“The Online World of Surrogacy”

Surrogacy is considered to be an assisted reproductive technology by the World Health Organization (Zegers-Hochschild et al., 2009). Nevertheless, this practice is one of the most controversial procedures in the field of assisted reproduction. What are the reasons why this procedure is at the center of a series of political and cultural battles?

There are numerous preconceptions that exist around this practice. It has been argued that surrogacy may exploit women from a more economically disadvantaged background (Blyth, 1994). For example, the women may enter into a surrogacy arrangement because of financial hardship without being fully aware of the potential risks (Brazier et.al., 1998). The media tends to report only the negative aspects of surrogacy: in where the surrogate refuses to relinquish the child (as the “Baby M” case – New Jersey Supreme Court, 1987) or in which the surrogates have changed their mind after the delivery. In sum, surrogacy is depicted and especially criticized as an exploitative practice, in which the women are not completely free and self-conscious about their decisions.

As many researchers pointed out, and as anthropologist, I suggest that it is essential: A) to consider the local context in which surrogacy takes place; B) to consider the experiences and the positions of the different subjects involved in these journeys because they can be so different in relation to various socio-cultural and economic contexts.

There are two main motivations that drove me to interview Zsuzsa Berend, sociologist of University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA):

1. We know little about the women who have chosen to take part into this pathway. Berend spent more than 10 years studying the website http://www.surromomsonline.com, analyzing the meaning and the mutual knowledge everyday constructed by the surrogates. Her book is a way to know more about their thoughts, their point of view and their experiences.

2. Berend offers some unique perspective of surrogacy in the U.S.

The Online World of Surrogacy” is the last book of Zsuzsa Berend. The title anticipates the object of her book, as well as the methodology she used for conducting research on the surrogates’ journey. Although in the last years surrogacy has become a hot topic, there are not many studies that have focused their attention on the surrogates’ lives.

My questions focused on what I’ve found important to highlight for reading the surrogates’ experiences from a scientific and a different point of view, including the contract, the gift-giving narrative, the surrogate’s agency and the relationship between the ‘altruistic” and “commercial” dimension of surrogacy.

In your book, you paid a lot of attention to the contract. Can you explain to us the reasons why you deiced to do that?

The contract, I think, grew as a chapter because I realized as I was writing how significant it is in their own imagination, not just legally but also in terms of the relationship, how they really think that this is the way to figure out the relationship, to make sure that it is going to work. And as they said that the contract is such a negotiation throughout that contract phase, are just so difficult that if people survived that, well then, they come out of it as stronger partners in the journey. But what I also found throughout my ten or so years doing this research, is that the contract became more and more sophisticated, and they added more and more. Both sides, it seems, and of course the legal professionals became more specialized Contracts have gotten much longer, much more intricate, with many more issues that really need to be negotiated, restrictions on the surrogates, conditions on the surrogates, termination of the pregnancy, and some of these things were so important for the surrogates: pregnancy terminations, embryo transfer practices, they became a lot more important, a lot more prominent for them over time. Money issues are important, too, especially items such as lost wages and childcare in case of complication during pregnancy. Women may lose money if lost wages are capped, for example.

People who are generally against surrogacy, depict the contract as a tool designed to force women to accomplish a “task”, based on the fact they have signed it. What does your research reveal about surrogates’ experiences?

In their understanding, the contract, is this binding manifestation of something that they think honorable and responsible people should all work out anyways. And even if the contract is not legally binding, they always encourage everyone to have such a contract, knowing that it is not going to be good for legal purposes, it is still certainly worth going through for the purposes of the journey, the purpose of clarifications, and the purposes of knowing exactly where you stand and what you want and what you agree to. So, in that sense they are just as adamant that contracts are important as the intended parents are. They don’t think of this as something that people force on them, they very much want to understand what contracts entail and act to have their own contract.

There is a complex meaning around the concept of the gift-giving. Often, the common sense tends to describe just the baby as the gift of life. What did you finding can add to this discussion?

I think, it would be very simplistic to think of the baby as the precious gift, because when you actually read all the things that they are talking about, it is a whole long list of things that they include and obviously first of all, it starts with the willingness to carry for this couple. Because they always say that the money itself it is not enough, so there must be some other good motivations, and some generosity, some compassion, some other element that goes into wanting to be a surrogate. So, their ability to gestate, of course, is a kind of a gift in a way because they always think about their own children like gifts, so they don’t think that people can own children or can buy children.

When they talk about their own children as a gift, then you also think about children in general may be gifts and the ability to produce them is a gift, and their generosity to carry for others is a gift. And then it is more and more complicated as they actually are doing the surrogacy, because then all the bodily involvement, and anything that is difficult to go through become the surrogates’ gift to the intended parents. But then they talk about the gift of trust that they are receiving the gift of trust, because the intended parents are trusting them to carry “their baby”, and surrogates are honored to be trusted to gestate the baby It becomes very interesting, a mutual kind of gift-giving narrative and practices around to this mutual gift-giving.

In the surrogacy agreements, there are many different forms of power that play a role during the journey. How can you describe the power play of money and the surrogate’s agency?

Surrogates think about their ability to gestate and to give birth, as following all the rules and all the medical procedures, the protocols as kind of a resource, as a skill, not something that is given but like a combination of skills and abilities that is pretty valuable and pretty impressive. Their fertility is a biological fact but using it to carry other people’s children is a purposeful activity. The fact that they will do that, the fact that they will follow the protocol even if that it means shots, and medication, and various procedures that are invasive and take time to go to medical appointments, they think of all those things as somehow this package that are resources that the intended parents, some of the intended parents don’t have, so they are lacking resources. This is this interesting reversal: the surrogate can do things for this couple that the couple can’t do themselves and surrogates are very proud of that, and they take their agency [personality] very seriously. And they would say: “I know my body, I know I can do that. The doctor said this, but I know my body better”. So, they have a lot of stories in which they underline their agency, as well as their ability, and their resources as they see. They do not think of themselves as powerless at all. They also say that surrogates need to be informed and knowledgeable and be their own advocates, rather than simply rely on doctors’ or other professionals’ advice or opinion.

Many critics say that money is the most important resource to analyze this practice?

A lot of the people think about the money as the most relevant resource in this domain because it does cost a lot for couples: to pay the surrogates, pay clinics and doctors and legal experts. But what it is missing here is that money by itself can’t buy babies and there is a lot of truth in the surrogates’ point of view which is that that here is the couple that spend a lot of money in treatments, IVF, and various things and clearly, they still don’t have a baby. So, money is clearly not the only resource, not the only important resource. Obviously, it is a resource because people that don’t have the money can’t probably start the surrogacy process, but also people with money cannot even end up with a baby if the surrogate doesn’t put her resources, her generosity, her fertility and all the other skills that they are so proud of into providing the baby for this couple. And obviously, in their understanding, the IPs see the surrogate like a key component during the surrogacy process.

Did you analyze the relationship between altruistic and commercial dimension of surrogacy?

In these kind of relationships, where the intimate and the financial components are so interrelated, I think there is more of a continuum rather than opposition. In general altruism coexists with commercial practices. When money changes hand there is still a space for altruism and vice versa. In this kind of interactions and relationships, that involve bodily commodities (as some people called it) it is always going to be a kind of coexistence of altruism and commodified exchange, of gift and money, because these are not standard produced goods. There are all kinds of risks involved in these kinds of practices that people can’t put a price tag on. I know it sounds a little cheesy, but there are economists like Kenneth Arrow, for example, that write about how certain risks don’t have a monetary price, or compensation amount and can’t express this kind of risk in monetary terms.


Barend’s answers are useful to observe and understand the surrogacy practice from a different point of view.

Berend also has an impressive range of publications within the field, as listed below:

Berend, Z. (2010). “Surrogate Losses: Understandings of Pregnancy Loss and Assisted Reproduction among Surrogate Mothers,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 24, 240-262.

Berend, Z. (2012). “The Romance of Surrogacy,” Sociological Forum, 27, 913-936.

Berend, Z. (2012) “Surrogate Losses: Surrogate Mothers, Pregnancy Loss, and Assisted Reproduction,” in Understanding Reproductive Loss: International perspectives on life, death and fertility. Earle, S., Komaromy, C. & Layne L. L. (Eds). Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, VT, 93-104.

Berend, Z. (2014). “The Social Context for Surrogates’ Motivations and Satisfaction,” Commentary, Reproductive Biomedicine Online, 29, 399-401.

Berend, Z. (2016). “We Are All Carrying Someone Else’s Child:” Relatedness and Relationships in Third-Party Reproduction.” American Anthropologist, 118, 24-36.

Berend, Z. (2016). “Labor of Love” and Emotion Work: surrogacy arrangements in the US. An ethnographic account.” In: Handbook of Gestational Surrogacy: International Clinical Practice & Policy Issues. Sill, E. S. (Ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Berend. Z. (2016). The Online World of Surrogacy, New York: Berghahn Books.

Berend. Z. & Teman. E. “Surrogate Non-Motherhood: Israeli and US Surrogates Speak About Kinship and Parenthood,” With Elly Teman. Anthropology & Medicine, forthcoming.

For further information: https://www.opendemocracy.net/beyondslavery/zsuzsa-berend/online-world-of-surrogacy


• Berend. Z. (2016). The Online World of Surrogacy, New York: Berghahn Books.

• Blyth E., (1994), “I wanted to be investigating. I wanted to be able to say ‘I’ve done something interesting with my life’”, Interviews with surrogate mothers in Britain., J. Reprod. Infant. Psychol., 12, 198-198.

• Brazier M., Campbell A., and Golombok S. (1998), Surrogacy: review for health ministers of current arrangements for ppayments and regulation. No. CM 4068, Department of health, London.

• Zegers-Hoschchild, Fernando, G. David Adamson, Jaques de Mouzon, Osamu, Ishihara, Ragaa Mansour, Karl-Gosta Nygren, Elisabeth Sullivan, and Sheryl Vanderpoel (on behalsf of ICMASRT and WHO). 2009. “International Committee for Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technology (ICMART) and the Worls Health Organization (WHO) Revised Glossary of ART Terminology. “Human Reproduction 24(11):2683-2687.


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