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A Season of Surrogacy Scandals

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on October 16th, 2014


The summer and fall of 2014 have been a season of surrogacy scandals revealed. Media reports describe disturbing practices taking place in one country after another, including Thailand, Australia, China, and Mexico.

A front-page series in The New York Times by Tamar Lewin seemed to kick off a run of high-profile coverage. Lewin’s lengthy July 5 story focuses on people who come to the US for contract pregnancies because their own countries prohibit them. It gives plenty of play to surrogacy “success stories,” but also includes sharply critical comments by women’s health advocates from Canada and Germany, neither of which permit commercial surrogacy.

“Just like we don’t pay for blood or semen, we don’t pay for eggs or sperm or babies,” said Abby Lippman, an emeritus professor at McGill University in Montreal who studies reproductive technology. “There’s a very general consensus that paying surrogates would commodify women and their bodies. I think in the United States, it’s so consumer-oriented, so commercially oriented, so caught up in this ‘It’s my right to have a baby’ approach, that people gloss over some big issues.”
“We regard surrogacy as exploitation of women and their reproductive capacities,” [said Dr. Ingrid Schneider of the University of Hamburg’s Research Center for Biotechnology, Society and the Environment].
On July 27, Lewin followed up with another front-page feature, this one about the notorious Los Angeles-based surrogacy agency Planet Hospital, which recently declared bankruptcy after defrauding dozens of intending parents and women working as surrogate mothers.

A few days later, the sad story of “Baby Gammy” hit the headlines and ricocheted around the world. An Australian couple was accused of abandoning their baby son, who has Down syndrome, with his Thai surrogate mother and returning home with his twin sister. It was then discovered that the husband had been convicted of multiple child sex offenses that took place between the early 1980s and early 1990s, against girls as young as five. Stories echoing one or another aspect of Baby Gammy’s situation soon surfaced, including:
  • several separate incidents of children born in the US, the UK and India from contract pregnancies and rejected because they had Down syndrome or were the “wrong” sex
  • an Australian man who was charged with sexually abusing twin girls he fathered through surrogacy
  • a Japanese businessman who fathered 16 children in a little over a year with Thai surrogate mothers, claiming that he wanted a large family
  • a Thai surrogate mother who had second thoughts about relinquishing the baby she was carrying, and was threatened by the surrogacy clinic and police working for them.
August and September also saw accounts in prominent news outlets about surrogacy free-for-alls in China and Mexico. A New York Times article about the “shadowy world for Chinese surrogates” revealed a “booming underground market in surrogate motherhood” that produces more than 10,000 babies a year. The cost? Up to $US 240,000 for “a baby with your DNA, gender of your choice, born by a coddled but captive rural woman.”

A similar story in the South China Morning Post provided additional detail about the money involved in these transactions: $US 80,000-160,000 in total costs; sex selection for just another $500; and, as specified by contract, “if the surrogate mothers become infertile as a result of obstructed labour, customers only need to pay a compensation of 50,000 yuan” ($US 8152). Some of the Chinese women who work as surrogates are taken to Thailand for delivery. The reporter explains that a broker reassured journalists posing as clients that this was perfectly safe by telling them, “Even the police wouldn’t dare to intervene there.”

A cross-border surrogacy boom in Mexico was covered in late September by The Guardian, in an article about “tales of missing money and stolen eggs.” Some surrogacy arrangements go smoothly, the report says, but “there are horror stories of unscrupulous or mismanaged agencies stealing money and eggs, subjecting pregnant women to psychological abuse, and cutting corners on their payments.”

Commissioning parents’ embryos are sometimes created and implanted in the resort area of Cancún, but surrogate mothers give birth hundreds of miles away in the state of Tabasco, where the civil code permits gestational surrogacy. However, these surrogacy arrangements are supposed to be altruistic, so the entire commercial surrogacy industry is operating in a “legal grey area.” The Guardian reporter points out that this means that
the surrogacy boom in Tabasco is theoretically rooted in a groundswell of poor women from a relatively conservative culture who are motivated by a generous urge to give affluent, often gay, foreigners the chance to become parents in return for little more than thanks, and the payment of their expenses.

Are these troubling incidents, all of which surfaced over two short months, just anomalies? Or are we starting to see what cross-border surrogacy really looks like, in contrast to the heart-warming images of happy babies and parents on fertility clinic websites? 

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Dear Facebook, Please Don’t Tell Women to Lean In to Egg Freezing

Posted by Jessica Cussins on October 15th, 2014


Untitled Document

The workforces of Facebook and Apple are 69% and 70% male, and the companies have been getting a lot of flack for those figures. In their latest bid to attract and retain more women, the tech giants have come up with a technical fix: offering female employees a $20,000 benefit toward elective egg freezing.

According to a statement from Apple about the program, "We want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families."

Surely what they meant to say was, “We want women at Apple to spend more of their lives working for us without a family to distract them.”

The Facebook version might be, “We don’t want women leaning out to start families, so we’re paying them not to!”

The move by Apple and Facebook is a boon for the companies marketing social egg freezing in Silicon Valley, New York City and elsewhere. But despite what EggBanxx wants wealthy Manhattanites to believe, freezing your eggs is not a magic wand that will allow you to raise a family at your own pace, away from the pressures of your workplace and biological clock.

Unfortunately, when you work for a company that wants you to spend your entire life at the office, in a society that under-prioritizes all occupations traditionally undertaken by women, there will never be an ideal time to start a family.

Moreover, the chance that a frozen egg will actually result in a child is still low – much lower than the smiling babies on the fertility clinic and egg freezing websites would lead you to believe. But as Robin Marantz Henig put it after attending EggBanxx' infamous egg freezing cocktail party, in “an evening of `The Three F’s: Fun, Fertility, and Freezing’—[there are] no F’s left over for `Failure Rates.’”

In fact, egg freezing is still explicitly discouraged for elective, non-medical reasons by both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Not only does egg freezing fail to guarantee that you’ll end up with a child, it also poses serious and under-studied short and long-term health risks to women and children.

The process of egg retrieval involves weeks of self-delivered hormone injections to hyper-stimulate your ovaries, which can lead to nausea, bloating, and discomfort, not to mention blood clots, organ failure, and hospitalization in rare cases. The surgery to remove your eggs involves a needle being inserted into your pelvis, with risk of internal bleeding and infection. Long-term impacts on women’s health are under-studied, but seem to include increased rates of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer.

Additionally, those frozen eggs can only become children if you use in vitro fertilization, which means greater risk of multiple gestation, preterm birth and fetal anomalies. It is not yet known if freezing eggs for multiple years will further impact children’s health outcomes.

What we need are family-friendly workplace policies, not giveaways that will encourage women to undergo invasive procedures in order to squeeze out more work for their beloved company under the guise of “empowerment.”

The United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave. At the point that women do have children, no matter what age they are, they end up taking pay cuts whose effects can last for decades. Having one’s employer pay for egg freezing doesn’t push back against the status quo, but puts the onus on women to change themselves (Gee, why does that sound familiar?)

This policy could also send the problematic message that young women who don’t choose this option are less serious about their careers. "You want time off when? Oh by the way, do you know about this new perk we offer?"

Facebook and Apple are right to want more women in their workforce. This latest move, however, is more likely to alienate than attract them.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Let's Play God (or not)

Posted by Pete Shanks on October 14th, 2014


William Blake's depiction of God

Reason magazine, the libertarian monthly, is not known for a religious approach to public policy. Indeed, science correspondent Ronald Bailey has described religion as one of "the deep puzzles in human evolution." (Another might be the fact that their promotional material features a present-tense quote from Christopher Hitchens, who transcended this mortal plane nearly three years ago as a staunch atheist; could his ghost have learned different?)

But the headline to Bailey's column in the November 2014 issue is refreshingly direct:

Let's Play God!
The piece itself is mostly a rehash of the discussion about "gene drives" initiated in July by Kevin Esvelt, George Church et al., though Bailey adds a typical gratuitous smear about the "usual Luddites" who might complain. If the topic seems a little old hat, well, the article is in fact a lightly altered version of a column he published online in July, when it was current. The headline of that, however, was:
'Editing' Life With Gene Drives is a Great Way to Play God
(What would be a mediocre one?)

Clearly, Reason's print edition is proof of the existence — of an editor.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:




Hwang Woo-suk Reaches the Silver Screen

Posted by Pete Shanks on October 2nd, 2014


Whistle Blower poster

The stem-cell disgrace of Korean cloning fraudster Hwang Woo-suk has now inspired a movie. Whistle Blower is opening in Korea today. Names have been changed, and it’s presented as fiction, but no one is even pretending it’s not about the scientific "scandal of the century" that unfolded between 2004 and 2006.

Hwang became world-famous for his 2004 claim that he had achieved what at the time was considered a momentous breakthrough: cloning a human embryo and producing stem cells from it, potentially opening the way for new therapies. But his published papers were fraudulent, and eventually retracted; he was found to have coerced subordinates to provide their eggs for his research and broken laws in acquiring eggs from other women; and he was convicted of misappropriating funds. (He has since set up his own institute, working on cloned dogs and other animals with a variety of collaborators, including a British TV network, Russians who hope to revive mammoths and a Chinese dog-cloning company.)

The new film, as its name suggests, focuses on the way the story was reported — the working title was The Messenger. Hwang attracted so much publicity and support that revealing his transgressions required considerable bravery on the part of the journalists involved, not to mention Young-Joon Ryu, the scientist who was their primary source. Ryu and his family had to go into hiding for six months, he was out of work for over a year, and he still gets denounced for "injuring the nation."

Indeed, Korea Joongang Daily headlines its article on the film:

Stem cell scandal movie casts doubts on integrity of press

A Wall Street Journal piece opens with a slightly different spin on the same angle:

The first feature film based on the story of a South Korean scientist’s fraudulent stem cell research and the ensuing fallout in the early 2000s, Whistle Blower, centers on a dilemma: “Which should take priority: truth or the national interest?”

Of course, neither approach puts Hwang in a very good light, which may explain why he couldn’t be reached for comment.

There is no word yet of a release outside South Korea, but the trailer is on YouTube and definitely worth a look; some of it is subtitled or described in English on this showbiz site (the first couple of minutes of video). The stars have been parading (scroll down to #3) on the red carpet at a film festival, and at least some early reviews seem to be favorable. Maybe the movie, which really only claims to be a thriller, will actually change the image of Hwang Woo-suk.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:






 


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