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Vatican endorses bid to ban surrogacy as ‘commercialization of life’

Proponents of ban say practice violates rights of the child and surrogate mother
Conference coordinator Bernard Garcia and Italian Minister for birth, family and equal opportunities, Eugenia Roccella right, attend a two-day conference promoting an international treaty to outlaw surrogacy at the LUMSA Vatican-affiliated university, in Rome, Friday, April 5, 2024. The conference is promoting the international treaty to outlaw surrogacy based on the argument that the practice violates U.N. conventions protecting the rights of the child and surrogate mother. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

An international campaign to ban surrogacy received a strong endorsement Friday from the Vatican, with a top official calling for a broad-based alliance to stop the “commercialization of life” catering to wealthy would-be parents.

A Vatican-affiliated university hosted a two-day conference promoting an international treaty to outlaw surrogacy, based on the campaigners’ argument that the practice violates U.N. conventions protecting the rights of the child and surrogate mother.

At issue is whether there is a fundamental right to have a child, at any cost, or whether the rights of children trump the desires of potential parents.

The conference, which also drew U.N. human rights representatives and experts, marked an acceleration of a campaign that has found some support in parts of the developing world and western Europe. At the same time, Canada and the United States are known for highly regulated arrangements that draw heterosexual and homosexual couples alike from around the world, while other countries allow surrogacy with fewer rules.

Pope Francis in January called for an outright global ban on the practice, calling it a despicable violation of human dignity that exploits the surrogate mother’s financial need. On Thursday, Francis met privately with one of the proponents calling for a universal ban on surrogacy, Olivia Maurel, a 33-year-old mother of three.

Maurel was born in the U.S. in 1991 via surrogacy and attributes a lifetime of mental health issues to the “trauma of abandonment” she says she experienced at birth. She says she was separated from her biological mother and given to parents who had contracted with an agency in Kentucky after experiencing infertility problems when they tried to have children in their late 40s.

Maurel says she doesn’t blame her parents and she acknowledges there are “many happy stories” of families who use surrogate mothers. But she says that doesn’t make the practice ethical or right, even with regulations, since she said she was made to sacrifice “for the desire of adults to have a child.”

“There is no right to have a child,” Maurel told the conference at the LUMSA university. “But children do have rights, and we can say surrogacy violates many of these rights.”

Monsignor Miloslaw Wachowski, undersecretary for relations with states in the Vatican secretariat of state, concurred, saying the practice reduces human procreation to a concept of “individual will” and desire, where the powerful and wealthy prevail.

“Parents find themselves in the role of being providers of genetic material, while the embryo appears more and more like an object: something to produce — not someone, but something,” he said.

He called for the campaign to ban the practice not to remain in the sphere of the Catholic Church or even faith-based groups, but to transcend traditional ideological and political boundaries.

“We shouldn’t close ourselves among those who think exactly the same way,” he said. “Rather, we should open up to pragmatic alliances to realize a common goal.”

The Vatican’s overall position, which is expected to be crystalized in a position paper Monday on human dignity, stems from its belief that human life begins at conception and must be given the consequent respect and dignity from that moment on. The Vatican also holds that human life should be created through intercourse between husband and wife, not in a petri dish, and that surrogacy takes in vitro fertilization a step further by “commercializing” the resulting embryo.

As the conference was getting underway, Italy’s main gay family advocacy group, Rainbow Families, sponsored a pro-surrogacy rally to counter proposals by Italy’s hard-right-led government to make it a crime for Italians to try to use surrogates abroad, even in countries where the practice is legal.

“We are families, not crimes,” said banners held by some of the 200 or so participants, many of them gay couples who traveled abroad to have children via surrogate.

A 2004 law already banned surrogacy within Italy. The proposed law would make it illegal in Italy for citizens to engage a surrogate mother in another country, with prison terms of up to three years and fines of up to 1 million euros ($1.15 million) for convictions.

In the U.S., Resolve, the National Infertility Association, which advocates for people experiencing infertility problems, has criticized any calls for a universal ban on surrogacy as harmful and hurtful to the many people experiencing the “disease of infertility.”

“Resolve believes that everyone deserves the right to build a family and should have access to all family building options,” Betsy Campbell, Resolve’s chief engagement officer, said in a telephone interview. “Surrogacy, and specifically gestational carrier surrogacy, is an option.”

She said the U.S. regulations, which include separate legal representation for surrogate and the intended parents, and mental health and other evaluations, safeguard all parties in the process.

“Most people do not expect to have infertility or to need medical assistance to build their families,” she said. “So when non-medical people speak about IVF and surrogacy in a negative way, it can be very discouraging and make an already challenging journey all the more challenging.”

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