The rich are different from you and me: Yes, they hire surrogates

Posted by Jesse Reynolds December 1, 2008
Biopolitical Times
Kuczynski, baby, and baby nurse
The cover story of last week's New York Times Sunday Magazine is the latest in a regular tradition: The first-person journalistic account of assisted reproduction. (1, 2) In this case, author and new mother Alex Kuczynski describes how, after eleven rounds of attempted in vitro fertilization, she and her husband hired a gestational surrogate. The essay addresses the issue of commercialization in a manner that is simultaneously bluntly honest and painfully naive.

Here are some details, for context: Kuczynski has been the "Critical Shopper" columnist in the Times' Style section, where she reviews $545 purses and $1500 skirts, and splits her time among a Manhattan apartment called "the world's richest apartment building," Southampton, and the ski resort town of Ketchum, Idaho. The New York gossip columns can refer to her as "La Kuczynski." She's previously written a memoir of other voluntary medical experiences: Her book Beauty Junkies used her own self-confessed addiction to cosmetic surgery as a launching pad to investigate that burgeoning industry. Her husband is a billionaire who already had six children with three previous wives. They were married by the mayor of New York. Clearly, the $300,000 or so they spent on IVF and surrogacy was not an issue.

The featured photographs in the story don't just make the class - and race - issues clear; they make them cliché. Beautiful Mother holds her new baby on her lawn in front of her exquisite Southampton summer home, while the baby's personal nurse, who is black, stands at attention. Meanwhile, the surrogate is shown barefoot and pregnant (literally) on her weathered porch as a hound lounges next to her.

Although Kuczynski admits that the surrogacy industry is aware of, but conceals, its commercial nature, she initially claims that the financial component of gestational surrogacy didn't faze her:
Still, in our experience with the surrogacy industry, no one lingered on the topic of money. We encountered the wink-nod rule: Surrogates would never say they were motivated to carry a child for another couple just for money; they were all motivated by altruism. This gentle hypocrisy allows surrogacy to take place. Without it, both sides would have to acknowledge the deep cultural revulsion against attaching a dollar figure to the creation of a human life.

In fact, charges of baby selling have long tarnished the practice of traditional surrogacy, and charges of exploiting women have lingered even as more couples opt for gestational surrogacy. We were not disturbed by the commercial aspect of surrogacy. A woman going through the risks of labor for another family clearly deserves to be paid. To me, imagining someone pregnant with the embryo produced by my egg and my husband’s sperm felt more similar to organ donation, or I guess more accurately, organ rental. That was something I could live with.

Yet she goes out of her way to pick a relatively well-off and educated prospective surrogate:

When we came across Cathy’s application, we saw that she was by far the most coherent and intelligent of the group. She wrote that she was happily married with three children. Her answers were not handwritten in the tiny allotted spaces; she had downloaded the original questionnaire and typed her responses at thoughtful length. Her attention to detail was heartening. And her computer-generated essay indicated, among other things, a certain level of competence. This gleaned morsel of information made me glad: she must live in a house with a computer and know how to use it.

In our conference call with Cathy and her husband, Mick — the vice president of marketing for a credit union — we felt immediately comfortable. They had three children, two of whom were in college. Cathy and Mick sounded compassionate and intelligent.....

But there was something else that drew me to her — the same thing that caused me to see her computer-generated essay in a different light from the other women’s hand-scrawled applications. She and her husband were college-educated. Her husband graduated from William and Mary. Her daughter Rebecca, then 20, wanted to be a journalist. They lived in a renovated mill house on a creek in a suburb of Philadelphia. They seemed, in other words, not so different from us. Later, during the election season, she and I were unaccountably pleased to learn that we were both planning to vote for Obama.

Something tells me that had Kuczynski not had the good fortune to find an Obama voter, and was 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. After all, Cathy, the surrogate (whose daughter sold her eggs to help pay for college), is "not so different from" Kuczynski.

This self-consolation is hollow. If Cathy were infertile, would she be able to hire a surrogate? If Kuczynski were fertile, would she ever consider being one?

P.S.: For some additional thoughts, read the readers' comments at the Times' site.

P.P.S.: Read Thomas Frank's December 10 Wall Street Journal column on the essay.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: