Transnational commercial surrogacy is a contested practice; the few countries where it is legal include Ukraine and Russia. Social anthropologist Veronika Siegl has explored how surrogate workers, intended parents, clinics and agencies legitimise their actions to themselves and others.
Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.
The title of your book refers to truth in relation to commercial surrogacy – can you tell us more about that?
In my book, I argue that actors in the field of surrogacy are continuously engaged in ethical labour due to the moral ambivalence of this practice. For me, this is a concept which grasps the manifold kinds of labour – discursive, corporeal and affective – in relation to oneself and others. Ethical labour is practised by individuals but it is an integral part of commercial surrogacy. Often, this ethical labour is aimed at making and circulating 'truths' – in the sense of absolute certainties. However, in my research participants’ narratives and practices, there were often ambiguities or discrepancies, which is why I describe their truths as having cracks.
Let me give you a couple of examples: one of the surrogate workers who participated in my research was always very carefree, always in a good mood when we met during the pregnancy. Then two years later, she wrote to me, saying that she regretted her decision to be a surrogate and felt that she had committed a sin. Or another example: an intended father from Western Europe informed me in an interview that the Russian woman giving birth to his child was a teacher in a financially stable situation. But the surrogate herself told me in a separate interview that she had a poorly paid job in a school canteen and that as a single mother, she barely had enough money to cover basic expenses. Discrepancies such as these made the cracks visible. However, my intention in the book is not to reveal the cracks per se, but to explore the function and logic of these truths and find out what role they play in the field of surrogacy.
Who is involved in commercial surrogacy in Russia and Ukraine and what kind of dependencies exist among the actors?
The two main actors are, of course, the intended parents and the surrogate workers. Russia has a very buoyant national surrogacy market. It’s a different situation in Ukraine, where the vast majority of intended parents come from abroad. However, many of the surrogate workers in Russia were from Ukraine, Belarus and the Central Asian countries.
As for the actors involved, that depends on whether it is a direct or a mediated agreement. With a mediated agreement, the agencies act as intermediaries: they match the surrogates to intended parents, keep track of the pregnancy and control the relationship between the two parties. With a direct agreement, the intended parents and surrogate workers do their own matching via online platforms. Some people find it advantageous to be able to choose who to work with, and how. For others, mediated agreements are more appealing precisely because there is no need for any direct contact; it is faster and anonymous and they can relinquish control of the process.
The agencies use scare tactics in order to justify their own existence. You often hear rumours about intended parents excessively controlling the surrogate, or stories of surrogates cheating and defrauding the intended parents. And of course, this is where the major dependencies and the associated fears on both sides become visible: the intended parents’ fear is that the surrogate will refuse to hand over the child, while the surrogate workers worry that they will lose out on their fee. This is the kind of scenario that encourages both parties to use an agency, precisely because of these concerns about the risks of unmediated contact. And of course, this increases the reliance on the agencies – and they know exactly how to exploit this dependency.
As a social anthropologist, how did you make contact and build trust with your interviewees? How did you encourage them to talk about these issues, despite this being a contested practice involving intimate choices?
It was far from straightforward. In both countries, especially Russia, I encountered a high level of mistrust. One of the biggest fears, especially for the intended mothers who were Russian, was that their stories would be leaked to the public. For example, I interviewed one intended mother on Skype, but I never saw her face or found out her name. Another always called me from a withheld number. In that sense, my position as a foreign researcher possibly put me at an advantage: my research participants knew that I had no plans to publish in Russian or Ukrainian, and that made me less of a threat. From the perspective of the clinics and agencies, I was of interest because they hoped to generate some publicity abroad. At the same time, many of them were sceptical about my 'real' motives; some of them even suspected that I was a spy. So my own position was quite ambivalent as well.
A particular challenge was finding fertility clinics where I could conduct my observations – which, for a social anthropologist like myself, is of course a key aspect of fieldwork methodology. Only one clinic was prepared to open its doors to me, and that took months of negotiations. And even here, the director changed his mind halfway through my research and ended the collaboration. That tells you a lot about how secretive these organisations are. It was also striking that the clinic where I was able to conduct my research put me in contact with a large number of surrogates but not with intended parents. Many of the other clinics and agencies also refused to facilitate contact with prospective parents; they argued that this was not something the parents should be burdened with. As this shows, there is a difference in terms of the right to protection here.
Why are Russia and Ukraine of particular interest in the surrogacy context?
In Ukraine and Russia, surrogacy is seen as work, and this sets the two countries apart, quite significantly, from other regional contexts such as the United States, India or Israel, where surrogacy is often shaped by notions of altruism and sacrifice, while the financial and economic aspects are often concealed or reframed. Of course, there are no clear causalities for these differences, but the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transition to a capitalist market economy with the attendant increase in social and economic inequalities, the dominance of a neo-liberal ideology of autonomy and individualism, and a profoundly gendered and discriminatory labour market undoubtedly provide fertile ground for consumer-oriented, instrumental access to surrogacy. As a consequence, there are fewer taboos at the interface between the economic and the intimate spheres. The extremely aggressive and conservative biopolitical context in Russia is another key factor. Here, surrogacy must be practised in such a way as to reproduce the heterosexual nuclear family; as a result, the two parties rarely or never meet and the surrogacy is concealed and not integrated into the new family history. The title of my book, Intimate Strangers, is intended to convey a sense of that relationship.
Your research was completed before 2022 and the book was published in July 2023. Is there any indication of how Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is affecting commercial surrogacy in these two countries?
The book was more or less finished in October 2021. I talk about Russia’s war in an epilogue, but this is based solely on online research. There were some media reports about large numbers of pregnant surrogates leaving the country and fleeing to Georgia. In Georgia, surrogacy is legal and regulated, which means that the surrogates – and the intended parents – can be certain that the surrogate can give birth without being considered the child's legal mother. That would be the case if the surrogates fled to Germany, for example. Many people, myself included, expected that the war would bring the Ukrainian surrogacy market to a standstill and trigger significant growth in the Georgian market. However, if you look at social media and the agency websites, it is clear that business is brisk for surrogate workers and intended parents alike in Ukraine, as a recent Guardian article revealed. There is strong global demand – and not many countries nowadays where commercial surrogacy is still permitted, especially for foreign nationals. A recent change to the law in Russia is noteworthy in this context: since early 2023, only heterosexual married couples, which must include one partner with Russian citizenship, and single Russian women are now permitted to use surrogacy services. This puts paid to Russia’s status as an international destination and could well benefit the Ukraine surrogacy market.
The interview was conducted by Hannah Guhlmann, a research communication trainee at ZOiS.
Veronika Siegl is a social anthropologist and gender studies scholar. A postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bern, she is interested in the intersecting questions of ethics, inequality and autonomy in the context of reproductive medicine.
Siegl, Veronika. Intimate Strangers: Commercial Surrogacy in Russia and Ukraine and the Making of Truth. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 2023.