COUPLES seeking to build a family, and surrogate mothers overseas who help them, are in danger of emotional, physical and financial exploitation unless UK authorities monitor and regulate the field much more closely, according to a University of Huddersfield professor who has published the results of a detailed investigation.
Eric Blyth - Professor of Social Work at the University of Huddersfield, and based at its Centre for Applied Childhood Studies - is co-author of The changing face of surrogacy in the UK, an article which charts the rapid increase in the numbers of surrogate births over the past six years. It warns that as surrogacy becomes more socially acceptable, there is a risk that more people will make informal arrangements that lack professional back-up.
"Without well-informed professionals, including child welfare and health professionals, there is a potential danger of parties being poorly informed and inadequately supported both during the surrogacy process itself and the years ahead," writes Professor Blyth and his co-authors Dr Marilyn Crawshaw (University of York) and Professor Olga van den Akker (Middlesex University) in the article, which appears in the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law.
Since 1990, a UK couple wishing to become the legal parents of a child born to a surrogate mother must apply for a Parental Order. Initially this was restricted to married couples. In 2008, the rules were broadened so that same-sex couples were given the right to legal parentage following assisted-conception and surrogacy.
These wider criteria could help account for a big leap in the number of Parental Orders in England and Wales. From 1995 to 2007 they remained fairly steady, at between 36 and 52 a year. But in 2009 they climbed to 75 and in 2011 they stood at 149.
Surrogacy agencies had become established in the UK, but in recent years they have been involved in a smaller proportion of surrogacy arrangements.
"This is of some concern because agencies typically remain involved with the parties throughout the pregnancy and offer ongoing support," argues the article. A reduction in this could be disadvantageous for the parents, surrogates and the children affected.
The article's strongest warnings are in connection with overseas surrogacy arrangements. The global situation needs to be monitored in order to minimise the risk of exploitative developments, argue the authors.