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Surrogacy issue is complex and 'fraught with ethical concerns': Desmond Lee

(Getty Images file photo via AFP)
(Getty Images file photo via AFP)

Singapore is studying the complex issue of surrogacy “carefully” as it is “fraught with ethical concerns” including the exploitation of women and commodification of children, said the Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee in Parliament on Monday (14 January).

Lee’s remarks were made in relation to questions raised by MPs, following the High Court’s landmark decision to allow a gay Singaporean man to adopt his biological child conceived via surrogacy in the United States.

In response to the call by MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Christopher de Souza for a total ban on surrogacy services used by Singaporeans, including those carried out overseas, Lee said that the issue must be considered “holistically and carefully”, keeping in mind “the wishes, aspirations, and concerns of mothers who are otherwise not able to conceive their own flesh and blood”.

Surrogacy is not permitted in Singapore, but assisted reproduction services, such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF), are made available in the country only to married couples who experience difficulties in natural conception.

Payment or reward to the biological or adoptive parents for the adoption of the child in Singapore is also prohibited, except with the sanction of the court.

“Parents who have gone overseas for surrogacy and who come back and apply for adoption of their surrogacy children will have their application assessed on a case-by-case basis. They will also be scrutinised by the courts during the adoption hearings,” Lee said.

Prior to the landmark decision, the courts have granted the adoption of 10 children born abroad via surrogacy, Lee added. These children were all born to married couples applying jointly to adopt the child and who had resorted to surrogacy because they were infertile, he noted.

A 46-year-old pathologist, who has not been identified, won the right to adopt a son he fathered via a surrogate in the United States on 17 December last year.

The man is currently in a 13-year relationship with a Singaporean male partner of the same age, according to court documents. They reside with the child, an American citizen who is turning six this year, and a domestic helper in a three-bedroom condominium apartment in Singapore.

The man had initially approached the Ministry for Social and Family Development (MSF) to inquire about child adoption. However, he was told that the ministry was unlikely to recommend the adoption of children by parties in a homosexual relationship.

The man then travelled to the US where his sperm was used to impregnate the egg of an anonymous donor via in-vitro fertilisation. A surrogate mother carried the embryo to term for US$200,000 (S$267,680).

He brought his son back to Singapore to live with him and began adoption proceedings to legitimise the relationship as well as secure Singapore citizenship for the child.

The man’s application to adopt his son was first turned down by District Judge Shobha Nair in December 2017. The man then appealed to the High Court, which allowed the adoption to proceed.

In a statement issued after the ruling, the man’s lawyer, Ivan Cheong, said the case was important because the court found that there was no public policy against parenthood by singles through the use of assisted reproductive technology or surrogacy overseas.

“That means that just because a child is conceived to a single biological parent through surrogacy would not make it fatal to any intended application (for adoption or other relief) by the single parent,” Cheong added.

‘Appropriate balance’ needed

Lee said that the MSF is reviewing adoption laws and practices to gauge how they should be “strengthened to better reflect public policy” and the current “values of our broad society”.

The MSF had in December last year said that they will consider whether a review of the relevant legislation is required, following the High Court’s decision for the gay man’s adoption to proceed.

In delivering the High Court’s 145-page verdict by the three-judge panel, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon had said that the welfare of the man’s child was regarded as “first and paramount” and evidence demonstrated “that it is very much in the interests of the child that the adoption order be made”.

While the welfare of a child remains an important consideration in adoption proceedings, Lee said the MSF is looking at whether an amendment to the Adoption of Children Act is necessary so as to strike “an appropriate balance” when important public policy considerations – such as parenthood within marriage – are involved.

The government “does not support the formation of family units with children and homosexual parents through institutions of processes such as adoption”, even as its policy is not to intrude or interfere with the private lives of Singaporeans, including homosexuals, and as social attitudes “evolve to greater accommodation of homosexuals”, Lee added.

Noting that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals have a place in Singapore, he said that they, like other Singaporeans, “have access to opportunities and social support such as education, employment, and healthcare and should…not be subjected to prejudice and discrimination.”

Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalises sex between men but authorities have said that the law is not actively enforced.

“However, we must be mindful that the push for rights and entitlements, which broader society is not ready for or able to accept, will provoke a push back and can be very socially divisive,” said Lee.

He also noted that while an adoption order will serve to make a child legitimate under the law, it does not “on its own guarantee” privileges such as citizenship, education, and housing.

“Access to housing will continue to be determined by prevailing criteria, in line with public policy supporting parenthood within marriage,” said Lee. All Singaporean children, regardless of their legitimacy status, will get government benefits including for health care and education.

In response to MP for Marine Parade GRC Prof Fatimah Lateef’s question whether the MSF will monitor or conduct surveillance on the gay man’s son, Lee said that while the government is concerned about “the formation and mainstreaming of same-sex parent units” in Singapore, the welfare of the child is “something altogether different”.

“I think the member alludes, I may be wrong, that a child brought up by two parents in Singapore who are of the same gender may result in this child having difficulties adjusting to mainstream society in schools (and so forth)… but I think when it comes to the welfare of the child, we have to act on the basis of whether there are (legitimate) concerns or otherwise,” he said.

Related stories:

MSF to mull if changes to adoption law needed following gay Singaporean’s successful High Court appeal

Gay Singaporean man wins right to adopt surrogate son

Gay Singaporean man’s adoption bid rejected on ‘policy grounds’: MSF