Elton John’s Baby and Unregulated Global Surrogacy

Karen Smith Rotabi

As global surrogacy grows largely unregulated, the effects of celebrity surrogacy arrangements may have deeply adverse consequences for poor women worldwide.

Other articles on surrogacy can be found at: global surrogacy and surrogacy.

The birth of Sir Elton John’s son on December 25, 2010 was celebrated in the international media. He and his partner, David Furnish, have a civil union and they are a high-profile same-sex couple. When they inquired about adopting a young boy in the Ukraine, they were denied this opportunity because of Elton John’s age (over 60) and his single status; civil unions are not recognized in Ukrainian adoptions and, as such, he could not apply as a married individual. Turning to surrogacy was not a simple matter, even with the infinite financial resources of the couple. This is due to the fact that surrogacy is outlawed on British soil and, as a result, the couple contracted with a California-based surrogate. However, British citizens may purchase surrogate services elsewhere and Elton John and David Furnish are certainly not the first family to be built with “out-sourced” surrogates in another nation.

With Sir Elton John’s successful and highly publicized surrogacy arrangement, the “effect” of star-power and the use of surrogacy on the general population remain to be seen. It is far more financially obtainable as an option today to average people. What has historically been a very expensive option costing $50,000-plus, global surrogacy has become more affordable in recent years largely due to the medical tourism model in India.  An individual or couple may contract for surrogate services for as little as $12,000 plus travel costs. Intermediaries who act like headhunters identify women to carry out this “service” with little oversight and clinics with sophisticated medical services are constructed where surrogates live in dormitories or pregnancy camps. The ethical quagmires related to this business model, now expanding to other nations such as Guatemala, are considerable. While there have been calls for regulation of surrogacy, and some nations like the UK outlaw it, the new global context requires greater consideration especially when one considers the vulnerabilities of deeply impoverished women in developing nations.  

Superstar influence on the social consciousness and how families are built via alternative strategies is relevant. What some have called the “Brangelina Effect” was the beginning of a booming inter-country adoption industry in Ethiopia after Angelina Jolie adopted Zhara in that deeply impoverished nation.  Now, as thousands of people have flocked to Ethiopia in recent years to build their families through adoption, there are grave concerns about corruption and the exploitation of vulnerable women and their children by sophisticated inter-country adoption agencies. The abuses include concerns about child sales and other unethical and illegal practices.

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All of this is further complicated by the fact that with the exception of Ethiopia, inter-country adoption is undergoing a significant decline. A practice which affected an estimated 45,000 children in 2004 may have had as much as a 50 percent downturn or more since that time because of a variety of reasons, including implementation of international standards to prevent child sales and theft. However, the demand for healthy babies rages on and it is a billion dollar industry. While the sale of children is prohibited around the world, it happens every day.  And, while surrogacy on a case-by-case basis may be ethical and well-planned, it is hard to believe that such an approach when practiced on a large scale assembly-line style in developing nations will be done so in a fair and just manner.

Much remains to be seen related to this emerging business model and exactly how vulnerable women will be protected. One thing is guaranteed, the activity will be marketed as a win-win “opportunity” for poor women and the individuals and families who seek to build their families in this manner. Oprah Winfrey already weighed-in on global surrogacy, highlighting the practice in India and happy US “customers.” While involvement in global markets is important for marginalized peoples, especially women, one should not underestimate the need for oversight and ethical standards. Without international regulation, I predict dire human rights abuses when the activity is practiced en masse in nations with histories of organized crime and human rights abuses. First on my list of concerns is Guatemala, a nation with notorious problems related to violence against women and human trafficking and it is time for a rapid response to insure the rights of vulnerable women. How that should be done remains to be seen, but one proposal is international private law. Regardless, the time to act is now!


Pointing Toward the Future: How Environmental and Women’s Rights Groups Can Work Together to Solve Global Problems

Dr. Carmen Barroso

As part of our series on Seven Billion People, Rewire asks two experts, Dr. Carmen Barroso, Director of International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region, and Carl Pope, former Executive Director and current Chairman of the Sierra Club, to explain the connections between environmental and population issues and how the movements can work together.

This fall, world population will reach seven billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article is part of a series commissioned by Rewire, with Laurie Mazur as guest editor. The series examines the causes and consequences of population and environmental changes from various perspectives, and explores the policies and actions needed to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.

Here, Rewire asks two experts, Dr. Carmen Barroso, Director of International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region, and Carl Pope, former Executive Director and current Chairman of the Sierra Club, to explain the connections between environmental and population issues and how the movements can work together. 

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Rewire: When did you start to see the synergy between environmental and population issues?

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I remember when we didn’t see them. In the 1980s, I was living on the outskirts of Sao Paulo developing a sex education program with local women’s organizations.  True to our feminist lineage, we were advocating for women’s right to decide in matters relating to sex and reproduction. Working in the context of Brazil’s left movement, our sex education also included a critique of population control, which was a prevalent symbol of imperialism at the time.

Our concern was both with coercive practices, such as sterilization without consent, and with the notion that population stabilization could somehow be interchangeable with a fair global economy, the “new economic order,” as it was called then.  At that time, there was considerable tension between social justice-oriented feminists and environmentalists who championed population control.

Today, more than thirty years later, environmentalists and reproductive rights movements share a lot more commonalities, rather than differences, in our approach and commitment to justice and autonomy. In fact, IPPF’s governing council recently adopted a policy on climate change and sustainable development.We know that population growth is just one of the several drivers of environmental problems, but we can’t ignore its connection.


In the late 1960s, I was working to advance family planning methods in small villages in Bihar, India as a Peace Corps employee.  I was struck by the fact that so much of the challenge of enabling villagers to make decisions about family size had to do not with their “ignorance” or “lack of interest” as often described by government bureaucrats, but with the indifference of that bureaucracy and the lack of genuine access to either education or health care.

Informed by that experience, Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program works to increase access to voluntary family planning services, as part of a larger framework of access to education and health care, and a broader and more inclusive role for women. The Club, however, realizes that population size is just one peice of the population/environment puzzle.  The way we consume and use natural resources and the underlying social inequities of resource distribution and consumption are the other side of that coin.  We believe we can be mindful of our global environment while simultaneously improving the lives of men, women, and children worldwide.

Rewire: Why do you think a comprehensive, rights-based approach is the way to go?


 Laurie said it best in her opening post for this series:  Ensuring women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, is central to meeting the flock of “Black Swans” that are headed our way.  When you empower individuals and families with the information and services they need to decide on all aspects related to reproduction and sexuality, you fundamentally create more sustainable and just communities. 

Over the last few decades, notions about the relationship between population, sustainability and human rights have advanced significantly. At the center of this evolution was the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994. In Cairo, 179 governments placed human rights, specifically sexual and reproductive rights, at the center of population policies.

While governments have been slow to implement the Cairo consensus, this vision must guide development efforts going forward. That means securing reproductive health and rights for the millions worldwide who lack access, so that they can choose if, when, and how many children to have.


 Empowering individuals, particularly women who are most vulnerable, is a proven silver bullet in addressing the “Black Swans.” Once education and outside employment for women become available and even accepted as pathways out of poverty, families face a choice: Have a smaller family and treat each child as a long-term investment by educating them, or have a larger family and run the risk that each child will get less schooling and have fewer economic prospects.

In addition, women who bring in income have more say in family decision-making, and they opt for still smaller families. All over the globe women are choosing to have fewer children.

Therefore, it is our global responsibility to secure access to voluntary family planning services for all as a means of advancing both reproductive choice and sustainable development.

Rewire: Why do you think environmental issues have not been high on the agenda of reproductive rights advocates and vice versa?


As I said earlier, just a few decades ago economic justice and individual rights seemed incompatible, and the two movements were at odds.  It’s funny, when I was working with women’s groups in Sao Paulo, we tried out a cartoon depicting two women. One of them said: Did you see the TV last night? They said we are poor because we have too many children. The other responded: That is nonsense. They should distribute income instead of the pill. 

In today’s interconnected world, however, there is no denying the intersection of environmental and health and rights issues. Still, collaboration remains a challenge. On the one hand, the reproductive rights movement fears being co-opted by the small faction of the environmental movement that would advocate for the curtailment of individual rights if it benefited the environment. On the other hand, I think some in the environmental movement fear being associated with reproductive rights, which remain contentious is some political arenas.  And, as always, the silo-ed approach to funding and the competition it creates is also an obstacle to working together.


I agree that we sometimes let the fear of the small factions among us who don’t want to work together, silence the critical masses that agree on our issues.  If the reproductive rights movement and the environmental movement could work together, both movements would gain leverage in their ability to reach out into new arenas. The strength of two is double the strength of one, so to speak.

As the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization, the Sierra Club supports the highest levels of funding for voluntary family planning services both in the United States and worldwide, a comprehensive approach to sex education, and sustainable development policy initiatives. We also work aggressively to end unsustainable practices such as deforestation and fossil fuel use because we recognize that addressing environmental degradation includes curbing rampant consumption. 

Rewire: What can the two movements can do to overcome this history and work together to advance common goals?


From my perspective, the most important things the two movements can do is to listen and learn from each other. There is power in numbers, and I have no doubt that both movements would achieve more victories through collaboration.

The other opportunity I see is the fact that today’s generation of youth—the largest ever—seems to approach advocacy differently. They are less influenced by the silos or  labels like feminist, gay rights activist, environmentalist. The bottom line for this new generation is justice and rights for all. They want better income distribution, an end to climate change, AND the pill.


Exactly. Our planet will be home to 7 billion people this year, with 50 percent of those people being under 25. The youth are demanding access to family planning, education, health care, and economic opportunities for all, as well as an end to climate change, and a sustainable, just world.

We as a united movement should view the demands of the youth as the watchwords for our advocacy.

Commentary Family

Surrogacy and Baby-Selling in a Globalizing World: What’s Next?

Karen Smith Rotabi

A well-known surrogacy attorney in California used her networks and well-financed practice to dupe families into paying over $100,000 for a child based on a fraudulent scenario. Basically, those looking to secure a child were told that a surrogacy arrangement had fallen apart—the intended parents backing out of the arrangement. This was false and a story constructed for fraud.

The FBI’s press release begins with the title “Baby-Selling Ring Busted.” When it comes to press relations, word choice is everything and there is nothing more loaded than “Baby-Selling!” Sadly child sales are not a particularly new phenomenon, but the mode of carrying out the crime is intriguing. The scenario includes the use of fertility technology in the Ukraine intersecting with unsuspecting American families with the resources to pay over $100,000 for a child. For me, someone interested in adoption ethics and emerging global surrogacy schemes, this particular case struck me as just one more manifestation of what is possible when people will spend unimaginable sums to secure a healthy infant.

The story goes something like this. A well-known surrogacy attorney in California used her networks and well-financed practice to dupe families into paying over $100,000 for a child based on a fraudulent scenario. Basically, those looking to secure a child were told that a surrogacy arrangement had fallen apart—the intended parents backing out of the arrangement. This was false and a story constructed for fraud. The unsuspecting customers (prospective parents) were given the opportunity to secure the unborn child without adoption procedures. The attorney then worked with surrogate mothers women who were impregnated with a donated egg and sperm and thus not a biological child of the surrogate mother. And yes, it appears that the egg and sperm donors were unaware of the child’s birth and entanglement into a child sales scheme.

The global intersection is related to the fact that the fertility procedure was carried out in the Ukraine. Interestingly these surrogate mothers were U.S. Citizens and not eastern European/Ukrainian women. Apparently, U.S. surrogate mothers were flown into the Ukraine for fertility treatments and then quietly returned to the US as surrogate mothers. It all unfolded from there and California was a likely state given its friendliness to surrogacy arrangements.

For those of us watching the fertility technology and surrogacy industry boom, this is not really all that surprising. There are really too many unusual scenarios emerging as child adoption becomes more and more difficult. Declines in adoption possibilities have resulted in a number of problems, including child trafficking. What is surprising is that a well-trained attorney would risk it all for such a child sales scheme.

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Fundamentally, advances in fertility technology are intersecting with globalization in a way that is forcing us all to ponder bioethics and call the quandaries and legal violations like we see them. In this case, the FBI is to be commended for bluntly calling this scenario a “baby-selling ring.”  While we await the sentencing of this attorney and several others involved, we can only wonder what’s next as the story of globalization and surrogacy continues to unfold in the context of limited child adoption opportunities.