The TV report shows a seminar organised by a US-based non-profit organisation that offered consultancy and information for male same-sex couples regarding surrogacy options in countries where commercial surrogacy is legal. Commercial surrogacy refers to the practice of paying surrogate mothers to carry and deliver a child for the intended parents and is not permitted in the European Union.
More than 2,400 Facebook users shared the video that was posted in March 2023 to private profiles, such as here and here, along with a Slovak caption claiming that it showed reports of “auctions of children for homosexual couples” taking place in Belgium.
The video features a clip from “Central Television”, a program on Russian TV channel NTV. The clip was uploaded to the NTV website on October 5, 2019 as part of an article headlined “Belgium hosts a children’s fair for same-sex couples”. In the video, we see two TV presenters.
“Can you imagine, a children’s fair took place in Belgium. Really a fair. I didn’t choose that word by accident as it was quite legally possible to draw up a contract for the sale of babies there,” says Anna Yankina, one of the presenters and hosts of the Central Television show.
“This fair is for same-sex couples who can find a surrogate mother there and, provided they pay for her services off a price list, become happy parents. Or they can just buy a child from a woman who wants to sell it,” she adds. After introducing the story, she then claims that the price of one baby ranges from $95,000 to $160,000.
The claims fit into Russian anti-LGBTQ+ disinformation narratives — outlined in this 2021 report from the European Parliament — that paint LGBTQI+ people as a threat to children and frame the promotion of LGBTQI+ rights as a “colonisation attempt by a morally corrupt and degraded West”.
The characterisation of the event is, however, strongly misleading. AFP got in touch with legal experts as well as the NGO that organised the conference, which has taken place in Brussels several times. We confirmed that rather than an “auction” of children, which would be illegal under human trafficking laws, the clip shows an informational event aimed at providing resources to male same-sex couples on surrogacy options in places, including the United States and Canada, where the practice is legal. Commercial surrogacy is not legal in Belgium or in other EU member states.
The video and its misleading message have been previously debunked or addressed by other fact-checking organisations such as the EUvsDisinfo (here, here), EUfactcheck.eu, Faktograf.hr (here, here), Factcheck.kz, and even the Russian site The Insider.
Men Having Babies non-profit
Men Having Babies (MHB) is a US-based non-profit which organises conferences and seminars around the world that provide, according to its website, “educational and practical information to assist prospective parents who are gay, queer, or bisexual men, as well as transwomen achieve biological parenting”. Its mission also includes “promoting ethical surrogacy practices that minimize the risks” and “promoting the affordability of surrogacy related services through advocacy, financial assistance, and the encouragement of transparency and patient feedback.”
Ron Poole-Dayan, MHB executive director, told AFP that the organisation only provides information about parenting options and allows people to meet service providers who operate legally in certain US states and Canadian provinces. It does not itself facilitate any surrogacy services.
“Of course MHB is not organizing auctions of children, neither online, nor at our 2019 Brussels event or anywhere else. This is not just a lie, but libel and hate speech by the same Russian ‘sources’ that are trying each and every way they can to tarnish liberal values and undermine the foundations of free societies,” Poole-Dayan told AFP in March 2023.
“What we facilitate is access to information about services that are perfectly legal in the USA and Canada, not the sale and certainly not the auction of existing or future children,” he added.
The event in Brussels, which is referenced in the Russian TV report and which took place in September 2019, was dubbed “The 5th annual Brussels Conference on Parenting Options for European Gay Men”. MHB has organized many similar events as part of its “surrogacy seminars and conferences” in cities like Chicago, New York, Taipei, Tel Aviv, Berlin and San Francisco. Such conferences provide “unbiased information, access to a wide range of service providers, and networking,” according to MHB.
According to media reports from the time, the 2019 Brussels event featured “about 24 stands of private clinics and mediation services” at the conference venue. MHB also published a promotional video from the event on its YouTube channel. Its discussions and panels were recorded and are also available on YouTube.
AFP checked the service providers — surrogacy agencies and fertility clinics — listed on MHB’s website and found all of them to be based in the United States, and not in Belgium or anywhere else in Europe. There was no mention of an “auction of babies” taking place at the event in the media reports on the matter, or on the event agenda.
According to Poole-Dayan, MHB only “provides information about parenting options and allows people to meet service providers who operate legally in the USA and Canada, and abide by ethical guidelines”. This refers to MHB’s Ethical Framework, which specifies principles and standards that the surrogacy and IVF providers listed by MHB pledged to abide by. “We also check their publications and track record to make sure they do not facilitate surrogacy in violation of our Baseline Protocols or at destinations outside of the USA and Canada,” Poole-Dayan said about the service providers.
“In the United States, we estimate that the cost of surrogacy tends to range from $90,000 to $180,000, depending on the location and services provided. MHB has no direct control of the cost factors, but we provide our members guidance on how to make informed budgetary decisions,” he said about the pricing prospective parents can expect when choosing the services of US providers.
MHB states that proceeds from their conferences benefit the so-called Gay Parenting Assistance Program (GPAP), a program that aims “to make building a family more affordable for gay prospective parents that need financial assistance for their surrogacy journey”.
This program and the activities of MHB are also the subject of an article about gay couples and surrogacy published by The Guardian in October 2022. According to the article, the GPAP program gives out more than one million dollars a year in discounted and free medical services and cash grants to intended parents in financial need.
Surrogacy in Europe
When talking about surrogacy, we should specify that we are primarily referring to gestational surrogacy, which is the most common form. In this method, the child is not biologically related to the surrogate carrier. Instead, the embryo is created via in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) using the eggs and sperm of the intended parents or donors, and is then transferred inside the womb of a surrogate.
Traditionally, surrogacy can either be altruistic or commercial (here, here). Altruistic surrogacy refers to such surrogacy agreements where the surrogate does not receive monetary compensation. In most of the altruistic surrogacy cases, the surrogate is a relative or close friend of the intended parents.
Commercial surrogacy, on the other hand, refers to agreements where the surrogate carrier is compensated by the intended parents not only for medical or travel expenses but also for the entire process of getting pregnant and giving birth to the child. According to Global Market Insights, a market research consultancy firm, the global commercial surrogacy industry was worth an estimated $14 billion in 2022.
Within Europe, the practice of surrogacy is regulated individually as per each country’s national legislation. As previously reported by AFP or as explained in this 2022 academic article headlined “Commercial Surrogacy: An Overview”, for example, in countries like Austria, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Poland, the practice is explicitly legally prohibited in all forms. In some countries, only altruistic surrogacy is legal, as is the case for example in Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom.
Commercial surrogacy is not legally permitted in any of the EU member states, according to Tania Racho, a legal expert and researcher of European law at Paris-Saclay University.
In several non-EU countries, for example in Ukraine, Russia, Cyprus or Georgia, commercial surrogacy is explicitly permitted by law. However, in Ukraine, while the practice is accessible to foreigners, only married and heterosexual couples can sign a contract with a surrogate. The situation used to be quite similar in Russia until December 2022 (here, here), when new legislation was passed banning foreigners from having children with the help of a surrogate.
While surrogacy and its implications are not directly addressed in Slovak legislation, Act no. 36/2005 Coll. — the so-called Law on the Family — strictly sets out that “the mother of the child is the woman who gave birth to the child”.
The situation in the Czech Republic is in a legal grey area as it is neither explicitly permitted, nor prohibited. The tolerated practice in the Czech Republic is for the surrogate mother to bear the child for the biological parents and give up her parental rights following the birth, but such action must not be compensated (here, here, here).
The European Parliament has on multiple occasions condemned the practice of commercial surrogacy when adopting its annual report on human rights (in 2022, in 2015). As part of its 2022 resolution on the impact of the war against Ukraine on women, the EP also condemned “the practice of surrogacy, which can expose women around the world to exploitation, in particular those who are poorer and are in situations of vulnerability, such as in the context of war”.
In the United States, the practice is permitted in some states even in its commercial form (notably in California), but in other states, it is banned in all forms.
Closer look at Belgium
The legal situation in Belgium is similar to that of the Czech Republic in that there is no law specifically addressing surrogacy. Similar to the Czech Republic, altruistic surrogacy is not itself against the law and adoption by the intended parents after the child is born may be authorised under strict conditions.
To better assess the legal situation of surrogacy in Belgium, we approached Catherine de Bouyalski, a lawyer who is one of the leading experts on the matter.
“Belgium does not have any legislation on surrogacy. This means that it is not prohibited but it also means it is not regulated in any way. Moreover, in Belgium, a contract by which a woman would agree to give up her rights to the child she is carrying in advance to giving birth has no legal value,” de Bouyalski said in an email to AFP.
She also explained that commercial surrogacy is not legal: “As the body is ‘off the market’, no contract can be concluded in which surrogacy services are provided in exchange for payment”. This is a reference to the right to respect for physical integrity of the person as enshrined, for example, in Article 3 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. According to de Bouyalski, exceptions to this principle are only possible in strictly planned and regulated cases, and always with an altruistic or gratuitous motivation, for example for organ donation.
“Some Belgian hospitals and clinics practice surrogacy. In the absence of specific law, however, each provider decides how it wishes to regulate this process in compliance with all other applicable fundamental rules, of course. Most hospitals require that the intended parents come with a surrogate mother that they know, possibly related to them. Psychological and medical interviews are planned with the different protagonists before the hospital decides to accept or refuse the request. This process is intended to be as respectful as possible of everyone’s rights,” said de Bouyalski.
When asked whether she has any knowledge of children’s auctions, she replied: “I have never heard of any ‘auctions’ of babies in Belgium. This would obviously be perfectly illegal. It seems to me that the articles and claims you sent me make shortcuts and try to bring a ‘shock’ value without any basis in reality. As far as I am concerned, all the cases which concerned surrogacy that I dealt with in my practice, were carried out legally in the respective country concerned.”
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