China’s Surrogacy Debate Extends to Women’s Toilets
Women in China are covering up surrogacy ads in toilets with stickers and lipstick as they try to discourage other women from becoming surrogates or take up their services.
In late April, a video of an anonymous woman covering up a surrogacy ad with stickers in a women’s bathroom in a hospital in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region went viral online.
Her actions were widely praised, with netizens sharing similar experiences about covering up surrogacy ads they encounter: “I erased these sorts of ads in the toilet of a movie theater.” “I’ve seen ads like this in dorms and school bathrooms.” “They can be found in all three toilets in a Changsha shopping mall.”
These ads look to recruit surrogates as well as customers. They are usually made up of very few words, with a price and a contact number provided. Many also guarantee a son, the favored sex in China.
Five university students from five different cities told Sixth Tone that they’ve seen the ads “countless times” in toilets. Zhao Yifei, a master’s degree student at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said that these ads can be found in almost every toilet on campus. She sometimes feels conflicted when scratching them out with her keys.
“On the one hand, I think (surrogacy) can help those families who cannot conceive because of physical reasons. On the other hand … the most likely result is that the rich use surrogacy in large numbers and exploit the poor,” said Zhao.
Commercial surrogacy is banned in China, together with all sales of gametes, fertilized eggs, and embryos. The prohibition has led to the emergence of black markets and cross-border surrogacy services that target infertile and same-sex couples.
Surrogate mothers in China can receive up to 280,000 yuan ($40,282) for their services, while customers reportedly pay up to 1.1 million yuan for a surrogate baby with a chosen sex.
The question of whether to legalize surrogacy in China is a heated debate. In 2017, state-run media People’s Daily published an article that discussed legalizing surrogacy to ease the country’s falling birth rate and help infertile senior couples. Opponents, however, decry the practice for exploiting vulnerable women.
Li, who insisted on only using her surname, has kept a marker pen and anti-surrogacy stickers in her handbag since 2019, when she first erased a surrogacy ad in a shopping mall toilet with her lipstick in her hometown of Zhengzhou, the capital city of the central province of Henan.
“I’m embarrassed to say it, but I was thinking about whether the lipstick can still be used afterwards. But this was only for a few seconds — after all, this matter is much more important than lipstick,” Li, 26, told Sixth Tone.
Afterwards, Li purchased anti-surrogacy stickers in case she ran into the ads again. Some of these stickers mention that they are 30 centimeters long, the same length as a needle used for retrieving a woman’s egg. She hopes this scares women thinking about surrogacy by showing what it will mean in practice.
Some women’s products manufacturers, including sellers of pads and skincare products, are supporting these anti-surrogacy efforts by gifting customers free anti-surrogacy stickers with their purchases.
SISCOM, an online vendor with over 40,000 followers on e-commerce platform Taobao selling feminist merchandise, began giving customers free anti-surrogacy stickers in 2021. “Surrogacy exploits women. It’s banned in China. You will be punished for it,” the stickers read, with a reporting hotline included.
Qiqi, co-owner of SISCOM, told Sixth Tone that she has seen many of these ads herself.
“Sometimes I can’t help but feel that the people who make these ads are so smart … The toilet compartments are so private that you can hardly catch them and ban them,” she said.
Women’s public toilets have been in the news before. In 2020, advocates launched a campaign to install pad-sharing boxes in women’s toilets, which swept across the country.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: Anti-surrogacy stickers sold online by Qiqi's store, urging women to “reject surrogacy,” May 12, 2023. Courtesy of Qiqi)