On the 15th of March, a large demonstration took place in Paris against surrogacy. The protests took place at the entrance of the building where the Health and Social Affairs Committee (SOC) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) convened to discuss a controversial report on surrogacy. A crowd of a few hundreds of people had gathered outside the building where the meeting was taking place in Paris. Later, a few meters away, feminists from the feminist group Collectif pour le Respect de la Personne (CORP) also organized a demonstration that called the Council of Europe to say NO to all forms of surrogacy and to respect the rights of women and children. Lesbians carried a banner with the slogan “no surrogacy for heterosexuals, nor for homosexuals”.
It was a rare moment where different demonstrations of conservatives, feminists and lesbians called for the banning of surrogacy. This article gives an insight to the background and the debates that took place on this report, but also to the motives of the rapporteur. The whole situation brought in the foreground a fundamental discussion about the basic principles of the Council of Europe (CoE): to defend human rights. Additionally, it put into question the very integrity of SOC.
It all started in December 2014, when Valeriu Ghiletchi, Member of the SOC tabled a motion for resolution called: “human rights and ethical issues related to surrogacy”. This motion for resolution expressed serious concerns about the practice of surrogacy “whereby a woman accepts to undergo a pregnancy and give birth to a baby for someone else” that “is an increasingly growing phenomenon posing complex challenges for the human rights of the women and children involved. Surrogacy undermines the human dignity of the woman carrier as her body and its reproductive function are used as a commodity” The motion talks further about the issue of “baby selling”, the identity and parentage of children, the exploitation of women. Therefore: “the Parliamentary Assembly should further examine the issues arising from the practice of surrogacy, especially its links with the reproductive health of women, human trafficking and the rights of children, and discuss tools for addressing the problem”.
Last December, SOC voted on who would be the rapporteur to examine the issues raised in this report. Valeriu Ghiletchi who initiated the resolution was willing to do this investigation on surrogacy and to draft a report. However, surprisingly, a counter-candidate showed up, Ms Petra de Sutter, who is the director of a clinic of the University of Ghent. She won the needed majority to become the rapporteur instead of Valeriu Ghiletchi. What she did not mention (and she was obliged to do so) is to inform the committee that the clinic in which she works, is involved in surrogacy activities and therefore there was a potential conflict of interest . Moreover, in many interviews Ms De Sutter had a positive attitude towards surrogacy even for couples who wished to travel abroad in order to have access to these services.
The first questions on her conflict of interest were raised during the SOC meeting in Strasbourg in October. At the next session in November 2015, when De Sutter presented her new report, the majority of SOC voted for the postponement of the discussion and vote for this report until the conflict of interest allegations were investigated. To the surprise of many, in the following SOC meeting in January, the new president of the SOC decided (after both sides of the story were heard) not to have a secret vote on the conflict of interest (this is the normal procedure and members of the SOC have the right to ask for this), but to have an open vote on the question if there should be a secret vote on the conflict of interest. The open vote took place after a representative of the Belgian delegation (who was not even a member of the SOC) got the chance to influence the vote with a manipulative speech.
In the meantime, new information revealed that her clinic in Ghent collaborates with a clinic in India that offers commercial surrogacy: “The Seeds of Innocence” clinic. We have presented these allegations in length in a previous post. Nevertheless, Ms De Sutter kept denying any involvement in commercial surrogacy. However, the members of the SOC did not have any possibility to use their right for a secret vote to vote on this issue. It is not surprising that De Sutter tried to twist the research on surrogacy in a way that serves her best interests. Instead of investigating how the practice of surrogacy affects basic children’s’ rights, the health of women as well as their rights and dignity, she was focusing on creating a legal framework aiming to regulate the consequences of surrogacy. Her intention was to create a backdoor through which the practice of surrogacy would be accepted (the same practice that her clinic is practicing).
In her interviews, it was clear that she limited the rights of children born out of surrogacy only to those pertaining to the recognition of their status. This caused outrage from both the conservatives and the feminists. On Thursday March 10, representatives from No Maternity traffic presented to the Presidency of PACE in Strasbourg the official European petition requesting the ban of surrogacy that had gathered 107,967 signatures. But also CORP also provided MP Valeriu Ghiletchi with information that calls for a ban on all forms of surrogacy. But why do Human Dignity defenders around the world make all this fuss about surrogacy. Is surrogacy really that bad? Isn’t it an act of kindness and generosity? Research has shown that there are serious ethical medical and social implications associated with surrogacy as we have shown in a previous article. It infringes on the human rights and dignity of women and children. It has also been associated with serious medical risks.
Nevertheless, the SOC remained deeply divided on this issue. Last Monday however, the De Sutter report was rejected in committee with a very narrow margin. The report is now off the table. This is a step forward for all Human Dignity defenders since the report had become very controversial. However, it would have been even better if the SOC would recognize the serious ethical implications of surrogacy as well as its infringement on human rights by calling their Member States to ban the practice. Therefore, PACE should now follow the example of the European Parliament on this issue which has condemned the practice of surrogacy in two reports.
However, the fact that a rapporteur involved in a conflict of interest could be assigned to such a sensitive report, puts the credibility and the integrity of the SOC as well as of PACE into question. Aren't there clear procedures for dealing with a conflict of interest? It would therefore be good if the CoE took this issue very seriously and investigate Ms De Sutter’s involvement in surrogacy in depth. Their aim should not only be to do justice on this situation, but also to preserve CoE's integrity and to prevent similar problems of reappearing in the future. I believe that this issue does not end here…