BROKEN BONDS: SURROGATE MOTHERS SPEAK OUT
Jennifer Lahl, Melinda Tankard Reist, and Renate Klein, eds.
(Mission Beach, Queensland: Spinifex Press, 2019. Paperback, pp. 140. Also available on Kindle.)
Reviewed by John Grondelski
Surrogacy is a form of human trafficking polite society countenances. The $25 billion per year global fertility business—what Jennifer Lahl calls “Big Fertility”—wants you to picture its product as happy faces and bouncing babies. Unhappy stories rarely get out. Perhaps the last time we really paid attention to the exploitation of a gestational mother was when Mary Beth Whitehead made the news back in the late 1980s. (See her book A Mother’s Story for a first-hand account of surrogacy gone wrong.)
Big Fertility doesn’t want us to listen to stories like Whitehead’s because they undermine the mythology it peddles about “happy families [and huge profits] through surrogacy.” Kudos, then, to Jennifer Lahl and her co-editors Melinda Tankard Reist and Renate Klein for letting women hired to be “gestational mothers” tell their stories in their own voices. Lahl, a pediatric critical-care nurse, is President of the Center for Bioethics and Culture in California, which has worked to publicize ethical issues connected with “making life” (gamete donation and surrogacy). Renate Klein is a biologist, feminist author, and retired faculty member of Deakin University in Australia. She founded Spinifex Press (the book’s publisher). Melinda Tankard Reist, the author of several books, is a well-known Australian blogger and broadcast commentator.
Broken Bonds provides the accounts of sixteen women from nine countries who experienced surrogate motherhood. None of them sound like happy, altruistic “angels” (a common term for mothers used in pro-surrogacy propaganda), smiling as they selflessly turn over the baby they’ve carried for nine months to the people who employed their services. Most of them are heartbroken. A few simply seem indifferent. I’m not sure which is worse. Their stories show the multifaceted invidious face of gestational surrogacy. Sifting through them, one is hard-pressed about where to start in elucidating this sordid world.
One place might be motive. Women often recall noble, even altruistic motives for choosing surrogacy. Britni (USA) says, “At the start, I wanted to do something great” (p. 42). Maggie (USA), a 32-year-old woman subjected to druginduced hyper-ovulation multiple times—and who is now post-hysterectomy and diagnosed with terminal cancer—discusses how a Big Fertility nurse began enticing her into egg donation 11 years earlier, telling her she was “beautiful, intelligent, capable, and had a lot going for [her]” (p. 28). Maggie’s verb to describe the nurse’s MO is typically applied to sex predators and other traffickers: She “groomed” her. Kelly (USA) tells us, “I love being pregnant. I love excitement. I love people fussing over baby bellies and I love happy endings, you know” (p. 75). Alas, she didn’t enjoy one.
As Kelly admits later on, “Money plays a big role in surrogacy. If there were no money in surrogacy, I would never have done it” (p. 78). Denise (USA) seamlessly blends the altruistic and pecuniary: “We thought this was a great way for us to help our family and help another family at the same time . . .” (p. 65). When Maggie seemed insufficiently motivated by the idea of contributing her beauty, intelligence, etc., to another family, her groomer threw in the added benefit of ovadonation as a way of paying down student loans. “That did appeal to me” (p. 28). The accounts of Eastern European women are even blunter. Natalia (Russia) admits “I will get a million rubles after the birth [about $14,500] and already now 20,000 rubles a month. We want to buy a house. It’s our only chance to make so much money so fast” (p. 72). Surrogacy proceeds have already gotten Natascha (Russia) a car—“A small one, a Russian brand” (p. 45). Elena (Romania) is the most matter-of-fact: “My price is €8,000 for the pregnancy and birth. . . . Surrogacy is a good way to earn good money, to have bread on the table. Of course, we do it for the money. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?” (p. 108).
Money goes further overseas, which is why making babies, like making teeshirts, is often offshored. Elena points out the attractiveness of surrogacy in neighboring Moldova: Moldovan women “are poor but healthy, they only eat good food which they produce themselves. They don’t smoke, they keep chickens and grow vegetables. It’s a good place to find surrogate mothers. There are lots of young women. They are very beautiful.” (p. 108). They also offer pregnancy and birth starting at €5,000. Want even deeper discounts? Read the tragic stories of Ujwala, Dimpy, and Sarala in an Indian surrogacy “bio-market” (pp. 91-100). The Western women who engage in surrogacy often talk about being stiffed with medical and legal costs, especially if they experience complications to their health during or after pregnancy. Rob (Australia) details how she had to dicker over four $55 transport fees to/from medical appointments (p. 86). Odette (Australia) says she has almost $15,000 in unpaid medical/legal bills (p. 63). Kelly reveals that the Spanish couple who took the twins she carried home with them only paid up when she told them she was Madrid-bound with book editor Jennifer Lahl (p. 80).
One is tempted to ask why the law countenances what amounts to baby selling. The answer is easy. Some countries pretend only to allow “altruistic” (noncompensated) surrogacy, i.e., arrangements in which only “expenses” are reimbursed. (Who is going to audit any padded claims?) Offshoring surrogacy reduces costs in places where the law may not have kept up or law enforcement turns a blind eye (especially when bought off). When countries like Cambodia ban surrogacy or Thailand prohibits commercial surrogacy (e.g., after Westerners abandoned a handicapped child—Baby Gammy—they didn’t want), Big Fertility just relocates to more congenial venues. It’s also not simply about money: Surrogacy in Western countries with birthrate citizenship offers a twofer: a baby and a passport. In the United States, surrogacy is governed by state law. Some states have enacted surrogacy-friendly policies; others, exhausted by the abortion controversy, have legal codes, which, designed for parentage and natality questions that did not envision the splicing and dicing of genetic, gestational, and social parenthood, are inadequate to deal with surrogacy.
The women who describe their experiences in this book have been exploited. In a society boasting of “social justice” commitments, the radical power inequality between gestational surrogates and those hiring them (Big Fertility, wealthy people, lawyers indifferent to the conflicts of interest they engage in) is glaring. Two remaining questions struck me in reading this book. The first is why surrogacy is pretty much ungoverned. In order to adopt a child, comprehensive home studies and fitness reviews are required, but no such protection of the child exists in surrogacy, even in the absence of any genetic/gestational link to the intended “parents.”
The really provocative question, however, is how these women could believe that they would remain so emotionally detached from a child who grew and developed within their bodies for nine months that they could then “deliver” that baby with the indifference of a UPS courier bringing a package to your door. Perhaps some succumbed to Big Fertility’s propaganda about “happy families through surrogacy.” Others, particularly when “helping” a relative was concerned, seemed to think that they would be able to stay involved in that family’s life. (Ever heard of Hagar?) Almost all of these women report experiencing a curious inversion during pregnancy: While they believed they would remain indifferent to a pregnancy the commissioning “parents” would be totally agog about, just the opposite happened. The women became increasingly involved with the pregnancy and child, while their employers tended impassively to await “delivery.” Even for those women who declared upfront that gestational surrogacy was their route up the economic ladder, their own self-desensitizing stands out: Russian Natalia says “I am an incubator, the vessel for this child” (p. 73). Indian incubator Ujwala is, then, a strange vessel, one that says “My heart is hurting” (p. 93).
—John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.