imaginary family values presents

yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


The dignity of labor

2 December 2008

I do not have any fundamental objections to any of these newfangled reproductive technologies: IVF, surrogate parenthood, cloning, male pregnancy, whatever. Bring ’em on. And I think progressive income taxes are better for society than sumptuary laws, which is to say, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with being rich and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with rich people buying things that regular folks can’t afford.

Cathy Hilling, surrogate mother, and Alex Kuczynski, genomom and journalist.

But I was still squicked by this article on a woman whose fertilized egg was carried in another woman’s uterus, starting with the layout of the magazine cover. While Cathy Hilling, the surrogate mother, stands in flats, Alex Kuczynski, producer of the lucky egg, stands in high heels and upstage and with her hair up. It seems that the Times’s art director wanted to portray the two women bonded at the hip, but also wanted to show clearly who is in charge.

Deep in the text of the article, things get squickier:

No money ever changes hands directly between the intended parents (I.P.’s in surrogacy speak) and the surrogate. All the money goes into an escrow account set up by Brisman’s office, and a third party pays out the monthly fees. I.P.’s and surrogates are discouraged from discussing money. This is partly to remove the air of commercialism from the proceedings.

Shortly after our meeting, Brisman’s office started to send us profiles of potential surrogates. It felt strangely like getting a letter from the roommate who would be sharing your dorm room freshman year. They described themselves, their lives, their ambitions….

While no one volunteering to have our baby was poor, neither were they rich. The $25,000 we would pay would make a significant difference in their lives. 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.

I’m sure that when Hilling’s obstetrician negotiates with an insurance company over reimbursement rates, nobody has any qualms about “attaching a dollar figure to the creation of a human life”. And the insurance company doesn’t give a damn about the obstetrician’s life or ambitions.

In a relationship between a contractor and her client, where money is discussed frankly and changes hands shamelessly, there can be mutual respect. I have something you want; you have a skill I need; let’s discuss an arrangement that benefits us both. Between two people who are related by blood or marriage, there can also be mutual respect. I want you to do me a favor because we are in a bond of mutual obligation, and I understand that some day you may ask the same of me. Hilling petitions for her assignment like a suitor, accepts Kuczynski’s money like a contractor, and then hangs out with her (playing Kuczynski’s piano, giving her a gift) like a relative. So what is their relationship? Ten years from now, if, God forbid, Hilling is abused by her husband or develops a drug habit, how far will Kuczynski et al. go to help out? Now that her skill as a gestator has been praised by the national newspaper of record, can Hilling demand $30,000 from the next aspiring mother? I fear that surrogates, like nannies, are ending up with the duties of both statuses and the privileges of neither.