Birth Rights and Concerns: Issue of surrogate birthing raises debate

Along with the development of the institution of surrogate mothers – a hard-fought societal issue -- lawmakers point at new shortcomings in the law (regulating the sphere) and they warn that if the shortcomings are not removed then a new possibility of women’s abuse will be created in Armenia.

Under the new amendments to the law, foreigners will be prohibited to hire Armenian women to be surrogate mothers for them, because many believe that “the usage of Armenian women’s womb for giving birth to foreigners’ children is unacceptable.”

The RA Law on Reproductive Health and Rights adopted in 2002 allows surrogate motherhood (the donor embryo is developed in the womb of another woman - a surrogate mother) in Armenia. In 2004 the first child was born in Armenia using this method.

Specialists in the area of reproduction say surrogate birth is extremely important for such a country as Armenia, because according to the data of the National Statistical Service of Armenia, about 18 percent of the population of Armenia which are in their reproductive age (18-44) suffer from infertility.

“This is quite a high index as compared to the average 10-15 percent index in the world. That is to say one-sixth of our youth cannot have children. Even if there is no emigration, no war, the number of our population will be halved in 50 years,” says gynecologist Eduard Hambardzumyan, founding director of Human Fertility Center.

There is no definite statistics on how many children are born through this method in Armenia annually yet; according to unofficial data, about 100 deals are signed.

The prices reach up to $25,000, $6,000 out of which covers the medical expenses, and the rest of the sum is given to a surrogate mother as compensation. Specialists say this is a low price, because the same ‘service’, for example, in the Ukraine and Russia costs about $50,000-$80,000, and up to $35,000 in Georgia.

If a few years ago the concept of surrogate motherhood was unknown, now even statements can be found in newspapers, posted on the outer walls of buildings, and of course, in Internet, calling “all healthy 18-35-year-old women, who not only want to earn money but are also eager to help families who do not have children” to become surrogate mothers.

Lawmaker Davit Harutyunyan, Head of the National Assembly's Standing Committee on State and Legal Affairs believes that the existence of such advertisements and ‘brokers’ creates serious risks for Armenia. “If the sphere is commercialized then Armenian women may later face serious problems related to their exploitation,” he says.

“The law must distinctly define that it will be done through compensation and not for the purpose of getting profits, however, if it is advertized, if brokers work here, it definitely becomes commerce, which is not desirable at all in this case,” Harutyunyan says.

The Government declined his draft bill in early February; meanwhile, according to him in case of not filling the legislative gaps problems will be inevitable in the future.

However, Alexander Sirunyan, director of the Sirunyan Law Office dealing with surrogate mothers’ contract issues (his office is the most well-known in Armenia), wonders how it is possible to evade commercialization, “if from the very beginning the deal is made to get a profit.”

“If it is not done for a relative, then any woman would agree to go through the whole difficult process of pregnancy only for the purpose of getting a profit. Abuse cases committed by brokers are also possible, but if it is a normal organization functioning in the legislative field, then problems are almost excluded,” says Sirunyan, who heads the company which has been dealing with such bargains since 2009. He adds that after dozens such bargains no court or mere personal disputes have resulted.

Davit Mkhitaryan, head of Healthy Mind Center, which is the most well-known surrogate mothers’ brokers company in Armenia, says the sphere is regulated by notaries who deal with the issue professionally, so “the danger is not substantial.”

“Applying to the same logics, the sale of hunting rifles must also be banned because someone has killed a man by them. Catch and arrest unscrupulous brokers under the trafficking article, but it is not right to close the whole sphere,” Mkhitaryan says.

There is another issue over which specialists and legislatures do not come to an agreement. The Government and National Assembly of Armenia suggest banning foreigners to apply to the service of Armenian surrogate mothers.

“Foreigners find less expensive and suitable conditions here to settle their problems, but it is unacceptable – why should the womb of an Armenian woman be used to give birth to foreign children?” says Karen Avagyan, lawmaker from Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) angrily.

Under the new bill, foreign couples may apply to the service of surrogate mothers, only if one of the spouses is a citizen of Armenia and the couple must have resided in Armenia for at least three years.

“If the law is not amended this way, then Armenia will simply become a favorable place for foreigners to carry out commerce, and this is a dangerous tendency,” says Ara Babloyan, head of the National Assembly's Standing Committee on Health, Maternity and Childhood Affairs.

Lawyer Sirunyan believes this is term is “wrong”, because it will bring about corruption risks.

“Why ban if each spends at least $30,000 in our country, besides, only two out of ten deals are signed with foreign citizens, moreover, they are not foreigners, they are Diaspora Armenians, then this [the term in the bill] is wrong, and it does not settle any serious legal issue,” Sirunyan says.