Should surrogate mothers be paid for their labour?

A Liberal MP has called for changes in the law which would allow surrogates to be compensated. While some say it's the right move to pay women for what is essentially work, others fear it could lead to exploitation of vulnerable women.
Under Canadian law, the act of carrying a baby as a surrogate is not illegal, but payment for it is. (Shutterstock)
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Is it time that we recognize labour as… labour? Or is paying women to act as surrogates a slippery slope to exploitation?

Under Canadian law, being a surrogate is not illegal, but payment for the service of surrogacy is.

Stephanie Plante, who was a surrogate for a same-sex couple in Spain, thinks women should be trusted to make decisions about their bodies, and be compensated accordingly.

"If I'm a man and I decide to go to Afghanistan and put my body in harm's way, I'm given a book tour," says Plante, "and I am given a speaker circuit, and I'm given a pension."

"There's just not that same kind of reward at the end of the day for a lot of the work women do."

On Tuesday, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather announced his plans to change the law, which was devised 30 years ago. He argued that at the time, lawmakers didn't take same-sex families or single-parent families into account.

Surrogacy is 'priceless'

Heather Jopling was a surrogate for a college friend and his husband. She thinks an exchange of money would have changed the experience. (Submitted by Heather Jopling)
Heather Jopling was at a Christmas party in 2004, when she ran into an old college friend and his husband. They told her they were hoping to have another child, and discussed surrogacy.

"By the time I was driving home from that party," Jopling says, "I told my husband I think I could have a baby for them."

"And he said: 'I think you're crazy.'"

But for Jopling, it was an easy decision.

"It was honestly a light-bulb moment for me," she says, "watching these two men with their first daughter was amazing."

"We held very similar ideas on raising kids. They were obviously great dads, and it was very, very easy for me to imagine helping them."

Her husband had previously donated sperm to a lesbian couple, friends of theirs, to have a child. The three families are still in contact, seeing each other several times a year.

Jopling believes payment would have changed her experience.

"My initial idea for the surrogacy is completely altruistic," she says.

"Money changes it from this altruistic expectation to one where you are commoditizing your progeny."

"It literally is priceless," she says.

"When I had my epidural in the hospital, I said: 'You guys could give me a million dollars, it would not be enough for this.'"

Heather Jopling describes giving away the child she carried as a surrogate. 2:24

She also fears that allowing payment could open the door to exploitation.

"We need to really be sure that that these women are making the choice on their own... not because they have to, or they have no other way to make money."

Leia Swanberg thinks a properly regulated industry would reduce this risk. She runs a surrogacy agency, and is herself an egg donor and two-time surrogate mother.

"I don't believe that it takes money or a certain economic background to be able to make an informed decision, to be able to participate in surrogacy," she says.

Leia Swanberg argues that a properly regulated industry can protect surrogates and prospective parents. (Shutterstock)

A marketplace for bodies

While some welcomed the idea to change the law, one bioethicist warned about Canada "putting the human body in the marketplace."

"We don't celebrate something like selling organs, selling bone marrow, selling skin, selling blood, selling plasma," Françoise Baylis said on CBC's Information Morning: Nova Scotia on Thursday. 

"I don't think it's part of Canadian values to say… let's encourage people to sell all their bits and pieces," added Baylis, who is a professor and Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy at Dalhousie University.

Swanberg disagrees. She believes that regulation can protect surrogates and prospective parents, but that can't happen before decriminalization.

In 2013, Swanberg was charged under the Assisted Human Reproduction Act.

She had been reimbursing surrogates for pregnancy-related expenses, but had not been collecting receipts first.

Under the law, surrogates can be reimbursed for pregnancy-related expenses, but only if they provide proof of payment.

She pleaded guilty and paid a $60,000 fine, but says she didn't realize she was breaking the law.

"Having this criminal code attached to a women's reproductive rights issue is completely out of line," she says.

"Ten years in jail for purchasing a gift for a surrogate, or up to a $500,000 dollar fine is not in line with Canadian values at all."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese, Julie Crysler and Halifax Network Producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.

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