Surrogacy and the City: Parker awaits delivery of twins

It sounds like the kind of story Sex and the City columnist Carrie Bradshaw would agonise over for hours in front of her Apple laptop as she made her way through a pack of Marlboro Lights.

A deeply in love couple have a son, and for the next six years try for another baby but nothing seems to work. Eventually they decide that their last resort will be to use a surrogate mother to provide them with the child of their dreams. But as Carrie – who always ended her columns with a question mark – might say: Isn't surrogacy the ultimate taboo?

Not if you are Sarah Jessica Parker, who played Carrie Bradshaw throughout the HBO hit series, and is having twins with a surrogate mother this summer. Yesterday, Parker, who is married to actor Matthew Broderick, confirmed the news through their publicist.

"Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick are happily anticipating the birth of their twin daughters later this summer with the generous help of a surrogate. The entire family is overjoyed," the publicist said.

A friend of the pair told Entertainment Weekly that they had been trying to add to their family since the birth of their son, James Wilkie, six years ago. "They had a lot of unsuccessful tries," the friend said. "They came to the conclusion that this was going to be the best alternative for expanding their family."

Barring any complications, the couple will become just one of hundreds of families in the US who rely on surrogacy to provide them with a child.

It is a process which has become increasingly popular among celebrities. Robert De Niro, Kelsey Grammer, Angela Bassett and Ricky Martin have all resorted to surrogacy in recent years.

To its critics, surrogacy is considered morally questionable because it challenges our most basic ideas about motherhood and the supposedly unbreakable bond between a mother and her child. But supporters say it offers a vital lifeline to couples who are desperate to have a child and have exhausted all other means.

According to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (Sart) – the only organisation in the US that tries to keep track of surrogate births – 256 babies were born through surrogate mothers in 2007, an increase of 30 per cent over four years. But 15 per cent of US clinics are not Sart members and keep their data secret, so the true extent is thought to be much higher, possibly as many as 1,000 births per year.

Despite stiff competition from India, which has looser surrogacy laws and cheaper medical bills, America remains the surrogacy capital of the world.

Over the years surrogacy has become a multi-million dollar industry with swanky clinics and agencies charging tens of thousands of dollars to couples looking for a womb to rent. The total cost of having a surrogate baby is usually quoted on clinic websites as being somewhere between $60,000 (£41,000) and $120,000.

Mothers are able to keep their prices high because the demand for them far outstrips supply. Surrogate mothers typically charge anything from $13,000 to $25,000 to carry another couple's baby and they are usually compensated for lost earnings, travel expenses and health insurance. But the issue remains deeply divisive with an unusual alliance of Christian evangelicals and secular feminists leading the criticism.

Melissa Brisman, who heads the largest surrogacy law firm on the US East Coast, told The Independent yesterday that the Parker-Brodericks will have almost certainly found a surrogate mother who lives outside of New York.

"In New York State, you're not allowed to pay surrogate mothers but there's nothing to stop you from finding a mother in somewhere like Ohio which has very relaxed surrogacy laws," she said. "We're now seeing a lot of celebrities using surrogates to have children which, in turn, is making the process more socially acceptable among ordinary Americans."

Technology has also led to higher success rates. Scientists can now inject a single sperm directly into an egg to virtually guarantee fertilisation. Previously they had to put thousands of sperm in a Petri dish and hope one of them would make it.

The technology might be cutting edge but the concept of surrogacy dates back thousands of years.

The Code of Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian law, legalised surrogacy as early as 1760BC and the Old Testament frequently refers to Hebrew tribes using servants to give birth to heirs.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that Jesus's birth was a form of divine surrogacy.

Baby boom: Surrogacy laws around the world

Surrogacy is legal in the UK, but there are much stricter laws governing it here than in the US, where some states take a very relaxed approach and allow for large compensation gifts to be paid by the prospective parents.

In Britain a couple are only allowed to pay a surrogate mother "reasonable expenses", meaning very few people are willing to carry another couple's baby for nine months without pay.

UK law also does not recognise surrogacy as a binding agreement, meaning either party can pull out at any time with little legal consequence. It is also illegal to advertise for surrogates or intended parents.

In the US laws differ from state to state. After a messy custody case in the 1980s where a surrogate mother refused to give up her baby, 12 states – including New York, New Jersey and Michigan – brought in laws like those in the UK, forbidding payment to surrogate mothers and nullifying any contracts. Texas, Illinois, Utah and Florida currently have the most liberal surrogacy laws, while more than a dozen states including California allow it but heavily regulate paid surrogacy.

Over the past 30 years it is thought that approximately 22,000 babies have been born through surrogate mothers in the US alone.

India has recently got in on the act with the Gujarati town of Anand becoming the country's surrogacy capital. A rural Indian mother who agrees to give her baby away can often end up earning the equivalent of 10 years' wages, making surrogacy a booming, but ethically dubious and largely unmonitored, industry on the subcontinent.

A bill which would regulate the estimated £500m industry and weed out bogus practitioners is currently working its way through the Indian parliament. If it is passed, India will become the only country in the world to fully legalise commercial surrogacy.

Contracts between mothers and clients will be legally binding and hammered out long before the mother gives birth. The mother, who has to be between 21 and 45 years old, will relinquish all rights to the child as soon as the money is transferred.

All foreigners seeking infertility treatment in India will first have to register with their embassy, and the foreign couple will also have to nominate a person to whom the child should be entrusted in case either or both adoptive parents die.

Jerome Taylor

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