The history of surrogacy reaches back millennia, but modern in vitro fertilization – what we now think of when we hear the word "surrogacy" – only started within the last 40 years or so.
Our entire industry wouldn't be possible without the contributions of medical miracle workers, scientists, and ordinary people who took the initial leap of faith.
So when did surrogacy start?
Surrogacy during antiquity
The earliest recorded mentions of surrogacy occurred in the Middle East in ancient Babylonia and also twice in the Bible's Book of Genesis. Lore from the old Hindu tradition also suggests that the general concept of surrogacy formed thousands of years ago.
In the Biblical accounts, Abraham and his wife Sara couldn't conceive an heir, so Sara's faithful handmaiden Hagar bore Abraham's child on her behalf. Similarly, there's also the telling later in the Book of Genesis of Rachel and her own maid Bilhah who carried Jacob’s child.
Linguistically, the word surrogate itself comes from the Latin verb “subrogate,” which has the connotation of appointing a substitute for a crucial specific role or task – in this case, childbearing.
What's also worth mentioning about surrogacy in antiquity is that it was considered a last resort to maintain a hereditary line of succession, which during ancient times was required by Judaeo-Christian tradition and sometimes the law.
Surrogacy up to the modern era
You may find it surprising that we don't know much about surrogacy from antiquity all the way up to the mid 20th century. But that's what it looks like from a strictly historical point of view when you look up how surrogacy started.
Surrogacy appears to have been used in practice but spoke less often in official records, especially medical records. This lack of reliable information suggests that surrogacy may have been stigmatized to a degree as unnatural and taboo to circumvent the sanctity of the procreation process.
We can be thankful that things have changed now that we're living in the 21st century with surrogacy more widely accepted and less stigmatized, if at all. Nowadays, we don't consider surrogacy as inherently morally defective; we consider it an act of love and charity in our modern time.
The miracle of in vitro fertilization from the 1970s to the 1900s
In vitro fertilization wasn't around until the late 1970s when two British scientists – Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards – successfully implanted a fertilized embryo in a woman who couldn't conceive naturally.
In 1978, Louise Joy Brown – the “test-tube baby” – became the first person in the world born through in vitro fertilization techniques pioneered by Steptoe and Edwards.
The science was so new that in vitro embryos only had about a five percent chance actually to yield a live birth. By the 1980s, the success rate for in vitro fertilization rose to 10 percent, and in the 1990s, the success rate increased again to 25 percent.
But in 1992, another technique came to light: intracytoplasmic sperm injection, invented by Gianpiero Palermo. This treatment, still used today, involves injecting sperm directly into an egg to fertilize the embryo before implanting it in a surrogate mother.
During the same period, further scientific breakthroughs were made in the genetics field with the advent of a preimplantation genetic diagnosis technique.
As you can see, in a relatively short amount of time in the 20th century, medical science advanced from first pioneering in vitro fertilization all the way to genetic sequencing to detect chromosome defects before implanting the embryo.
Surrogacy and key legal cases
We know with certainty that it was the lawyer Noel Keane who drafted the first surrogacy contract in the United States in 1976. What's worth noting is that there wasn't any compensation given to the surrogate, and few other details remain in the public arena.
In 1980, things changed for surrogacy as science began to attract more headlines. Elizabeth Kane became the first person in the United States to be monetarily compensated for surrogacy and paid $11,500.
But nothing made headlines in 1986 as much as the infamous “Baby M” lawsuit that changed surrogacy for good. In short, the case involved a traditional surrogate mother who decides to sue for custody of the child despite signing an agreement.
In the end, a judge ruled that “Baby M's” birth mother did, indeed, have partial custody rights. The case’s effect was to make modern gestational surrogacy the preferred choice for intended parents who didn't want to endure a custody battle from a traditional surrogacy agreement.
Yet another landmark legal battle occurred in 1990 when a gestational surrogate tried to sue for custody rights of the child she birthed. A judge ruled that since the surrogate had no genetic relationship to the child, the contract was valid and sided with the intended parents.
Today, gestational surrogates – what we now think of when we talk about surrogacy – give birth to about 750 babies per year, proving that what was once taboo is now commonplace.
At SurrogateFirst, we're a boutique surrogate agency that specializes in quickly matching intended parents around the world with our fully-vetted, exceptional surrogates.
We help individuals and couples, regardless of race or sexual orientation, build their families through the miracle of surrogacy.
Every team member at SurrogateFirst is either a former intended parent or an experienced surrogate herself. We also have first-hand knowledge of what it takes to have an incredible, successful surrogate journey.
Have any questions? Ask a surrogate for her experiences and advice here.