The hidden camera footage reveals the Indian restaurant is crowded, and the ambient noise of fellow diners all around makes it hard to hear. But Gianna Toboni, an investigative reporter from HBO’s documentary show VICE, slowly begins to understand what is being offered to her by a woman sitting across the table. 

Toboni is in India to get a firsthand look at the country’s booming international surrogacy industry. She has heard rumors of “extra” Caucasian babies for sale, so she meets a surrogacy broker for dinner. On camera, the broker, holding a swaddled infant, tells Toboni she can take the baby home tonight — for a price.

The source of these “extra” babies is beyond horrifying. Western couples are taking advantage of the discounts international surrogacy offers. They get a baby gestated for them at a low price, and the women in third-world countries get more money than they could make in several years.

To make the process more efficient, doctors often transfer more than one embryo to a surrogate. If she gets pregnant with multiples, sometimes the commissioning couple is not told. Nine months later, they fly in and get the one baby they paid for. The “extras,” however, are peddled on the black market. While the couple thinks they’re getting a miracle at a bargain price, they are unaware that their “extra” children are being sold to whoever is willing to pay.

International surrogacy is often touted as a win-win, a free market where everyone benefits. When we take a closer look, however, the whole facade quickly falls apart. 

We know the surrogates are being exploited. They sign contracts they cannot read. They’re kept in dorms, isolated from family and friends and forced to deliver by cesarean section. Some aren’t paid the full amount they’re promised. A few surrogates have suffered the ultimate complication: death. Many of the contracting couples simply don’t care. If they did, the industry wouldn’t be booming.

Toboni, in an interview with New York magazine, exposes the ethical apathy she uncovered:

“There are cases where American couples feel a little strange about what is happening, and the ethics of it, but turn a blind eye because they don’t want to pay the higher rates in the States. Many couples don’t want to know what’s behind the scenes, they want their baby fast, and they want it done cheaply.”

Yet the market for “extra” babies is a new revelation — proof that it’s not just the surrogates being exploited.

When asked if she was shocked by the existence of such a black market, Toboni admits, “I wasn’t surprised that it existed, but I was surprised by how easily we were able to find it.”

What may be equally shocking is the silence. One would’ve expected national headlines after the VICE exposé warned Western couples about the chance their “extra” babies may be hustled to the highest bidder, but the discovery has produced barely a whisper.

Other international surrogacy horror stories have also failed to gain media traction. One particularly traumatic tale involves Baby Dev, a boy born of an Indian surrogate, along with his twin sister. When the commissioning parents, a couple from Australia, came to pick up their children, they decided they couldn’t afford to raise both. They took the girl home to “complete” their family, which already had a boy. Baby Dev was left behind. The couple was aware that, because of Indian surrogacy law, Dev could be left stateless, meaning without citizenship in either India or Australia. 

Australian reporter Samantha Hawley traveled to India to try to find Baby Dev. She was unsuccessful. Relatives of the Australian couple insist Dev was adopted by an affluent family and will be fine. Australian authorities believe, however, that money changed hands and fear Baby Dev was sold.

Such abandonment doesn’t only happen in Asian countries, however. The U.S. has plenty of its own cases of surrogacy gone wrong. Sherri Shepherd, celebrity host of The View, and her now-ex-husband, Lamar Sally, hired surrogate Jessica Batholomew to carry a child conceived with Sally’s sperm and a donor egg. Before Bartholomew could give birth to Lamar Jr., however, Shepherd filed for divorce and abandoned the boy both socially and financially. Batholomew was legally considered Lamar Jr.’s mother. She was left to cover her own medical expenses and was on the hook for child support. 

After a long legal battle, Shepherd was officially placed on the child’s birth certificate and ordered to pay monthly child support. With all of the celebrity gossip coverage, sadly there is no doubt Lamar Jr. will someday learn how Shepherd tried to wash her hands of him.

A lesser-known case involves surrogate Crystal Kelley. Kelley was offered $10,000 to abort the baby she was carrying when the intended parents found out the baby had abnormalities. Kelley refused. The commissioning couple hired an attorney who insisted she was “obligated to terminate this pregnancy immediately.” Kelley continued to object. The struggle took place in Connecticut, where surrogates have no parental rights, and there’s a safe-haven law that allows couples to hand their babies over to the state without fear of prosecution for child abandonment.

The couple told Kelley if she refused to abort, upon the birth, they would simply take custody and give the baby up as a ward of the state. Seven months pregnant, Keeley moved to a state where she would be considered the legal mother. The baby was adopted by a couple Keeley met through support groups for families with children who have special needs. There is a twisted thread that runs through each of these cases: Surrogacy has clearly turned each of these children into products, unwanted merchandise parents try to return or surplus inventory that can be sold.

The Catholic Church asserts that surrogacy is morally wrong for very simple reasons. Surrogacy turns women into breeders, children into commodities and procreation into a business transaction. Even if done with altruistic intentions, surrogacy still violates the rights of children and fails to uphold the sanctity of motherhood. 

In the Instruction on Respect for Human Life (Donum Vitae), the Church teaches:

Surrogacy “offends the dignity and the right of the child to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents.” Additionally, surrogacy involves an “objective failure to meet the obligations of maternal love.”

Contracting to carry a child for another couple and then surrendering the child to those who commissioned the pregnancy is, thus, a failure of love and a violation of the dignity of the child — both on the part of the couple and the surrogate. These appalling surrogacy-gone-wrong cases are exactly that: objective failures which exploit women and violate children’s rights.

But what about surrogacy success stories? Many argue that, with proper regulation, horror stories can be eliminated, and surrogacy can successfully give both parents and surrogates what they want.

But how can we regulate, and therefore legally sanction, a transaction where children are brought into being by contract and where they’re naturally subject to becoming commodities? How can we simply put restrictions on something inherently wrong and somehow expect good to regularly come out of it? It’s like being content to place regulations on human trafficking in the hopes that somehow the trafficked will be less marginalized.

The science of fetal development is telling us that the nine months in the womb are critical to a child, not just physically, but emotionally. The intentional separation of a newborn from the only person he or she has known may have long-term negative effects.

A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry that compared children of surrogacy to those conceived with donor gametes found that children of surrogacy “showed higher levels of adjustment difficulties at age 7.” The authors place an importance on gestation, concluding that the “absence of a gestational connection to the mother may be more problematic for children than the absence of a genetic link.”

Jessica Kern, a child of surrogacy, recently testified in front of Washington’s city council. She courageously admits, “From where I’m sitting, surrogacy is not the magic answer to creating families; more often, it’s a source of … lifelong pain for everyone involved.”

To truly protect women and children, surrogacy — both international and domestic — must be eliminated all together. A new organization called Stop Surrogacy Now (SSN) intends to do just that. Stop Surrogacy Now is a “worldwide, ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse group opposed to the exploitation of women and the human trafficking of children through surrogacy.” SSN has a petition the public can sign that declares: “We believe that surrogacy should be stopped because it is an abuse of women’s and children’s human rights. We believe that the practice of commercial surrogacy is indistinguishable from the buying and selling of children.” Initial signers include surrogates, children of surrogacy and feminists from all over the world.

Arun Dohle, from the organization Against Child Trafficking, said of Baby Dev, “His rights have been brutally violated right from the beginning.”

Until we see that all children of surrogacy have had their rights violated, however, the dark side of surrogacy will continue to get darker and darker.

Award-winning Register columnist Rebecca Taylor

is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology.

She writes about bioethics on her blog Mary Meets Dolly