I can’t tell if I admire Alex Kuczynski’s honesty in “Her Body, My Baby,” about her experience with a woman who bore her genetic child through surrogacy, or if I am disturbed by it. (It’s probably both–via Corrente.) Her story is familiar–elite thirtysomething career woman and older husband (who is himself on marriage #3 and trying for baby #7) can’t make a baby, so after years of struggling with infertility, they investigated hiring a surrogate to carry their genetic child. I know that surrogacy is an option available only to the wealthy, with uterus rental rates and associated expenses going for $40,000 to $70,000. But did she really have to work in all of the allusions to the vacation homes in Idaho and Southampton, N.Y., in addition to the Manhattan apartment? This splendid isolation seems to have contributed to being surprised and impressed that her surrogate had a computer and knew how to use it:
WHEN WE CAME ACROSS Cathy’s application, we saw that she was by far the most coherent and intelligent of the group. She wrote that she was happily married with three children. Her answers were not handwritten in the tiny allotted spaces; she had downloaded the original questionnaire and typed her responses at thoughtful length. Her attention to detail was heartening. And her computer-generated essay indicated, among other things, a certain level of competence. This gleaned morsel of information made me glad: she must live in a house with a computer and know how to use it.
It’s as though the world that 85% of us inhabit was a foreign place to Kuczynski. Patronizing, much? She seems overjoyed that her surrogate has a college degree, and that two of Cathy’s three children are in college (the other is 11, so there’s hope yet.) Other parts of the essay are less cringe-worthy and are very insightful, such as her description of the polite fiction maintained by the bio parents and the surrogate and her family that no money is changing hands:
The fees to the surrogate would be paid out in monthly installments, not in one lump sum at the end. In this way the surrogate would be reimbursed for her monthly gestational responsibilities even if the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. 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.
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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.
But, of course, surrogacy is work, and work deserves to be compensated. I’m suspicious of some arguments against surrogacy that hide behind the “sanctity of life” and deny that we can put a price on it, because they end up being arguments that women should volunteer their uteri instead of being compensated for their time, trouble, and discomfort. Speaking of which, I also liked the fact that Kuczynski admitted enjoying the fact that she avoided the advanced stages of pregnancy:
AS THE MONTHS PASSED, something curious happened: The bigger Cathy was, the more I realized that I was glad — practically euphoric — I was not pregnant. I was in a daze of anticipation, but I was also secretly, curiously, perpetually relieved, unburdened from the sheer physicality of pregnancy. If I could have carried a child to term, I would have. But I carried my 10-pound dog in a BabyBjörn-like harness on hikes, and after an hour my back ached.
Cathy was getting bigger, and the constraints on her grew. I, on the other hand, was happy to exploit my last few months of nonmotherhood by white-water rafting down Level 10 rapids on the Colorado River, racing down a mountain at 60 miles per hour at ski-racing camp, drinking bourbon and going to the Super Bowl.
Still, Kuczynski can’t get past the feeling that her obviously athletic and toned body has failed her, and the feeling that she is marked by it:
AS MUCH AS I TRIED TO FIGHT off the feeling, when I told others that I was expecting a baby — and this child was clearly not coming out of my womb — I would sometimes feel barren, decrepit, desexualized, as if I were branded with a scarlet “I” for “Infertile.” At the height of her pregnancy, Cathy and I embodied several facets of femininity. She could be seen as the fertile, glowing mother-to-be as well as the hemorrhoidal, flatulent, lumpen pregnant woman. I could be the erotic, perennially sensual nullipara, the childbirth virgin, and yet I was also the dried-up crone with a uterus full of twigs. She got rosy cheeks and huge, shiny stretch marks. I went to Bikram yogaand was embarrassed to tell the receptionist — in front of the pregnant 20-something yogini in short shorts — to pull me out of class in case my baby was about to be born out of another woman’s body.
Women are each other’s harshest judges when it comes to decisions about our lives. To have a child or children, or not? To create an adulthood around motherhood and mothering one’s children, or an adulthood that embraces other kinds of work beyond parenting (or indeed, avoids parenting without regrets)? I’m not posting this so that we–you and I, my dear readers–can pounce on Kuczynski and feel for a few satisfying moments as though we are morally superior to her. I’m posting this because I think it raises interesting questions about class, bodies, and commerce. (Let’s remember that the New York Times is always publishing stories about white, upper-middle class women’s supposed selfishness and how it’s the ruination of the world, so we should be careful about not taking the bait.)
Honestly, the most disturbing part of the article was when Kuczynski, in an aside, notes that Cathy’s 20 year-old daughter, a college student, “had been an egg donor to help pay her college tuition.” Also, “Cathy told me that her motivations were not purely financial, although she was frank about the fact that the money would help with her two children in college.” This family may be an isolated example, but, I wonder: are working-class and middle-class women and girls being driven to sell reproductive services in order to get themselves and their children through college? If so, what does it say about what we value in women–their brains or their bodies? Are women who use the latter to improve the former with the goal of finding work that doesn’t involve their reproductive organs being canny, or are they being used?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. I didn’t consider selling eggs to get through college, but then, I didn’t have to. Having and enforcing boundaries around one’s body is a privilege.