Surrogacy Old and New

“Bring me sons; if not, I shall die.” (Genesis 30:1).

This is the pained call by Rachel to her husband Jacob which we read in synagogue yesterday during the Shabbat Torah reading.

The immediate solution to Rachel’s infertility, is for her to give her maidservant Bilhah to have relations with her husband, and that the child (and eventually, children) borne from this union, will be raised by Rachel as her own.

There are those who see this as the first surrogate motherhood in recorded history. Now that a few millenia have passed since then, how is this surrogate thing working out?

In a world of ever-expanding reproductive technologies, we tend to take surrogacy for granted, and generally fail to think seriously about the complex dimensions of the surrogacy contract.

The New Republic recently ran an excellent review by Jessica Grose of a new book on surrogacy. The title of her review is “Stop Celebrating Surrogate Motherhood” and in case the title leaves you wondering what her position on surrogacy really is, her review of Leslie Morgan Steiner’s The Baby Chase: How Surrogacy is Transforming the American Family,  the body of  the review leaves no confusion as to her take on surrogacy.

Here’s a little taste of the review:

Rhonda and Gerry Wile are the perfect all-American couple. Rhonda is a nurse with thick blonde hair and a friendly grin. Gerry is a firefighter and military veteran. He is broad shouldered, well-muscled, and looks like the rugged star of a truck ad. After Rhonda and Gerry got married, they wanted a couple of kids, like everybody else. What makes them extraordinary is that Rhonda has two vaginas, and two uteri, which left her unable to carry a child to term. And so the Wiles spent $50,000 to have a baby, ultimately enlisting the services of several surrogates in India.

The Wiles are the glossy main subjects of Leslie Morgan Steiner’s unabashedly pro-surrogacy book, The Baby Chase: How Surrogacy is Transforming the American Family. These hard-working, attractive, staunchly middle class folks are much more sympathetic than the stereotypical surrogate parent—for example, uber-wealthy, Park Avenue-dwelling Alex Kuczynski, who wrote about her experience with surrogacy for the New York Times magazine a few years ago, or singer Elton John—which is probably why Steiner focuses on them.

In fact, everyone in Steiner’s book, about a growing fertility industry that’s currently worth $10 billion worldwide, is good-looking and kind. Dr. Yashodhara Mhatre, one of the specialists at Mumbai’s Dr. L.H. Hiranandani Hospital where the Wiles’ surrogate delivered, is “petite, demure and dark-haired,” and she “always waits for her patients to speak first, like a priest hearing confession.” One of the Wiles’ potential surrogates is, like Dr. Mhatre, “petite” and “dark-haired” but she’s got an “easy, warm smile” and calls the doctors and nurses at the fertility clinic “my friends.”

All of these glowing descriptions obscure some very complicated ethical questions that should be at the center of Steiner’s well-researched but excessively positive book. To her credit, Steiner does ask some of those difficult questions: for instance, whether an embryo is a person, or whether the slum-dwellers in India who are bearing babies for relatively well-off Americans being exploited. But Steiner often leaves those questions hanging in the air without examining them. And when she does provide answers, they are colored by her desire to show that surrogacy is a beautiful, worthy, life-affirming practice.

I can’t say if the book is worth reading, but the entire review is definitely worth your time and consideration.

And, if anyone needs any more food to digest on this topic, take a look at this article in CNN on surrogacy in India, a country where there seems to be some fairly extensive exploitation of women for surrogacy. One particularly disturbing piece from the article:

Although surrogates interviewed by CNN in Anand say they get as much as U.S. $8,000, Kumari said research by the center shows that promised cash from surrogacy clinics often fall short — sometimes being paid as little as U.S.$800. “So its not really a profitable business as is presented,” Kumari said.

“If someone really has to opt for the child, somebody’s friend should offer a womb, somebody’s relative should offer the womb. Why it has to be the poor woman? It’s like organ sale,” Kumari added

At the same time, here’s how one of the Indian surrogate mothers interviewed views the arrangement:

Surrogate mother Madhu Makwan says the service has completely changed the fortunes for herself and her family. Asked what she would say to the Canadian parents who rented her womb: “I’d say thank you. I don’t know how to say anything else in English!

“I’ve got a chance now to make my life,” said Makwan, wiping tears from her eyes. “God has been kind.”

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