Surrogacy: Parenthood as a global industry

The United States and Mexico are two of the world’s leading destinations for couples from countries where the practice is illegal, such as Spain

Norma Nathaly Hernández, 34, who carried a baby for a Spanish couple in Mexico City.
Norma Nathaly Hernández, 34, who carried a baby for a Spanish couple in Mexico City.Iñaki Malvido
El País

Pablo Porras, 28, recalls his husband Marc’s reaction when he proposed that they become parents using surrogacy, laying out for him options and destinations. “Marc took a look and told me it wasn’t going to happen,” he says. But over time he changed his mind and, after ruling out adoption, surrogacy was the path they took, an alternative that was illegal in their home country, Spain: “It was very important to me for the baby to have my genetic input,” Porras explains. In 2021, with the world still half paralyzed by Covid restrictions, the couple flew to Mexico City to meet Norma Nathaly Hernández, the 34-year-old woman who would undergo hormone treatment and become pregnant after signing a long and detailed contract. She gave birth five months ago and received around €15,000. The couple are now caring for their baby at home in Barcelona.

To help make this kind of thing happen, there is a whole network of lawyers, agencies, consultants and clinics operating in several countries and dedicated to connecting childless couples or singles who want to become parents with women, often in precarious economic circumstances, prepared to carry a child for them in countries where surrogacy is allowed. The industry works in a shifting legal landscape, traversing disparate legislation and bureaucracy. It sidesteps unfriendly laws and adapts to testing situations, such as the world health crisis generated by the Covid pandemic or the war in Ukraine, which was one of the world’s main surrogacy destinations before the invasion, but where business continues with 30% of clients, according to New Hope, one of the main companies in the sector.

When last week’s cover of the celebrity magazine Hola! showed Spanish actress and TV presenter Ana Obregón, 68, leaving a Miami hospital carrying her surrogate baby, the ethical and political debate was rekindled in Spain, where a paradox exists regarding the issue, namely that the State ends up recognizing children born through surrogacy abroad despite taking a firm stance against it back home. A Supreme Court ruling in 2022 considers that the “harm to the best interests of the minor and the exploitation of the women involved are unacceptable.” The contract that Hernández signed in Mexico with the couple from Barcelona would not stand up in a Spanish court, but the best interests of the minor is what prevails once the child arrives in the country.

Until recently, Mexico was not a popular destination for Spaniards seeking surrogacy. But there are now several Spanish agencies that work with companies in Mexico, where rates are cheaper than those in the United States, the global reference for surrogacy. Doing it in the US is the closest you can get to a guarantee of not being trapped in a legal limbo when it comes to getting the child’s documents. A US judge establishes the child’s filiation, and Spaniards can register the newborn at the consulate. It is also the most expensive destination with rates beginning at around €130,000. In Mexico, the price is closer to around €70,000. Both countries are open to all types of couples and sexual orientations. “Most of the surrogacy cases we have registered in Mexico are for homosexual couples from the United States, Spain and Israel,” says Isabel Fulda, deputy director of the Information Group in Chosen Reproduction (GIRE).

In the United States, 200-odd surrogacy agencies operate under the umbrella of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), which has established guidelines, though each agency sets its own rules on the profile of the women who will become pregnant and the price, as well as the budget and age of the prospective parents. One of the largest of these agencies, Growing Generations, based in West Virginia, says it receives between 15,000 and 20,000 applications a year from women willing to become pregnant for third parties. Out of this pool, it selects around 100. “Less than 2% of the candidates are chosen,” explains Jessica Junyent, the agency’s vice president for international development. “We have delivered 2,126 babies since we set up in 1996. We work with more than 60 countries, although most of the parents are from Asia and Europe.”

Women who become pregnant for others in Growing Generations charge a minimum of $57,000 – almost €52,300, although they can go up to $100,000. For the future parents, the process costs between $145,000 and $250,000, depending on whether they provide their own genetic material or have to resort to egg or sperm donations. The baby is delivered immediately after the birth to the prospective parents.

The experiences of the women giving birth to other people’s babies vary according not only to where they’re from, but also according to the intermediaries and how vulnerable they themselves are. Ana, a woman from Mexico who prefers not to give her real name for fear of reprisals, became pregnant at the age of 21 for a gay couple from the United States who were clearly looking for a cheaper option than what was available back home. But for Ana, what seemed like a simple procedure turned into a living hell: the hormone treatment needed for the delivery affected her health, she never received a copy of her contract or met the couple until the day they came for the baby, she experienced obstetric aggression and was threatened when she became reluctant to give up the child. The payment was 150,000 pesos – €7,500. “I regretted giving up the baby and they went from telling me that everything was perfectly legal to threatening to put me in jail,” she says. “They trade with women’s bodies and benefit financially from it.” After giving birth, Ana did hand the child over but, years later, she still has nightmares about it.

Hernández explains that she has had three pregnancies in total and says she would like to repeat the experience. When asked how she feels about the babies she has given birth to, she says, “You can’t transmit love to them as you would to your own child because you know they are not yours, but you also know they are a desired and expected child.”

Hernández acknowledges that if there was no payment involved, she would not do it. “No woman is going to go through something like that without compensation,” she says. “You would only do that for someone very close to you.” After signing a contract with lots of small print, she received around €15,200 from the couple in Barcelona, which was paid in 10 installments as the pregnancy progressed. The money, in fact, only represented 16% of the €90,000 paid by Pablo and Marc to the agency, which was €20,000 more than they expected, because of the obstacles they encountered in getting the child a passport; they were stranded for three months in Mexico and have still not had the baby recognized as Spanish and as being the child of both.

Although there is no exact data on the number of surrogacy agencies in Mexico, it is safe to say that it is a booming business. In 2018, surrogacy was a $6 billion (€5.5 billion) business with an annual growth of 24.5%, according to Eleane Proo, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who cites figures from the Surrogacy Market Share Report 2025. “In countries like Mexico, which is an emerging economy, surrogacy is very good for the State,” says Proo, who is against regulation. “That’s why the authorities turn a blind eye, because it has to do with more investment and more foreigners coming in.”

A contract for pregnancy

For nine months, these women’s lives are governed by the clauses in their contract. The future parents pay for hormone treatment, diets, transportation, medical insurance and medication. In one contract signed in Mexico, a woman agreed to undergo hormone treatment, not to back out of the process and not to claim the baby once it is born. Another contract, provided by a Spanish agency, shows the considerable control over the woman: she has restricted freedom of movement, needing medical authorization to fly at any time during the pregnancy; she cannot leave the country after the 24th week of gestation, in case there is a birth outside the jurisdiction where the contract is valid. She must also notify the prospective parents if she accepts a new job or if she changes address, and she cannot have sexual relations whenever she wants – “this may include abstinence (...) for long periods of time” – or with whomever she wants – only with a person “tested for sexually transmissible diseases with negative results.” In case of “organic loss” as a result of pregnancy, the woman will receive financial compensation “for the inconvenience and discomfort.” Less specific is the actual sum: “(...) the amount of which will be determined (...) depending on the circumstances.”

It is difficult to know the magnitude of the surrogacy phenomenon, since there are no records in some of the countries where it is legal. In Spain, the only official reference is the one offered by the civil registries of the Spanish consulates abroad. “Between 2010 and 2021, a total of 3,273 babies born in the context of contracts entered into by Spanish citizens were registered,” explains Ana Trejo Pulido in her recently published book In the Name of the Parent. Of these, almost half come from the United States (1,441), followed by Ukraine (1,294), India (194), Canada (110) and Mexico (59).

The figures are incomplete, since there may also be children who are registered once they are in Spain, where families can also initiate legal filiation or adoption proceedings. And there is a huge discrepancy between those figures and the calculations made by the agencies operating in Spain and the main association of parents who resort to this practice, Son Nuestros Hijos (They Are Our Children). “That data is inaccurate,” says Eduardo Chaperón, one of the spokespersons for the organization, which brings together around 800 families. “There are many who do not carry out the process in the consulates.” He adds that there are around 1,000 children a year born from surrogacy. Until they are properly documented, the children will have the nationality of the country where they were born. As they are foreigners in the eyes of the Spanish State, they will have to overcome bureaucratic hurdles to access basic services during the interim.

The surrogacy sector in Spain has undergone a transformation in recent years. Agency activity has been curtailed by the authorities, limiting them to offering advice. Something very different happens in the countries where the process is actually carried out, as in the US. There, it is the agency “that coordinates everything: the doctor, nurses, psychologists, the insurance company and the lawyer used to establish the terms of the contract, as well as the legal process of filiation,” says Junyent, who is responsible for the international arm of one of these companies. He adds: “Our candidates are not in it only for the money, because we don’t accept women without resources.”

Chaperón, whose child was born in Los Angeles, insists on this last point. He believes the practice should be regulated and a registry created, and that surrogacy should always be done with an eye on equality. “Do I share equal status with the woman who has carried my child?” he says. “Yes. To begin with, because she earns more than I do, and also, because she lives in a house that is better than mine.” Chaperón is keen to flag up the educational work of his association, which draws on the experience of the parents themselves, to avoid intermediaries – basically, agencies – “that damage the image” of the families using surrogacy.

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