The Baby Business: A Fairy Tale?

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky January 6, 2011
Biopolitical Times
The much-discussed cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine introduced us to the "twiblings" - writer Melanie Thernstrom's two children, born a few days apart to different surrogates who carried IVF embryos created from the eggs of one third-party gamete provider. Thernstrom explains that she financed two surrogates, rather than going for the more common twin pregnancy, in order to avoid the non-trivial but under-appreciated risks to the babies. She doesn't mention the difficulties and risks to women who bear multiples.

Thernstrom's first-person chronicle of using other women's bodies to acquire her babies is the latest instance of what appears to be an emerging journalistic ritual for writers of a certain demographic. Just two years ago, the Magazine ran another cover story about surrogacy, "Her Body, My Baby," recounting author Alex Kuczynski's adventures in assisted reproduction.

The two articles and their authors share a number of striking similarities. Thernstrom, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, graduated from Harvard and is married to a successful software entrepreneur. Kuczynski, a columnist for the New York Times Magazine who graduated from Barnard, is married to a billionaire investor. Both women are in their 40s; both endured multiple IVF cycles themselves and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in their respective quests for babies. Both use their stories to share, in the fashion of first-person journalism, the nuances of their own emotions, with Thernstrom lingering on her resentment toward friends and acquaintances who raise eyebrows or use terminology she doesn't like. Both unleashed firestorms of reader comments and blog commentaries with their accounts.

The most important - and probably least surprising - similarity is that Thernstrom and Kuczynski both acknowledge, only to breezily shrug off, the unavoidable questions about the significant potentials for exploitation of surrogates and egg providers in a frankly commercial baby business.

Kuczynski wrote that she and her husband, who own a fancy Manhattan apartment, a summer home in Southampton, MA and a winter home in an Idaho ski resort town, "were not disturbed by the commercial aspect of surrogacy." She asserts that paid surrogacy is okay because it is like organ donation, apparently unaware that payments for organs are illegal. Thernstrom too compares commercial surrogacy and egg acquisition to "liver or kidney donation" without mentioning the prohibition on payments for them. She tells of her careful review of the entire range of concerns that have been raised about third-party reproduction, but concludes that all the objections "boil down to the fact that it is new."

Both women go to some lengths to find surrogates who are middle class and college educated, because this makes them so much more comfortable about the whole process. Kuczysnki writes about her satisfaction at learning that her surrogate voted for Obama. As Biopolitical Times blogger emeritus Jesse Reynolds wrote at the time,
Something tells me that had Kuczynski [been] forced to stoop down to a surrogate who didn't complete her application with a computer, she still would have gone through with the process. Only now, she can perhaps reassure herself that she didn't exploit an economically vulnerable woman.

Thernstrom too simultaneously defends the commercial aspects of her arrangements while using her deep pockets to avoid all the aspects that might make her queasy. She and her husband go so far as to pay off a broker so that they can "work directly" with a surrogate they like.

But while these two women use their own substantial financial resources to circumvent the typical dynamics of the baby business, most people do not or cannot. That's why surrogacy is booming in India and other countries where poor women who rent out their wombs routinely sign away their rights - including to decisions about whether to terminate a pregnancy, when they can see their children and have sex with their husbands, and whether to deliver by C-section. In the US, surrogates and egg donors are seldom desperately poor - as Kuczynski writes, this would make them unreliable - but they are invariably poorer than the people who hire them. It's hard to get around the fact: Surrogacy and egg selling are matters of class and unequal opportunity.

Of course, we live in a class society. Thernstrom, Kuczynski and others seem comfortable with establishing new forms of stratification and inequality, and with doing so in the name of expanded "choice." At a minimum, we could "choose" - as a society - to put in place enforceable public policies to mitigate the risks and exploitative aspects of the baby business. But the rose-tinted glasses that Thernstrom and Kuczynski proffer make it difficult even to see its dark side.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: