New take on a global debate

Waikato University research has introduced a new dimension to the ongoing global debate about surrogate motherhood.

Dr Liezl van Zyl and Dr Ruth Walker have undertaken research on surrogacy or what is now often called, ‘contract motherhood’.

Their argument, to be published in the leading journal Bioethics, is that surrogate motherhood should be treated as a profession, much like nursing, teaching and social work. As such, surrogate mothers should be adequately compensated, bound by a professional code and protected by government regulation.

Dr van Zyl, a senior lecturer in philosophy, began looking at surrogacy in the 1990s when it was very new. Decades on, the multifaceted issues around surrogacy continue to generate heated debate.

"The focus of my earlier work was on the moral acceptability of surrogate motherhood and the question of who should be considered the ‘real’ parents of the child," Dr van Zyl says.

"But the debate has moved on. Most countries now allow a form of surrogacy, but there is wide disagreement over the form it should take."

Dr van Zyl said the debate appears trapped between two very different models – that of altruism on one side and commercial surrogacy on the other. She considers there are problems with both models.

She and Dr Walker, an expert in professional ethics, argue that a purely commercial relationship, such as the model practiced in India, is often exploitative and could also endanger the child.

They also argue that the altruistic model, in which no payment is involved, undervalues the effort needed to conceive, carry and deliver a baby, and also leaves the surrogate vulnerable to exploitation.

"We propose a third alternative, a professional model, in which contract mothers are motivated by altruism but still receive fair compensation for their labour."