I haven’t written about or seriously thought about surrogacy in a long time – just not ‘my issue.’ But I remember as clear as yesterday the first time I heard about it. A reporter called me for a response to the then-new “Baby M” case, in which a hired-surrogate, Mary Beth Whitehead, changed her mind and tried to keep the baby, refusing to turn it over to the purchasing couple, the Sterns. The reporter said it was all brand new as a case, and I should bear in mind that they hadn’t yet done paternity testing and so it was possible that Mr. Whitehead, not Mr. Stern, was the father. I said, without a moment’s hesitation: “I don’t care who the father is, we know who the mother is!” Show me a pregnant woman and I know just who the mother is.
And here I stand, position totally unchanged, almost 25 years and a lot of fancy technology later. At that point, the pregnancy was created with the equivalent of the turkey-baster: the purchaser’s semen was placed into the vagina by a medical provider using low-tech tools. Now, precisely to avoid the kind of case Baby M represented, a lot of much fancier technology is used, to assure that the egg does not come from the hired-surrogate. But truly, it was not a question of ovum-sourcing that made me see Marybeth Whitehead as the mother of the baby she’d carried and born.
So for me, nothing’s changed, my position remains solid. But out there in the world, a lot has changed: Surrogacy is a growth industry. And like many industries, it profits from globalization: outsourcing pregnancies to India, once as unimaginable as anything I could now imagine, is routine, fully industrialized and normalized. And sadly too, like many industries, it comes with its own set of scandals. A well-known ‘reproductive law specialist,’ popular on the media circuit, has just been sent to jail for what amounts to an even-more direct form of baby selling than is surrogacy.
But still, I’ve been happy to take a back seat, watch, sadly wag my head back and forth and sigh dramatically once in a while. And then I was asked to review a book by Elly Teman on the surrogacy industry in Israel. You can read the review here
. Or better yet, go read the book -- obviously Teman and I disagree about surrogacy, but she does write well. That book got me way past sighing – it made me cry, made me throw things, made me seriously think about cancelling my big annual Passover seder. I’m not religious enough to have a crisis of faith – but this created a bit of a crisis of identity for me. That Jews, as Jews, in a Jewish state, applying the logic of Jewish patriarchy, could come up with the system they did – well, do I want to be any kind of a part of that?
I rescued Passover – my hagaddah
is something I’ve developed with family and friends over many years, reflective of our multinational, multiethnic identities, celebrating a human desire to be free of oppression. And Surrogacy, as practiced in Israel, as practiced in India, cannot be understood as anything but a form of oppression. Not to my thinking, anyway.
And then, the review just published, a few letters and comments trickling in in response, I was pulling out my own copy of RECREATING MOTHERHOOD, the one place I did write about surrogacy, and an old review slipped out. I looked at the photo of a young me, and looked too – with quite a bit of surprise – at the photo of the reviewer: Christopher Hitchens! I’d forgotten that. I read it again (and you can too, here
), and saw that yes, that was a smart guy, yes he did get what I was saying, and oddest of all, he too connected it to Israel , even if calling it a digression to “another contemporary controversy, the ‘Who is a Jew?’ debate” It wasn’t a digression: it showed a true understanding of what this surrogacy business is all about. Like traditional fatherhood in any patriarchy, the point of baby-making is for people of power to use oppressed people to grow their seeds into their progeny, do the labor, the dirty work, the hard work, and create a child who will bear the name and carry on the life and work and values of the oppressor. Whether it is in the most traditional, religious framework in which the seed of Abraham can grow through any woman’s body, or in a post-feminist capitalist state in which rich women can hire poor women to be their ‘surrogates,’ this is an ugly business. Hitchens was left with the ‘strong conviction that the argument could be more civilized if the profit motive could be eliminated from the process of conception. “
He said that showed what a naïve utopian he was – to me, it sadly showed how smart and how prescient he was.
Maybe I’ll write more, maybe I’ll just go back to heavy sighing. I’ll decide after Passover.