The proposal to legalize surrogacy in New York was presented as an unequivocal progressive ideal, a remedy to a ban that burdens gay and infertile couples and stigmatizes women who cannot have children on their own.
And yet, as the...
The typical media story about transnational commercial surrogacy presents the process as a creative solution for people who could not otherwise do so to become parents. The experience of the women whose bodies are used to nourish and develop these babies, and who give birth to them, remains a back-story. But in a recent Radiolab episode, a chance encounter and a momentous earthquake coincide to reveal rarely examined layers of complexity in this oft-told fairy tale.
Two Israeli men, Tal and Amir—legally excluded only by virtue of their sexual orientation from hiring an Israeli woman to bear children for them in their own country—discover that they can do so through an agency that hires Indian and Nepali women. Of course they have to obtain eggs from women with more desirable physical attributes. They soon learn that “cheap white eggs” can be obtained from the Ukraine.
All of this is managed successfully. That is to say, they now have three children, each of whom has the genes of one of them as well as the genes of an unknown, tall, young, Ukrainian woman. And they have three more embryos in a freezer in Nepal. So why, looking back on the experience, did they say: “We feel like suckers”?
The men claim, as do many commissioning parents, that they did not want to be part of an exploitative process. Yet they seem to have given little thought to the provider of those “cheap white eggs”—only that their child’s genetic mother’s height and physical appearance fit their specifications. They pay somewhat more attention to the birthmother. They were told that the amount of money that she would receive would change her life. It would enable her to buy a house or send her children to a university. They concluded “if it’s a life changer, it’s not exploitative.” Issue resolved.
While Amir and Tal were in Nepal to pick up their third newborn they had a chance encounter with another “surrogate” away from the watchful eye of the intermediaries. They concluded from what she told them that the women were receiving only a fraction of the amount that commissioning parents were led to believe. They explained they would have made more inquiries, but the next day a major earthquake struck Nepal killing 7000-10,000 and injuring many thousands more.
Amir and Tal’s newborns were among the 24 babies TV cameras showed being evacuated to Israel. The babies were saved, but the fate of their birth mothers – and of other women who were still pregnant under contract – is unclear. The earthquake revealed a pipeline of scores of babies moving from Nepal to Israel, and led the Nepali government to ban commercial surrogacy.
Efforts to follow up specifically on the fate of Tal and Amir’s surrogates were suspended when they were told that these inquiries jeopardized the lives of the women. To the credit of Radiolab, they sought out a Nepali journalist in an effort to learn more about other women who participate in such arrangements. They found that these women sometimes receive as little as $1000, and often well less than half the $12,000 the Israeli men had been led to believe their surrogates would receive. They learned that the contract language, which reads “Payment for surrogacy services,” apparently includes many other recipients: middlemen, and middlemen who have middlemen. Furthermore, the women, who are given a variety of potentially harmful drugs prior to implantation, are paid only a small amount each month of the pregnancy, with the bulk of the agreed upon amount paid only once the birth is completed. In the event of miscarriage – a not-infrequent occurrence – she receives nothing more.
Notwithstanding the poverty and inequality that drive women to agree to “rent their wombs” and to trade on their skin color to sell their eggs, the Radiolab reporters expressed admiration for “the inventiveness of people.” One of them dubbed it a “kind of symbiotic benefit” explaining, “Okay, it’s not the crazy amount of money we thought it was," but . . . “they chose to do this . . . in some ways they are in charge of deciding how they want their life to be.”
Writing about the Radiolab story under the title From IVF to Designer Babies, Technology Is Not Colorblind, Princess Ojiaku points out:
There are wider issues at work here — issues of class, financial power, transnationalism, and racial hierarchies — but they go mostly undiscussed in the service of presenting how wonderful it is that this technology is available for those that can afford it.
In this case, securing “cheap eggs” from an economically depressed white country and placing the resulting fetus into the body of a woman of color— who has chosen to rent out her womb for an acceptable price—mitigates the high cost of producing a white, biological child. It’s clear here that the couple’s desire isn’t simply for a biological child, but for a white biological child—something that’s a little eerie in practice when a woman of color bears a white baby simply because it’s cheaper.
This is one of the many questions about transnational commercial surrogacy that this episode manages not to really address. Among the others:
Diane Beeson is a fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society. She is Professor Emerita of Sociology, California State University, East Bay. Over the past three decades, she has conducted research and published in leading sociology and medical journals on prenatal diagnosis, genetic testing, and social challenges of new reproductive technologies, most recently, on issues related to third-party reproduction. Beeson is co-founder and Associate Director of the Alliance for Humane Biotechnology, a network of scholars, students and activists working for a biotechnology that places the health and welfare of people and the natural environment above financial interests. She received her PhD from the University of California, San Francisco, where she specialized in medical sociology.