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Nordic countries divided on the surrogacy issue

Surrogacy, or surrogate parenthood, is an intensely discussed topic in the Nordic region, and the countries are divided on the issue. While Iceland has taken a step to allow the method as a treatment for childless people, Sweden is pulling in the opposite direction.

Two years ago, Iceland became the first Nordic country to present a government bill that if passed would entitle childless people to altruistic surrogacy services through the public healthcare system. The bill was backed by a majority in the country’s parliament.

‘Since then, we have had two government crises, so the issue has not received much priority,’ says Hrefna Friðriksdóttir, law scholar at the University of Iceland.

Swedish government inquiry proposed stricter rules

Although Iceland is the only Nordic country that has presented a concrete government bill on surrogate parenthood, it has been on the political agenda elsewhere as well. In contrast to Iceland, a Swedish government inquiry presented last year recommended stricter regulation. At present, surrogacy is not regulated in Swedish law and the inquiry suggested that it should not be allowed. The inquiry also proposed tougher rules to make it more difficult for Swedes to travel abroad for surrogacy treatment.
‘I’m very curious about what these rules would look like, because it’s really hard to regulate these things,’ says Hrefna Friðriksdóttir.

Feminist movement divided

According to Hrefna Friðriksdóttir, all Nordic countries consider the issue of surrogacy to be extremely complex.

‘There are several opposing interests involved,’ she says.

In Iceland, the strongest political support for allowing surrogacy is found on the right wing, but the parties are divided on the issue. The situation is the same in the other Nordic countries, and there is also disagreement among various government bodies. For example, the Swedish National Council on Medical Ethics is positive to surrogacy, while the government inquiry from 2016 is against it. Disagreement can also be found in the feminist movement. If we allow surrogate parenthood, we also allow exploitation of poor and vulnerable women, say the opponents. Altruistic surrogacy is described as an impossible path since it cannot be guaranteed that surrogate mothers have not been subject to pressure.

‘In the other camp are those who are provoked by the idea that women are incapable of making informed decisions about their own bodies,’ says Hrefna Friðriksdóttir.

To add to the complexity, some of those who are fundamentally opposed to surrogate parenthood still want it to be allowed within the framework of the national healthcare system, to make it easier to control.

‘They argue that by offering the treatment here, it would be possible to carry out proper assessments and offer support,’ Hrefna Friðriksdóttir explains.

‘The desire for children is an extremely powerful driving force. It’s obvious that people are willing to travel abroad to get this service,’ she continues.

Legal vacuum in the Nordic countries

Surrogacy is not legally regulated in any of the Nordic countries. In Finland, treatments were offered though the public healthcare system until 2007. Some 20 treatments were provided before a law prohibiting the method was adopted. Since then, no Nordic country has actively offered surrogacy treatments through the publically funded healthcare sector, although private arrangements where the surrogate mother lets the intended parent adopt the baby after the delivery remain allowed.

‘Such arrangements are very difficult to regulate, if anybody would want to do so,’ says Hrefna Friðriksdóttir.

Surrogacy is not illegal in any Nordic country, but some countries make private arrangements difficult. For example, it seems to be easier for prospective parents to get their parenthood approved in Sweden than in Iceland. In Sweden, there have been several cases where couples who have had a child with the assistance of a surrogate mother abroad have been legally recognised as parents after returning to Sweden. In Iceland, a case where the court chose the opposite path recently received a lot of attention. A prospective mom was not recognised as a parent because the child had been born by a surrogate mother and had no genetic ties to her.

‘This of course leads to an uncertain situation for that child,’ says Hrefna Friðriksdóttir.

‘The discussion is not over’

According to Hrefna Friðriksdóttir, the child’s perspective is of central importance in the national debates on surrogate parenthood.

‘The politicians have an ambition to base their decisions on what’s best for the child, but it is difficult to determine what that is,’ she says.

The available research shows that children born via surrogacy generally do well and grow up in stable and safe family environments, but research on the more long-term effects is lacking, says Hrefna Friðriksdóttir. She also highlights the risks of not having effective legislation in place, such as in the Nordic countries. Such absence of legislation leads to a situation where children lack a legal guardian while their cases are dealt with in court. There have also been situations where children have been completely abandoned, as neither the surrogate mother nor the prospective parents have been willing to acknowledge them.

Both Iceland and the other Nordic countries are closely following the developments in Sweden in the wake of last year’s government inquiry, says Hrefna Friðriksdóttir. The final fate of the Icelandic government bill remains to be decided. If it is brought back to the discussion table, those who are against it will try to use the Swedish government inquiry to stop it, Hrefna Friðriksdóttir believes.
‘This discussion is far from over,’ she says.

Updated 10 December 2019