ATHENS – India, Nepal and Thailand are well-known destinations for couples looking for affordable surrogacy, but there is a country in Europe where the practice is legal and subject to lax regulations, leaving it exposed to abuse by human traffickers.
For 18 years it has been legal in Greece for couples, regardless of where they are from, to pay a woman to bear a child for them.
The Netherlands is the only other European Union country to permit the practice, although the government has applied stringent regulations.
Greece is home to about 60 assisted reproduction centers, a considerable figure given it has a population of less than 11 million.
The practice was legalized in 2002 thanks to lobbying efforts by gynecologists, who were able to influence change against the tide of a conservative country where the Orthodox Church wields substantial sway.
“Everything was done very secretly,” Sisi Vovu, head of the To Mov feminist movement and former member of the leftists Syriza party, told EFE.
“If not, there would have been more protests, starting with the church and feminist organizations.”
Officials justified the change in law by pointing to the country’s low birth rate.
Greek couples have 1.3 children on average, well below the necessary 2.1 needed for population growth.
In 2005, the government amended the legislation to apply regulations to the assisted reproduction process.
In theory, it fell to the Ministry of Health to provide funds, personnel and equipment but when the economic crisis got into full swing, that framework collapsed.
“If so, a large number of those clinics would have failed inspections and would not be open,” said Takis Vidalis, a legal advisor to the National Bioethics Commission.
An amendment passed in 2014 opened up the surrogacy market to foreigners.
“Just staying in Greece for three days is more than enough,” Vidalis added.
“All you have to do is get a license from the court, which of course is a guarantee.
“They usually just check the documents and if no papers are missing, then they provide the license.”
Another factor where Greece differs to other countries is that the child legally belongs to the paying couple before insemination which negates the need for adoption papers.
The child is then officially registered within the first 10 days of life and the surrogate disappears from the records without a trace.
Only in the case that a surrogate mother believes the child to be biologically her own can she request to keep it.
This means the system favors the would-be parents, who remain anonymous during the process, but it also exposes surrogates to the risk of abuse and trafficking.
Surrogacy services in Greece cost between 60,000 and 80,000 euros ($66,000-$88,000) on average.
In California, another popular destination for the practice, it can run as high as $200,000.
“The winners here are the clinics and the doctors. The women’s bodies lose their integrity,” Vovu said.
We cannot accept that society allows this only because they are poor women or they are willing to do anything because money rules.”
Greek law only permits altruistic surrogacy but provides a payment to the surrogate to cover medical expenses and leave from work.
In theory, this payment should not exceed 10,000 euros.
Finding a surrogate willing to speak out is not easy.
Feminist and anti-trafficking groups have admitted they are unaware of the details of the risks being run in the industry.
In the last decade, police have only managed to shut down three surrogacy trafficking cases.
“It is not that there are very few cases, but it is a very well-hidden crime and it is very difficult to obtain the necessary information to launch an investigation,” Spyros Bratsikas, the captain of the Greek police’s anti-trafficking unit, told EFE.
At the end of last year, Greek and Bulgarian police, in collaboration with Europol, arrested around 60 people involved in trafficking women for surrogacy.
The suspects included a gynecologist, a lawyer and several employees from a private clinic and police identified 30 victims.
The investigation came after reports that young Bulgarian women had been appearing sporadically at clinics to give birth.
The women provided false names and left the day after giving birth.
A couple of Eastern European women came forward to the Syriza party to denounce that they had been forced to take hormones, driven to a clinic to be inseminated, paid a few hundred euros and then left to their fate.
Surrogacy agreements are increasingly cross-border.
In the cases investigated by Greek police, the victims were all young women, many from dysfunctional families with a history of domestic violence.
In a study of almost 300 surrogacy licenses granted between 2003 and 2017, the bioethics commission found 70 percent of surrogates were foreign, single mothers.
They came from eastern Europe, mainly Poland, Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania and Romania.