The Surrogates: new BBC documentary explores the vulnerable world of surrogacy in the UK

The latest BBC Three docuseries explores the world of surrogacy in the UK, spotlighting the women and parents working together to bring life into the world. 

Surrogacy is not a new phenomenon but it’s certainly become a more widely recognised baby-making option in recent years. In fact, the number of children born through surrogacy in the UK, one of the few European countries where it is legal, has tripled in the last three years. 

Celebrities including Kim Kardashian West, Sarah Jessica Parker and Gabrielle Union have popularised the method but pop culture has not altogether been a safe space for surrogacy stories to play out. Films and TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Baby Mama and When The Bough Breaks have somewhat stigmatised the practice but BBC Three’s latest documentary series hopes to ameliorate that screen perception by taking a light-touch approach to the complex issue. 

Heavily pregnant surrogate, Maddie.
Heavily pregnant surrogate, Maddie.

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The Surrogates is a three-part docuseries, produced in partnership with The Open University, that follows the experiences of five young British women who are lending their wombs to various couples and single parents so they can welcome a baby into their lives. 

These surrogates are not in it for the money; at least, that is what the docuseries proffers for, unlike the US, where surrogates can expect to be compensated up to $60,000 (the equivalent of £42,923) plus expenses for renting out their womb, the UK has clear rules that a woman cannot be paid an explicit fee. Instead, the choice to carry a child for someone else has to be presented as an altruistic one and the first episode introduces two women who have made such a commitment. 

Maddie, lies on her bed with her legs up against the wall after carrying out a home insemination.

Caitlin, a 26-year-old single mother of three has agreed to become a surrogate for the first time for her boss, Kate. Kate, 35, has unfortunately, experienced three unsuccessful pregnancies, including one at 32 weeks, with her husband Matt. 

They both live in Alderney on the Channel Islands and work for the same digital media agency that deals with babies, pregnancy and motherhood on a daily basis. 

One can imagine how triggering a place it is to work for Kate. Caitlin, who knew of her manager’s baby loss, admitted she felt somewhat guilty if she discussed her own children in the office. 

“I don’t want you to feel that you have to rent out your womb so you can talk about your amazing children!” Kate jokes in an early scene, but it highlights the awkward dynamic they will be navigating as a surrogate working for the intended mother. 

Pregnant surrogate, Emma, lies on a hospital bed receiving a pregnancy scan.

Emma, meanwhile, is a 23-year-old single mother of one who has not only provided a womb to grow a baby but also her own egg. 

She met gay couple Aki, 40, and Kevin, 35, on a fertility matching app and was impregnated with an embryo fertilised by Aki’s sperm. Through Emma, it’s understood that surrogacy in the UK isn’t a completely money-free transaction for she is able to have pregnancy-related expenses reimbursed by the intended parents. 

In 16 weeks, she has accumulated £7,000 worth of receipts, from childcare for her son to beauty products to counter the pregnancy hormones’ effects on her skin, but mostly for keeping the baby healthy for nine months. “The client is the baby,” she says but points out that her health and life is also at risk. “There’s no amount of money that takes away that edge of being a surrogate.”

There’s also the edge of letting go of the child. Emma says of her eggs, “I don’t feel like I’m giving away something personal,” but after the gender of the baby is revealed to be a girl, she begins musing about possible post-natal attachments that the fathers may not be keen on. 

Then there’s David, 40, a single gay man who wants to become a father through a surrogacy agency but is finding the rules and processes frustrating to navigate. He wants to use an anonymous donor egg and meet a woman at a social event to carry his child but he is not allowed to ask, whoever she might be must offer. “There’s an element of competitiveness,” David explains. “Your pitch has to be hidden under seven different layers of small talk.”

The filmmakers gently probe their subjects into revealing the tricky feelings and concerns associated with the surrogacy process which highlights how complicated a relationship it can be. Both surrogate and intended parent(s) bring with them a lot of emotional baggage so there’s a keen sense of pressure and tension felt throughout the episode as they all perform their roles. The uncomfortable fact that a surrogate mother can also refuse to give up the child at birth, meaning the intended parents cannot enforce a surrogacy contract, hangs over proceedings too.

As David says in one scene: “The narrative written around surrogacy is that the surrogate is the vulnerable one, but the intended parents are the vulnerable ones… maybe we are all vulnerable.” 

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That vulnerability is the driving force of each story but ultimately this is a series with the intention of showing a happy ending and that is the case for most of the surrogates and intended parents, albeit with a few bumps on the way. 

However, this is yet another series about pregnancy and motherhood that prioritises the white experience. Each surrogate featured across the three episodes is a white woman and only one intended parent is a person of colour, that being Aki, who is Japanese, but his participation is minimal.

There is currently an increasing conversation surrounding maternity and the alarming dangers for ethnic minority women during pregnancy and childbirth, often caused by systemic racism and bias in maternal care. This means there is a growing number of women from all backgrounds seeking alternative methods for pregnancy, including surrogacy, and there are agencies set up specifically to cater for diverse parents and birth mothers. Could the researchers not have found one woman of colour to take part? 

It’s certainly a glaring omission for a docuseries with such a worthy mandate but it does answer a lot of questions about surrogacy in the UK that is grounded in real, relatable human experiences – albeit through a white lens.

The Surrogates is available on BBC iPlayer as a 3-episode boxset now.

Images: BBC/Sundog Pictures

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