This post originally appeared on the Human Rights in Ireland blog. Lydia Bracken is a PhD Candidate at the School of Law UCC and a Department of Children and Youth Affairs Research Scholar.
The urgent need to introduce legislation to govern the precarious position of stakeholders in the surrogacy process formed a common thread amongst the seven judgments handed down by the Supreme Court in its recent ruling in the MR and An tArd Chláraitheoir case. Each of the judges expressed disquiet about the current lack of legal regulation in this area and in relation to the fact that, presently, the legal status of children born via surrogacy is “determined by happenstance.” Certainty was said to be vitally important for families involved in the surrogacy process and such certainty could only be achieved through the enactment of legislation.
Initially, the Government had included provisions to regulate parentage in cases of surrogacy in the Children and Family Relationships Bill 2014. These provisions provided that, in a surrogacy arrangement, the woman who gives birth to the child (ie. the surrogate) would automatically be regarded as the legal mother. The commissioning parents could, however, subsequently apply for a parental order so as to extinguish the surrogate’s parental status and to acquire parental responsibilities and rights for themselves. These provisions have since been removed from the Bill, however, and so in light of the Supreme Court’s finding that the woman who gives birth to the child is to be regarded as the child’s legal mother, the question now arises as to whether these provisions will be reinserted and, if they are, whether this is appropriate.
It is questionable as to whether the original provisions would strike an appropriate balance between the rights of all stakeholders in the surrogacy process. In particular, it should be noted that the parental order, as envisaged in the Bill, could not be sought less than 30 days after and not more than 6 months after the child’s birth. Prior to the granting of this order, the surrogate would continue to be recognised as the child’s legal mother and her consent would be required before the order could be made. Therefore, until this consent is given, there would be uncertainty as to whether the child would remain as the legal child of the surrogate or whether parentage would be transferred to the commissioning parents. This leaves the commissioning parents in an undesirable position as their status as joint legal parents cannot be established until the surrogate has exercised her choice.
Although it is quite a rare occurrence, should the surrogate refuse to consent to the parental order, the only option available to the commissioning parents to establish a legal relationship with the child would be to apply for guardianship as per Head 42 of the 2014 Bill. Where the commissioning father is also the genetic father of the child, he may apply for guardianship immediately in the same manner as any other unmarried father. The commissioning mother, however, as a “non-parent”(notwithstanding the fact that she may also be genetically related to the child) would have to have shared responsibility for the child’s day-to-day care for a period of at least two years before she would become eligible to apply. Similarly, where the commissioning parents are a male same-sex couple, this two year waiting period would also apply to the genetic father’s partner. Moreover, the consent of the surrogate would be required before either of the commissioning parents could be appointed as guardians, although the court would be at liberty to dispense with the surrogate’s consent where it is unreasonably withheld and where it is in the best interests of the child to do so.
It is, however, quite uncommon that a surrogate would subsequently seek to keep the child and therefore refuse to consent to the parental order. Typically, the child will be taken into the care of the commissioning parents prior to the making of the order. It should be noted, however, that in this period prior to the making of the parental order, the surrogate, as opposed to the commissioning parents, would be entitled to make decisions in respect of the child, for example in relation to consent to medical treatment. A genetic father could enter into a guardianship agreement with the surrogate so as to obtain parental responsibilities and rights in advance of the making of the parental order, but this option will not apply to a non-genetic commissioning father or indeed to a commissioning mother. The child could, therefore, be left in a vulnerable position as the commissioning parents may be hindered from fully protecting his or her interests during this intervening period. Furthermore, if the surrogate was to die during childbirth, the child, as the legal child of the surrogate, would be entitled to succeed from her estate under succession law. It is unlikely that this would have been intended by the parties at the outset of the agreement.
By contrast, other countries have dealt with the question of the allocation of parentage in surrogacy arrangements through the use of pre-conception orders. In South Africa, for example, under the Children’s Act 38 of 2005, surrogacy agreements can be validated by the High Court before the surrogacy is undertaken. Where validation is granted, the commissioning parents will be treated as the legal parents from the moment of the child’s birth. The surrogate will not acquire any parental status and she is legally required to “hand over” the child as soon as is reasonably possible after the birth. It should be noted, however, that a distinction is made in South African law between “full” and “partial” surrogacy. In the latter case, where the surrogate is also the genetic mother of the child, she retains the right to terminate the surrogate agreement within sixty days of the birth of the child. In Ireland, however, given that the original provisions of the 2014 Bill proposed to exclude the use of “partial” surrogacy, this issue would not arise.
Requiring that parental status is determined prior to the birth of the child would seem to strike a more appropriate balance between the interests of those involved in the surrogacy process than the original Irish proposals. The pre-conception order provides certainty and it removes the difficulties which can arise prior to the making of a parental order, as discussed above. Furthermore, it should be recalled that the Report of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction recommended by a majority in 2005 that the commissioning parents should be presumed to be the legal parents of any child born through surrogacy. Legislating for pre-conception orders to confer legal parental status on the commissioning parents from the moment of the child’s birth would, therefore, be in keeping with this recommendation.
Whatever legislative approach is ultimately undertaken, it is to be hoped that it will occur without unnecessary delay. As O’Donnell J. stated in the MR case, “[t]he absence of legislation does not mean an absence of assisted reproduction; rather it means an absence of regulation.” The families involved in the surrogacy process require and deserve security. In particular, the children born through the process require protection so as to avoid the “legal half-world” into which they are currently born and so it is to be hoped that legislation will be forthcoming.