What Social Workers Need To Know About Surrogacy
Popularly billed as either a “miracle” solution for involuntarily childless couples or as a “step too far” that should be halted in its tracks, surrogacy is becoming big business around the world, posing many challenges for social workers.
Social Care Agencies may get cases referred during the surrogate’s pregnancy because of concerns about her exploitation or the arrangements for the child. They may become involved if family difficulties later develop – in either the “new” family or the surrogate’s own family, or if parents separate. They may see any of the parties via mental health services. Care workers must be well informed if they are to recognise the human rights and social work principles that need to be respected in order to practise safely and ethically.
The history of social work is littered with examples of private arrangements that failed to adequately protect vulnerable parties. Nowhere more so than in adoption and fostering, both nationally and internationally, where children were too often seen as commodities to meet adults’ needs, even if those adults are well-intentioned “rescuers”.
Although not perfect, legislative changes and international conventions have brought such processes under public scrutiny and made the voice of the child stronger.
The right to know
So what is the process? Would-be parents can recruit surrogates in either the UK or overseas, usually through agencies or personal networks (“advertising” is illegal). Although commercial surrogacy is banned in the UK and the law only allows “reasonable expenses” for surrogates, the reality is that financial transactions have proved difficult to police. The risk of child trafficking cloaked as surrogacy may not be great but warrants more vigilance by child protection agencies.
In genetic surrogacy arrangements, the surrogate is genetically related to the child as her egg is inseminated with the intended father’s sperm. With gestational surrogacy, the surrogate has no genetic link as an egg donor is used, or an embryo created from the intended parents.
Opportunities and dangers
Under UK law, the surrogate is the child’s legal parent until the intended parents are granted a parental order. They have to meet certain eligibility criteria and demonstrate to the court that the welfare of the child is secured. However, the Cafcass worker preparing the court report is only appointed well after the child has been born and started living with the intended parents (surrogate-born infants usually go straight into the care of intended parents). Hence their room for manoeuvre is limited but even at this stage it can be crucial to press reluctant parents to commit to openness with their child (including about the egg donor if used).
While there appear to be altruistic surrogates who relish their role in creating a new family and who maintain contact, there are others who feel they have been pressured into it, who are financially motivated or who regret it on reflection. Social care staff need to be alert to anyone contemplating surrogacy to ensure they are not being coerced or exploited and to assist those struggling in its aftermath.
Medical science creates opportunities; social workers need to ensure it does not create unnecessary dangers through surrogacy.
Author: Marilyn Crawshaw