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Making Babies: Ideals, technology and politics

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Gestational surrogates and celebrity moms

In great measure, infertility has remained a private matter, safely out of the limelight, with a few notable exceptions. Elizabeth Kane (a pseudonym) chronicled her experiences as the world's first surrogate (in 1980) in her book, Birth Mother. Kane was herself inseminated with the intended father's sperm at a doctor’s office. Moved to become a surrogate because of a keen desire to help an infertile couple, Kane was wholly unprepared for the grief she’d experience surrendering this child. A mother of three, who had given up a baby for adoption previous to her marriage, Kane did not believe that she’d view this baby as hers. And she did not begin to fathom the havoc her experience would wreak upon her husband’s career, her family's social status, and the emotional stability of her children.

Years later upon meeting Mary Beth Whitehead— the surrogate mother whom unsuccessfully sued for custody of “Baby M”—Kane became an outspoken opponent of surrogate motherhood. Kane writes, “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should... This is reproductive prostitution... can we really continue to allow women to rent spaces in their bodies and sell their children for profit?”

The lasting fallout of Kane’s surrogate experience is poignant, because her family paid a high premium for her generous impulse. When one sits back and considers what Kane did— had a baby for a stranger— and what the climate was like— gawking and hostile— the distress surrounding her family is wholly understandable. Her grief, too, seems inevitable for a host of reasons, including unresolved feelings about having surrendered a child for adoption. Even though this was uncharted territory, a blatant lack of compassion or thoughtfulness was accorded to Kane and her family. A couple’s desire to have the man’s biological offspring, their doctor’s ambition to create a money-and-prestige-garnering operation, and the media’s readiness to maximize the sensational aspects of the story all trampled concern for Kane.

In the mid-eighties, when Mary Beth Whitehead decided to keep the baby she gave birth to, thereby reneging on the contract she and the intended parents— the Sterns— had signed, the Baby M drama played out in the courts and in the media. After the Sterns sued for, and received, temporary custody, Whitehead fled out of state with the baby. Eventually, she returned to New Jersey in order to file her own custody suit, which she lost.

Feminists examined and debated the case widely. For many, Whitehead’s story illuminated the close link between class and power. Kelly Oliver, in her article “Marxism and Surrogacy” paid particular attention to the court’s punitive response toward Mary Beth Whitehead because she had less financial security (no money for music lessons or private school education) than the Sterns. Sara Ann Ketchum pointed out in her article “Selling Babies and Selling Bodies” that adoptions were not binding until after a baby was born and a period of time passed to ensure the birth mother certain of her earlier decision to cede custody. No such protection to a surrogate/birth mother’s tie was granted. Even before biological ties between birthing woman and baby were severed, surrogates’ rights were ignored.

Gestational surrogates are the first to intentionally assist beyond conception with creation of babies never— even potentially— for themselves. Does this constitute reproductive prostitution? Some feminists believe that a surrogate acts with free agency— she can use her body as she chooses to— while others think that to conceive a pregnancy for others willing to pay (an estimated minimum fee of sixty-five thousand dollars) for the service inevitably involves coercion. While the lump sum of money received seems large given that the surrogate isn’t officially working, the hourly wage, especially if the surrogate undergoes numerous IVF cycles before even becoming pregnant, might not seem quite so impressive.

The Whitehead case pushed the burgeoning industry surrounding surrogate arrangements— agencies and lawyers and doctors-to codify as many aspects of the process as possible. A profile of those women most apt to choose to be surrogates and perform the task well emerged: religious, fairly traditional married women (“stay-at-home moms”) with moderate incomes who had enjoyed successful pregnancies and believed they were done bearing their own children. These women were less enticed by money than a calling to help others. Using a third party’s donor eggs— the intended mother’s or another’s— became routine. Along with more rigorous psychological testing of surrogates, strict contracts were drafted, detailing health behaviors and the maximum number of fetuses that would be carried. The language favored those procuring babies: gestational surrogates were not birth mothers as Kane called herself, nor even surrogate mothers; instead the current term entirely skirts the word “mother.” Legislation passed in some key states like California, where a large percentage of surrogate arrangements occur, that bypasses the birthing woman’s name ever appearing on the birth certificate, legally erasing her role. In states where the birthing mother’s name appears on the original birth certificate, the intended parents can go to court and receive a second birth certificate with their names rather than hers.

The image of perfected motherhood— the sort spread out along glossy magazine pages depicting every celebrity mom on the planet— encourages entitlement for privileged women to share biological ties to their babies. Adoption, perhaps always cast as a second place option to “natural” parenthood, has fallen even lower because technologies promise “positive” results. If part of perfectionism is the ability to control a situation so it goes according to plan, the surrogate arrangement appeals, given that few details are left to chance.

In their book The Mommy Myth Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels point out that when fifty-two year old television personality Joan Lunden obtained a surrogate so she and her younger husband could have twins the only thing larger than her disposable income was her “sense of entitlement.” Of Lunden's babies they write, “If you can't have them yourself, you can buy them.”

Celebrities, perhaps fearful of tabloid innuendo, have come forward with their stories. In addition to Lunden, soap opera star Deirdre Hall and model Cheryl Tiegs made public— on People magazine covers— their surrogate arrangements. According to Meredith Michaels, the media attempts to assimilate the surrogate arrangement by employing “the narrative of the miracle” and by “playing up a fantasy about a sisterhood between the surrogate and this powerful, privileged celebrity. There is an implication that surrogate and privileged mom are going to have such a strong bond that they raise the child or children together, which of course, could not be further from the truth.”

To gear up for her second round of family (she has three grown daughters) Lunden launched a media blitz. In deference to sisterhood, she posed on the cover of People with arms encircling her very pregnant salt-of-the-earth surrogate. Lunden’s much younger husband had never had children before. Sharing her story to “help others,” for all of her openness, Lunden refused-and continues to refuse— during an interview in Ladies Home Journal that featured her and her year-old twins— to reveal whether her own eggs or those of a donor were used. “I do that for all the other people who are calling and writing me now, wanting to do this. I don’t want them to feel they can’t achieve what we have if they can’t produce their own eggs. I want everybody to understand that however they make their families doesn’t make any difference. It’s about parenting. It’s about having these children. If they can use their own egg and sperm, fantastic. And if one of them isn’t viable, then get a donor. I don’t want anyone to feel their way isn’t right.” Given Lunden’s smugness, it’s abundantly clear that if she’d used her own eggs, she would share this as further proof of her unique youthfulness compared to other women her age. Also over fifty, Tiegs was questioned heavily by the media when she claimed that her eggs were used because so many doctors have disputed this as likely.

Despite the fact that Kane and Whitehead did not help celebrities, the number of people able to afford surrogates remains small. Few people will come face to face with this issue. Yet, images of celebrities with their surrogate-born babies (and miraculously old eggs) confirm for all women dealing with infertility that a means to have one's “own” baby should somehow exist.

no cut and dried answers

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