Their stories are heartbreaking.
They are two would-be fathers from Israel, who “feel that having kids is a very natural evolution of our relationship.” They are a pair of French dads looking for a Canadian surrogate to bear a sibling for their young daughter. They are a queer couple in Italy who hope the love they share for one another speaks to a potential surrogate’s heart.
And on the public-facing websites and social media pages of Canadian surrogacy agencies like Oak Surrogacy and JA Surrogacy, their stories are everywhere. There, queer couples (and some straight ones) from around the globe post direct appeals to potential surrogates, seeking advice and support on their journeys.
Almost none of them will succeed in finding a Canadian surrogate willing to help them build their families. There simply aren’t enough surrogates available.
Ellen Embury of Calgary, Alberta, is one of Canada’s leading fertility lawyers. “I often tell people that there are 15 or 20 sets of intended parents lined up for every Canadian surrogate,” she tells Xtra. “There is a serious supply and demand problem.”
That problem is about to get a lot harder.
Far-right political parties in Europe and their so-called radical-feminist allies are targeting international surrogacy for criminal sanctions. It’s a move designed to make it more difficult to be a queer family in places like Italy. And it’s something people in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.—countries where altruistic and, in the American case, commercial, surrogacy is legal—need to care about.
Altruistic surrogacy is where a third-party—the “surrogate”—carries a pregnancy to term for a person or couple—the “intended parent(s)”—and does not receive monetary compensation for doing so. The surrogate acts altruistically, or without hope of financial gain, at least in theory.
This is the type of surrogacy arrangement permitted in Canada and the U.K. The justification for it is that it allows people the freedom to do what they want with their bodies, while preventing the commercialization of their uteruses.
Canada’s Assisted Human Reproduction Act (enacted in 2004) makes it illegal both to “pay consideration to a female person to be a surrogate mother, offer to pay such consideration or advertise that it will be paid” and to “pay … another person to arrange for the services of a surrogate mother, offer to pay such consideration or advertise the payment of it.” In other words, you can’t pay someone to be a surrogate for you or a third party to arrange a surrogate’s services for you.
But if the goal was to prevent a surrogacy industry from emerging in Canada, the law has failed.
There is an abundance of surrogacy agencies and consultants operating in the country. And they charge anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 for their services—everything from facilitating a match between intended parents and surrogates to overseeing reimbursement of a surrogate’s pregnancy-related expenses once a match has been made.
Surrogates themselves have much to gain from altruistic arrangements too.
Legally, a surrogate can only be reimbursed for pregnancy-related expenses. Under regulations that came into effect in June 2020, this means a surrogate can claim reimbursement for everything from “groceries, excluding non-food items”; to midwife or doula services; to “expenditures for the care of dependents or pets”; to, in certain circumstances, loss of income due to absences from work.
In practice, this means surrogates receive between $10,000 and $33,000 over the 10-month period from pre-pregnancy to pregnancy to birth. For some surrogates, the prospect of reimbursement, not altruism, is the motivation.
“There are surrogates who just want the money,” says Rob Decaire, a Canadian tech founder who developed Matching Day as a platform for intended parents to reach potential surrogates. “It’s a financial transaction for them. They are looking for the biggest payday.” His advice for would-be intended parents is to target their profiles accordingly. “Let’s say you’re a very affluent and wealthy intended parent and you just want to pay for a baby or … just want to pay to have this happen. Then by all means target that segment of surrogates who are really looking for a financial transaction. You’ll be more likely to make that happen.”
Regardless of affluence, though, intended parents must bear the entirety of altruistic surrogacy’s financial costs. Add in lawyers’ fees, the cost of insurance policies and, of course, the cost of the in vitro fertilization process itself, and intended parents are looking at upward of $80,000 to have a child through altruistic surrogacy in Canada.
About half of the intended parents Sally Rhoads-Heinrich sees at Surrogacy in Canada Online, the surrogacy agency she owns, are same-sex couples. Cost, not social barriers, is the biggest hurdle these intended parents must overcome, she tells Xtra.
It’s a cost many are more than happy to bear.
Guillaume and his partner Max (who spoke to Xtra via Facebook and did not disclose their last names) are queer intended parents from France, where surrogacy is illegal. They chose to pursue surrogacy in Canada in part because of the country’s altruistic model and “solid legal framework.”
They’re comfortable with the financial cost of altruistic surrogacy, they tell Xtra. “I believe most intended parents, especially international ones, have a very good idea of the cost before they start, just to make sure they can afford it,” Guillaume says.
That willingness doesn’t mean international intended parents aren’t liable to exploitation, though.
Sara Cohen, based in Toronto, is another of Canada’s leading fertility lawyers. According to her, she has “worked with more than a thousand intended parents engaging in surrogacy in Canada.”
Most of her clients “are either non-heteronormative families who cannot safely access surrogacy in their home country or anywhere else in the world, or … heteronormative families who can’t access surrogacy in their home countries.”
She points out that “in surrogacy itself, everyone is vulnerable.” The intended parents are putting their trust, and their potential child, completely in the hands of another; and surrogates are trusting that intended parents won’t walk away from the baby after birth—a more common occurrence, Cohen says, than surrogates wanting to keep the baby.
Ultimately, the issue is that existing Canadian law is too vague about what surrogacy agencies can and cannot do. “They are not under provincial licensing, the way we have licensed adoption agencies,” Cohen says.
“Having a grey area did the exact opposite of what was intended,” Cohen says. The intention was probably “to stop surrogacy agencies from existing. However, the law does not say that. The law says that it is illegal to pay someone … to arrange the services of a surrogate … but it doesn’t define what it is to arrange the services.” This vagueness allows surrogacy agencies “free rein” to push the envelope in terms of what they offer.
“Intended parents are more vulnerable, ” she says, than the Canadian women who choose to become surrogates. “Intended parents … are fronting all of the financial risk. They have to trust emphatically that this stranger who they’re building a relationship with will take care of themselves and this baby, and that’s a scary thing.”
One of the main problems with the surrogacy industry in Canada, Truppe says, is that there are agencies guaranteeing matches—and charging many thousands of dollars upfront for services—when there can be no guarantee that intended parents will find a surrogate match.
“I have a really strong opinion about particular clinics that do guarantee packages,” Truppe explains. “What bothers me is this doesn’t protect intended parents. What it does is actually bring intended parents into more of a money-making business … and the problem with this is that you can’t guarantee they’ll get a surrogate.”
International intended parents are increasingly vulnerable in other ways, too.
In July, Italy’s House of Deputies approved a law that would make it a crime to engage an international surrogate. The bill must still be approved by the Italian Senate before it becomes law. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s party, the Brothers of Italy, is the largest in the Italian Senate, making it likely that the bill will pass in the upper house. If it does, violators would face fines of up to €1 million (CAD $1.4 million) and jail terms of up to two years.
While most Italian intended parents are heterosexual, the law is widely viewed as an attack on the country’s LGBTQ+ community.
Fabio Rampelli is the deputy lower house speaker. In a Father’s Day Facebook post, he wrote “Best wishes to … those who, unable to have children because they love another man, keep their desire to themselves and do not make selfish choices to the detriment of the women whose eggs they buy and womb they rent for nine months.”
More common, though, is rhetoric appealing to feminist sentiments. Carolina Varchi, the Italian deputy who led the push to make surrogacy a “universal crime” (that is, one that is illegal no matter where it is done), has characterized the practice as being “aimed at destroying … the idea of motherhood.” Italy’s minister for Family, Natality and Equal Opportunities, Eugenia Roccella, characterized the legislation as a positive step forward for the “defence of women and children at an international level.”
This language echoes that of Meloni, who last year campaigned in part on her opposition to the rights of gay couples to adopt children and her belief that children should be raised by opposite-sex parents. Banning surrogacy was a major tenet of her platform. When she lobbied for surrogacy to be made a universal crime back in 2021, she did so with a picture of a child with a bar code on its hand. And under her government, Milan was ordered in March to stop registering the children of same-sex parents, including children birthed through surrogacy arrangements.
Italy has long been lagging when it comes to the affirmation and protection of LGBTQ+ rights. The country only began recognizing same-sex civil unions in 2016. This is attributable, in part, to the outsize influence the Roman Catholic Church continues to wield in Italian society and politics.
That’s not the case everywhere, to be sure. But what Italy is proving is that opposition to surrogacy is a quick and palatable way to enact a queerphobic agenda at the legislative level. And that’s a lesson anti-queer groups can apply anywhere. It’s also an example of straight people getting caught up in anti-queer hysteria.
Fifty to 60 percent of the intended parents who seek Embury’s legal services are international. They come from all over Europe, among other places, and it’s not difficult to see why. Surrogacy is illegal in most European Union countries.
“The reason for that is actually pretty straightforward,” Embury says. “There are countries that come from the Catholic tradition, which says that surrogacy is bad because it is interference with the natural order of things. Then, on the other side of that, there are the more progressive countries who say surrogacy is bad because it exploits women. That’s your Scandinavia. But Italy and France and Germany and those types of countries, which make it very, very difficult particularly for gay men to have babies, tend to come from a more conservative tradition.”
In their opposition to surrogacy, radical anti-trans feminists and the far-right have found common cause—and, in Europe at least, largely succeeded in legislating this component of their agenda.
The other issue that unites these two seemingly opposed movements is, of course, opposition to trans rights. There, too, rhetoric about protecting women and children figures prominently.
And that’s the takeaway from what’s happening in Italy for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.
The radical feminist/far-right coalition has more than just trans rights in its sights. It’s also going after the ability of queer people more generally to build their families—by targeting surrogacy for criminalization.
Indeed, transphobia and opposition to surrogacy go hand in hand. Articles on the radical feminist site 4W equate the “trauma” of being born to a surrogate to the “trauma” of having a gender nonconforming parent, and insist that children need to be protected from both; or decry the “gay male transactions” that supposedly characterize contemporary surrogacy arrangements. Transphobic radical feminist Julie Bindel is also a notable campaigner against surrogacy, which she has characterized as “womb trafficking.”
This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate critiques to be levelled against surrogacy as practised both commercially and altruistically. But it is important to point out that arguments honed in the ongoing “debate” over trans rights lend themselves to arguments against queer surrogacy—and the LGBTQ2S+ community should be wary of that fact.
Italy is a bellwether.
The actions of its legislators disprove the idea that the anti-trans coalition will content itself with rolling back trans rights. Cis members of the LGBTQ2S+ community and even straight people aren’t immune from their attacks either.
Truppe has clients in Italy right now who aspire to parenthood via a Canadian surrogate. “They’re sitting in this very scary place,” she says, wondering how far the move to criminalize international surrogacy will go.
International intended parents choose to pursue surrogacy in Canada, in Truppe’s experience, because they want a relationship with their surrogate. And the feeling is often mutual. “Most of what drives a surrogate here is building relationships that will last beyond the pregnancy and birth…. They want to help someone who obviously doesn’t have the opportunity [to have a child] any other way. And unfortunately, in many of the European countries we’ve been dealing with, they don’t have any other opportunity other than exploring outside their country.”
Which means, for many, looking for a Canadian surrogate. But if Italian legislators get their way, even the opportunity to build their families via a Canadian surrogate could go away.
Lyndsay Lazzaro is a two-time surrogate from Ontario. Her first time as a surrogate was for intended parents from Spain.
Lazzaro struggled to become a parent herself, losing a pregnancy in 2014. Through loss support groups, she met other women who “were much worse off than” her, she says. “I decided that … when I was done with my own family, I would help someone else. It’s such a small part of my life, for the rest of theirs.”
To those who want to criminalize surrogacy in order to protect surrogates from exploitation, Lazzaro has a simple message: “I think that every single person should have the opportunity to have biological children of their own. We as surrogates choose to do this, because we are kind and have big hearts. There is nothing criminal about what we are doing, and no one is exploiting us.”