International surrogacy: progress or media hype?

International surrogacy has become big news. Last month, a landmark international commercial surrogacy case, Re L [1], attracted front page national headlines. Hard on its heels the media spotlight fell on the birth of Elton John and David Furnish’s US surrogate born son, Zachary, on Christmas Day. This has fuelled the debate about surrogacy and the question is why has it generated such attention? The decision in Re L attracted front page national headlines because it marks a significant watershed in the history of UK surrogacy law. For the first time the court has made clear that the child’s welfare will trump public policy on payments. It is only the third published case of its kind to ratify a foreign commercial surrogacy arrangement. Having represented the parents in this case (as well as the first parents to secure a parental order in the case of X&Y in 2008 [2]) I know how difficult and sensitive these applications are and quite how much is at stake.
In Re L, a High Court judge, Mr Justice Hedley, awarded legal parenthood to the British couple who entered into a commercial surrogacy arrangement with a surrogate mother in Illinois, USA. Notwithstanding the public policy ban on commercial surrogacy in the UK (which allows only the payment of reasonable pregnancy related expenses to a surrogate, unless retrospectively authorised by the English court on a case by case basis), the judge decided that the welfare of the child (known only as ‘L’) was the paramount consideration.

Mr Justice Hedley ruled that legal changes last year now (for the first time) weight the balance between public policy and the welfare of the child decisively in favour of welfare except in the clearest case of abuse of public policy. He authorised the British parents’ commercial payment to their surrogate and awarded them legal parenthood. In doing so, he highlighted the legal difficulties surrounding re-entry into the UK after the birth, the need for intended parents to grapple with immigration control and the continuing lack of availability of good quality information. He warned that the court would continue to police the public policy concerns and scrutinise the issue of payments carefully. He also added that the legal criteria had been ‘fully met’ by the ‘most careful and conscientious parents’ in this case.

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