places, linked by contractual relationships and constraints, and dependent on the functioning of a complex system made up of infrastructures (airplanes, hospitals), bureaucracies, and economic availability. Delegating the pregnancy creates a situation in which for 9 months an entity, whose status of subjectivity is widely debated, is—by the will of one or two of the suppliers of the gametes with which it was formed—, in the body of a woman who is neither her biological mother nor will be her social mother: during this time, the child’s development depends on that woman and medical assistance. At the time of birth, a passage is foreseen to the subjects who in this process have put in place the desire and intention of a child, money, and a part of genetic heritage, but who could not contribute directly in those 9 months to its well-being, growth, and protection.

The Kiev case also showed the parents’ apprehension at not being able to immediately reach the newborns who have the same genetic heritage, which they desired so much, but who according to the law are not yet their children. Furthermore, the difficulties in which surrogates can be found were also revealed: in an article published by the Open Society,Footnote 6 it was reported that some of the surrogates were asked to take care of the newborns, others were simply held in Kiev, apart from their children and their families, paid only in part for the surrogacy service performed and with the promise of the rest when the parents arrived. In this last article, the approach to the issue is markedly different from the appeals listed above proposed by those who would like a full prohibition of surrogacy in the world: reflecting the reformist or regulatory position proposed by various subjects of international civil society, the article underlines the need for States to regulate the activities of the various subjects operating in the sector more effectively, and to establish the rights and responsibilities of the women, who are often not sufficiently protected by the agencies which hires them. Finally, the Kiev case also revealed the inadequacy of the protections, the inhomogeneity of the legislative frameworks, and the hypocrisy of states that prohibit the practice within national borders without however discouraging the use of its citizens to practice abroad or without engaging in a decisive way for a ban, or its regulation, on a universal scale.

This was not the first time that a scandal had put the spotlight on the transnational system of surrogacy by showing its criticalities (Saravanan, 2018; Whittaker, 2016). In 2014, there was the case of Baby Gammy: a Thai surrogate gave birth to twins, one of whom had Down syndrome. The Australian intended parents requested the abortion of the sick foetus but the surrogate decided to continue with the pregnancy. The parents returned to Australia taking only the healthy baby with them, while Baby Gammy remained with the surrogate who also filed a lawsuit for custody of the other twin. It was then discovered that the intended father had previously been convicted of sexual abuse. The twins remained divided. In the same year, there was the scandal of a Japanese man who had commissioned 16 children in Thailand through a dozen surrogates. Twelve of these children were placed in social services and the others remained with the surrogates. The following year, in 2015, after the earthquake that hit Nepal, there was the Israeli Government’s attempt to rescue about 20 babies for Israeli same-sex couples, leaving behind other children and pregnant women (Shalev et al., 2017). The surrogates were transferred to Nepal from India, since the Indian Government had recently banned surrogacy for same-sex couples. In both Thailand and Nepal, after these scandals, surrogacy was prohibited.

These are among the most discussed cases in current specialized literature, as well as those that have obtained the most media coverage, but it would be incorrect to think that beyond these exceptional events, surrogacy takes place without any complications and contributes to creating only happy-ever-after stories. This would be an evaluation induced by commercial communication (Deonandan et al., 2012; Hawkins, 2013) which, privileging emotional messages, presents surrogacy as a safe and controlled medical-technical process, in which the intended parents receive high quality services, legal and logistic assistance, the women are carefully selected and freely choose to act as surrogates, they carry out the pregnancy with professionalism (i.e. with the right detachment combined with the care in adopting all the behaviours necessary to raise a healthy foetus).

There is a substantial amount of scientific literature and testimonies collected by associations committed on both the abolitionist and reformist fronts, which document the risks to which all the subjects involved (children, surrogates, intentional parents, and egg suppliers) are exposed (Darnovsky & Beeson, 2014; Corradi, 2019; Klein, 2018; SAMA, 2012; Saravanan, 2018). There are various risks: health, psychological, legal, and financial. Furthermore, this literature documents the existence of realities that deviate from the reassuring and inviting representations that circulate in the fertility industry and sometimes in the media: pregnancy by surrogacy involves a greater incidence of a series of negative impacts on women’s health and the child that I will discuss in Chap. 3; surrogates (and sometimes their families) make a huge physical and emotional sacrifice; the whole process involves great psychological stress for the intended parents, as well as significant costs; it is possible to create expectations of reciprocity that go beyond the contracts and establish unprecedented emotional ties; the relations between surrogate and clients are marked by a strong imbalance regarding the social class and the possibility of asserting claims in the event of any disputes.

As with any complex social phenomenon, especially for emerging ones, different representations are produced by different subjects, stakeholders or not, in which one or another aspect of reality is emphasized, coherently with values and world views, for the purpose of the communicator. Sociology is not immune from this mechanism, as thought is never divorced from the values of its thinker (Weber, 1949). However, unlike the communicator and the activist, the sociologist is not allowed to deny a part of what is real to achieve a goal. In the Kiev case, the lockdown extended the time between birth and the delivery of the newborn to the parents, and therefore revealed in slow-motion, the unavoidable aspect of any surrogacy: the passage of a newborn from one contracting party to another, or from the parturient to the intended parents. This aspect is real and exists regardless of the consideration that can be had of this aspect. Just as it is undeniable that the two subjects are contractors, regardless of the lexical preferences.

I have chosen to open this book with the Kiev case to give the reader who is approaching the subject for the first time a series of introductory flashes on various critical aspects of surrogacy as well as on the different, and sometimes irreconcilable, perspectives proposed by social movements and policy makers. For a few weeks, the Kiev case took on the characteristics of a decisive battle for the social movements already committed to the issue: not only did it constitute an international stage for their requests for abolition, but it was also the field in which a precedent that would have indirectly laid the foundations for the legitimation of surrogacy by those States where the practice is still illegal. In the requests of the Italian abolitionists, it is also possible to see that, at the cost of obtaining this result, the supreme interest of the child and his right to a family with his biological parents is overshadowed: at the cost of not favouring a tacit legitimacy of the practice, it was recommended to give the children up for adoption (as a second option in case the surrogates are not available to take care of them) and to prevent custody to the biological or intended parents, responsible for having commissioned a child abroad through a practice which is illegal in their country.

From the approach of these requests, a fundamental knot of the debate on surrogacy emerges: Is the surrogate to be considered the mother of the child despite the fact that she has no genetic link with himFootnote 7 and that she has kept him in her womb and gave birth, not to raise him, but exclusively to receive an economic incentive and give a child to those who wanted and commissioned it? The principle of mater semper certa est, for which mother is the one who gives birth, is defended by the abolitionists, although these women from the beginning of pregnancy learn strategies of detachment from the foetus and in most cases have not neither the will nor the financial resources to take care of the children delivered. The principle of mater semper certa est, despite the intentions of adults, however, reflects the point of view of the newborn, who identifies as his mother the one with whom he has established a bodily and emotional bond, notwithstanding the absence of a genetic link.

As will emerge in next chapters, it is precisely the different consideration of the woman–newborn bond that marks the irreconcilability of the positions of those who want to abolish surrogacy and those who defend it and want to regulate it better. For the first, the intentional dissolution of that bond constitutes in itself an uncivil practice, a violation of human dignity and the anthropological principle according to which all human beings are born from the mother, a step backwards of the conquests of freedom of women and an expropriation of their reproductive capabilities. For the latter, that bond is malleable on individual wills, irrelevant compared to the intended parents love for the child and therefore erasable: it does not in itself represent a reason to be opposed to a practice which, however, I point out, precisely to be realized needs both to use that bond for 9 months and to sever it.

In this book, I will address this and other crucial issues of the question, giving account of the various perspectives proposed by the civil society with particular reference to the three countries, the United States, Mexico, and Italy. I have carried out research in these countries over the last 3 years, funded by the European Commission through the Marie-Sklodowska Curie Actions program,Footnote 8 aimed precisely at analysing the public debate and social mobilizations on surrogacy, and in particular the contribution that women’s movements have given this debate, also in terms of policy proposals.

The following chapter presents the theoretical and methodological structure of my study. Chapter 3 introduces the fundamental traits of the procreative process via surrogacy, its transnational market and the health risks. Chapter 4 will discuss the main themes that recur in studies on surrogacy: I will divide these themes into three levels: individual experiences, social structure, and representations. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 discuss the case studies of United States, Mexico, and Italy, respectively. I will focus on the aspects that distinguish the debate in different countries and the role of women’s movements: in the American case I will discuss the possible explanations of a low participation in the abolitionist battle of feminist and pro-life groups; in the Mexican case I will consider the reconstruction of the regulatory attempts that have taken place in the country over the last decade, and then contextualize the rift between radical/abolitionist feminism and (neo)liberal/reformist feminism. Finally, in the case of Italy, I will focus on the prevalence of the abolitionist approach within feminism, in the name of defending female identity and motherhood. At this point in Chap. 8, which contains the most theory and reflections, I will discuss the increasing relevance of the issue for feminism as well as propose a critique of the abolitionist and reformist discourses, by focusing on the macro-frames of commodification and autonomy. In this chapter, I will touch on notions of agency, self-commodification, individualism, self-determination, motherhood, empowerment, technology and dominance over nature, among others. I will argue the possibility to read the planned separation of the child from the woman at birth as a form of violence against the child. In Chap. 9, I will conclude with a few proposals to overcome the present polarization in the debate and conciliate restrictive regulations with a condemnation of surrogacy based on the supremacy of the child’s protection over the defence of the adult’s desires.