The Nanny Who Was a Princess: How a Kindness Turned Controversial

Norway’s Princess Mette-Marit went incognito to India to care for the twins of a gay courtier. She returned home to a controversy over surrogacy

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Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

Princess Mette-Marit of Norway and her husband Prince Haakon attend the Luxembourg royal wedding on Oct. 20, 2012. She flew to India later that month

While loyal subjects in Britain celebrated a royal pregnancy, across the North Sea, in Norway, a very different kind of crown princess was being celebrated for her own brush with uterine politics. Princess Mette-Marit’s trip to India, posing as a nanny to care for the newborn surrogate twins of a gay courtier and his husband, has landed her in a very Norwegian royal row involving birth, morality, exploitation and what it means to be a parent.

When it became clear on Oct. 23 that a delayed visa would prevent the prospective parents from making it to New Delhi in time for the birth, the princess jetted off to care for the infants while the married pair dealt with the red tape. Posing as a nanny to oblivious clinical staff, Mette-Marit was spotted by a Norwegian journalist who only broke the story once the children were safely back in Europe.

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But the warm-hearted tale of a princess posing as a commoner to ensure the health and safety of two helpless infants is complicated, or perhaps enhanced, by the problematic legality of surrogacy in her home country. Surrogacy, including an arrangement in which a woman is paid to carry someone else’s child to birth, is outlawed in Norway. Outsourcing the pregnancy is legally murky.

The future Queen’s use of diplomatic access to fast-track herself into India in order to care for the children is being hailed by the political classes in Norway as heroic. Bent Hoie, health spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party and a staunch opponent of surrogacy, spoke warmly of her journey. “She did what all of us want our best friends to do in that situation. She was the only one who could help her friends. They were desperate. The children were born in a faraway country with nobody to take care of them. She was the only one who could have done it. The children have to come first.”

But the princess, a former single mother and waitress who married Prince Haakon in 2001 and whose self-proclaimed “rebellious past” would make the British Windsors reach for their abdication procedures, has nevertheless brought the surrogacy debate into sharp focus and may help to legitimize a practice frowned upon in Norwegian law.

In this famously liberal country where same-sex marriages have been legal for three years, objections to surrogacy still run deep. Hoie, himself one half of a same-sex marriage, says the practice exploits women in poorer countries, confuses children’s parentage and pours health resources into treating people who aren’t sick. “Not having children is not being sick,” he says. “Having children is not a human right.”

(MORE: India’s Rent-a-Womb Industry Faces New Restrictions)

Oyvind Habrekke, leader of the Christian Democrats, goes further, likening overseas surrogacy to human trafficking. “They are not the same thing. But they are connected. And we have to take into account the parallels.

“I respect the crown princess’s choice in this specific situation. But at the same time, the whole situation is a very good illustration of the problems with the surrogacy industry. There are thousands of surrogate children born in India every year. This is one story where there was a problem with getting a visa. There are so many other stories where the children are just used in a game here. The whole situation tells us that this is a cynical industry that works for its own profit and an industry where the children are left behind.”

Habrekke is no political outlier. The ban on surrogacy in Norway has cross-party political support. But the law preventing Norwegians from seeking surrogate children overseas is more complicated. It is a by-product of 2002 legislation intended to regulate clinical professionals in the field of biotechnology and has never been enforced. “It was never meant for individuals,” says Hoie, whose party was in power when the legislation was introduced.

Now with her Indian intervention, the crown princess has stumbled into a debate that has been bubbling away since last May when Oystein Maeland, a gay, married activist for the ruling Labor party, was appointed as police chief despite having a second California-born surrogate baby on the way. Avoiding overseas surrogacy will remain the official advice in Norway, come what may. But a consultation paper proposing the decriminalization of individuals under the Biotechnology Act was tabled only last month. Under the new proposals, Maeland, the now former police chief, would escape any possibility of punishment.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has already absented himself from the debate because of his close friendship with Maeland. In a palace statement, Princess Mette-Marit has wisely sought to do the same. “There are times in life when one finds oneself in a complex situation where there are few or no good solutions. In such cases one must make difficult decisions, even though there may be repercussions. I found this to be precisely such a situation,” she said. “There is an important ongoing social debate on surrogacy. My trip was not intended to be a contribution to this debate. For me, this was a situation in which I was in a position to help to care for two newborn babies who were alone in the world.”

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