Saturday, January 10, 2009

A good piece of surrogacy journalism - at last!

Not the Handmaid's Tale
Elisabeth Eaves

In November, American writer Alex Kuczynski, up until then most widely known for a book that discussed her cosmetic surgery addiction, again published a confessional about women in doctor's offices. This one was a New York Times magazine piece about hiring another woman to gestate Kuczynski and her husband's genetic child.

As a piece of journalism, it was very good: near-futuristic and ethically unsettling in its subject, straightforward in its telling and candid and self-aware without veering into apology or melodrama. The magazine encouraged appalled reactions with a photo spread calibrated to play up Kuczynski's wealth and elegance relative to that of Cathy Hilling, owner of the womb-for-hire.

The brushfire of reaction may have been even bigger than the editors or writer anticipated. "Gestational surrogacy," as this new frontier of fertility science is known, turns out to be a perfect storm of societal button pressing. A review of the responses tells us much about what makes Americans anxious and outraged these days.

A pattern formed as I reviewed hundreds of reactions, which, I decided, can be broken down into five categories. Sometimes reading between the lines, here's what I culled from other publications, blogs and reader comments.

1. Congratulations!

It's a baby, after all, and Ms. Kuczynski and her husband, Charles Stevenson, went through many trials--miscarriages and 11 in vitro fertilization treatments--before turning to a surrogate. These reactions were in the minority.

2. How Dare You?

"If you can't do it the old fashioned way, your genes aren't meant to move into the future." --Comments,

Remarks like these suggest a belief that reproductive science flouts nature. What's odd about this is that outside of reproduction, there are few areas in which we find so many voices piping up against modern medical technology. By and large, Americans accept pharmaceuticals, organ transplants, dialysis machines and other "unnatural" assists from science. Bringing technology into baby-making makes people far more uneasy.

3. You're Not Suffering Enough.

Underlying much of the outrage seems to be the thought that Kuczynski had no right to evade the physical unpleasantness of pregnancy. And readers quite explicitly condemned her for evading some of the hard work of childcare by hiring a baby nurse. "A black baby nurse?" wrote one commenter. "Pardon me if I don't believe you about your strong desire to be a mother."

Taken to its logical conclusion, this kind of comment suggests that anyone who hires a caregiver didn't really want to be a parent and therefore doesn't deserve to be one. It illuminates the strain of belief that says mothers, like medieval penitents, should publicly sacrifice all. Kuczynski, with her years of infertility, her pinches and aches from in vitro fertilization and her history of miscarriages--together the impetus that led her to choose a surrogate--is perceived to have not suffered enough.

4. You Should Have Adopted.

After years of dormancy, the line 'there are starving children in Africa' has been resuscitated in domestic America, this time not to get children to eat their vegetables but to admonish couples who have resorted to infertility treatments over adoption. Blame Madonna and Angelina Jolie for what may be the least logical criticism of baby tech. Would-be parents who are buying themselves a scientific boost are often told that they are selfish and should instead adopt a needy child. And yet, they are no more or less selfish than any other set of non-adoptive parents, all of whom bring hungry mouths into the world.

To the contrary, parents like Kuczynski and Stevenson are a net plus to society. They obviously have the resources to care for their own child, which can't be said for all new parents. And, in their attempt to have a baby, they pumped an extra $100,000 or so into an economy that could certainly use it.

5. You're Too Rich

The most common blogosphere epithets used to describe Kuczynski since her article are: self-absorbed, narcissistic, smug, self-indulgent, spoiled, moneyed and rich. But especially rich. One blogger even came to the bizarre conclusion that Kuczynski must have been hired by the Times for her wealth, an interesting conflation of fantasies about the rich with fantasies about the media.

A journalist and author herself, Kuczynski's greatest crime, it seems, is to have married a wealthy man. Her money has since afforded her multiple homes and extravagant vacations as well as the ability to pay for her in vitro treatments and then her surrogate. It's not so much what she got that stuck in readers' craws as that she bought it.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Frank held Kuczynski up as an example of how "profoundly ugly" American society's "massive inequality" had become. He deplores Kuczynski's not having gotten the memo about imminent class warfare.

Much of this wealth-centered criticism, though, fails to get to any sort of point about gestational surrogacy itself. Frank is appalled that Kuczynski bought her baby, sort of, but more appalled that she is wealthy and that Hilling is not. One gets the idea that he wouldn't have minded the womb-rental so much if Kuczynski had had to pay for it by scrimping or saving or with a loan from her grandmother.

Many commentators deplored that the paid surrogacy was akin to organ selling, but there are two problems with this argument. For one, the seller still has her organ when the transaction is over. For another, a legal trade in certain organs, like kidneys, would not necessarily be a bad thing. It would most likely replace organ theft, and it would undoubtedly save lives.

And finally, who's womb was it to rent anyway? That of an adult woman who is not merely mentally competent but obviously intelligent and thoughtful. It is patronizing to suggest she can't make this sort of decision for herself.

As reproductive science plunges ahead, there are plenty of legal and bioethical issues yet to be resolved. But as we draw lines of jurisdiction, sovereignty over one's own body is a good place to start.

Elisabeth Eaves is deputy editor of the opinions channel at, where she also writes a weekly column.


Anonymous said...
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Amani said...

If you email me directly and tell me who you are I might consider it you gutless wonder.

I have attributed to the writer, that's enough under Aussie copyright law. Come and sue me.