December
4th 2008
Thanks, stranger, and welcome little stranger

Posted under: American history, Bodily modification, Gender, the body, women's history

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.

22 Comments »

22 Responses to “Thanks, stranger, and welcome little stranger”

  1. ej on 04 Dec 2008 at 1:28 pm #

    I had a similar reaction to the piece-I found particular points rather unsettling, but I think most of all, I appreciated her honesty. I think this is a very complex and complicated issue, but one that we will be facing with increasing frequency now that science makes things like surrogacy and IVF more available. But we need to be able to examine these issues without casting judgment on those involved. As a professional woman who delayed pregnancy until after 35 who had little trouble conceiving, I find it hard to imagine how I would have reacted if things had gone otherwise.

  2. Mark on 04 Dec 2008 at 1:42 pm #

    I have a hard time seeing this article as admirable in any way. Her honesty is appreciated, but Kucynski’s thought process and her isolation from the non upper-class world is pretty despicable.

    To me, the relationship between class and reproductive rights is the troubling thing about the article. (The cover hints at that conflict.) It seems that affluent women have more reproductive freedom than middle and lower class women, and Kucynski’s patronizing tone doesn’t exactly generate a lot of empathy.

  3. Erica on 04 Dec 2008 at 2:03 pm #

    “Sell your egg” ads were plastered all over the school papers at MIT and Harvard. Smart girls are valuable. I considered it (solely for the financial incentive) but figured I’d rather work than go through the procedure — sperm donors get to have fun, egg donors not so much. There was NO altruism in my thought process at all, just weighing the (financial) pros against the (medical) cons.

    Having given birth twice, I have a lot of respect for surrogate mothers, or mothers who give their children up for adoption, or mothers with stillborn children or miscarriages. Pregnancy hormones kicked in hard, in ways I never expected, especially right after labor — I can’t imagine having a kid I couldn’t keep. And once Cathy gave birth, she wasn’t mentioned any more in the story, which was disconcerting (although I understand Kuczynski was the focus)…

  4. squadratomagico on 04 Dec 2008 at 2:17 pm #

    I found the article absolutely loathsome. I don’t have a problem with the situation — the surrogacy or in general her reproductive choices — but I do have a real problem with the unkindness and general lack of warmth that Kucynski displays towards Cathy, the gestational surrogate. The author has no generosity, either of heart or of hand. It is after all the surrogate who buys the author, a billionaire’s wife, a gift at the birth. Apparently, a small token of appreciation for Cathy was not an act of thoughtfulness that occured to Kucynski. And her portrayal of Cathy reads like something out of a high school “mean girl” facebook page. In every paragraph I found one or another grotesquely selfish and small-minded sentiment, from her continual focus on ownership (I was particularly struck by this when she whines about feeling outclassed by Cathy’s piano-playing on “my Steinway” and “my piano” – as if the fact of owning the piano compensated for her inability to play it); to her insistence on a “medieval” need to replicate her genes and her mournful invocation that dying childless is a “double death” (Oops, I guess that’s it for me!); and the passage you quote, in which she gleefully contrasts her sensuality with Cathy’s hemmorhoidal flatulence! (While in theory, she makes positive and negative comments about both herself and Cathy in this passage, I found the portrayals to be rather unevenly balanced).

    Then again, since this is a woman who spent over 100K on plastic surgery (starting in her twenties no less), I suppose her highest values are conventional beauty, wealth, and success. She’s achieved that — now she ought to work on some kindness.

  5. Ignatz on 04 Dec 2008 at 2:51 pm #

    I was also disturbed that the piece began with a picture of author, baby’s back, and an African-American nurse looking on from the side, in front of the schmantzy (Southampton?) house. I read the visual as, “I’m the center of attention, yay; minorities serve me; look at my dress, figure, and house.” I wonder whether the author chose the cover and other photo–and if not, whether the Times picked them to hint that this author has class, race, and ego issues she seems unaware of.

  6. Historiann on 04 Dec 2008 at 2:56 pm #

    Ignatz, that would assume that the editors don’t share the author’s class, race, and ego issues!

  7. Rayven, 2X Gestational Surrogate on 04 Dec 2008 at 4:47 pm #

    Well, as a surrogate mother myself, I liked and disliked the article.

    I have so much respect for any woman who has gone through IVF (its not fun) 11 times and eventually turns to surrogacy. What these women go through (not even the tip of the iceberg in the article) is immense. And I am so happy that she finally has her son.

    But, and it’s a big but, she set surrogacy back a decade with her remarks about the intelligence of surrogate mothers in general! I mean really!

    I took it for what it was worth; it was just her elitism shining through, but still.

    And don’t even get me started on the pictures.

  8. Sisyphus on 04 Dec 2008 at 6:46 pm #

    70 grand to pop out someone else’s baby? Oh my god, why am I bothering scraping together my adjunct courses at a grand a pop?

  9. squadratomagico on 04 Dec 2008 at 7:12 pm #

    Actually, Sis, the surrogate in this case only got 25K; the rest goes to lawyers and doctor’s bills.

  10. Historiann on 04 Dec 2008 at 7:21 pm #

    Yes–it’s quite a lucrative business if you’re a physician or a lawyer. Cash on the barrelhead!

    Rayven and Mark, thanks for stopping by to comment. I agree for the most part with Mark and Squadratomagico, but I also wonder how Cathy would have written about the experience. I too found it strange that Cathy was gifting Alex, rather than the other way around.

    And Rayven–yes, the photos are very interesting…but again, I’m always dubious about the New York Times and its articles on women. I suppose it’s easier for the institution to imply that elite women are the only crass, materialistic, selfish, or exploitative people in the world.

  11. Geoff on 04 Dec 2008 at 10:48 pm #

    My wife and I were bothered by many of the issues mentioned above. Clearly she was exposing herself in many ways to criticism, and that is probably for me her redeeming feature.

    For someone of Ms. Kucynski’s means, $25k seems a rather low amount for surrogacy, perhaps insultingly low. It reminds me a bit of a time when a wealthy professor offered us grad students $15/hr to come and help her move, as if she was doing us a favor with what she thought were generous wages.

    This is a bit off topic, but as a tradesman I am reminded more frequently as I age that many of us — men and women — make trade-offs with our bodies. A colleague once compared the toll on our bodies to playing a professional sport, and if you could look around at the number of older union members limping or hobbling around, you’d be inclined to agree. (Granted there is a qualitative difference between surrogacy and manual labor, of course).

  12. mary on 04 Dec 2008 at 11:49 pm #

    Ugh. Geoff’s story reminds me of an email that we (grad students at Historiann’s illustrious Baa Ram U) got last year. An English Professor asked if “a responsible history graduate student” would be available to pour wine at his house party for one hundred dollars. I am sure he thought he was being generous as well, but I found the whole thing rather insulting.

  13. DV on 05 Dec 2008 at 12:22 am #

    This is a great topic. The post and the story raise another set of questions for me that we haven’t touched on – the overarching significance of biology. I temped for an unbearable fertility doctor years ago and watched lots of couples go through each of the stages this story described – except adoption. Then – as now – I couldn’t wrap my head around the assumption each couple subscribed to a belief that a child who shares some of their genes is more “their child” than an adopted one. So they came back again and again trying for that kind of child. Biology (and birth) is a powerful connection, but what drove this woman to decide that she had to have a genetic connection to her child, for it to be her child. Kuczynski even points to the possessiveness of biology when describing the seeming “challenges” to surrogacy because in New York she would have to “adopt our biological child from Cathy.”

    And, if you’ll permit a tangent, I can’t help but see parallels in this to a post of yours from a few weeks ago, the one about virginity. The discussion there centered on the state of (and language of) virginity, but it prompted me to consider the historical significance of virginity – as in, why did it matter. This led me, likewise, to puzzle over the significance of biology; as in, families wanted to ensure their particular genes persisted (and took charge of their property).

  14. Historiann on 05 Dec 2008 at 6:04 am #

    DV, I remember you writing about your experience at a fertility clinic in comments on an earlier post. Have you considered writing about it in detail–in a magazine article or a book? I suppose you could also use it for fiction writing, too. Anyway, I don’t think you’re on a tangent at all–that’s a very interesting connection you’ve seen between the virginity post and thread and this post and thread. You’re right: it’s all very primitive and elementally patriarchal, isn’t it, this drive for bio children and the drive to ensure that people outside of the bloodline aren’t inheriting? This is why I think queer families are great–they’re the families that pose the greatest challenges to the patriarchal bloodlines definition of family.

    Kuczynski seems to fetishize the comingling of genes as a symbol of her and her husband’s love. I wonder too if she feared that her husband (who had 6 children from 2 other marriages) wouldn’t be as committed to this child if it wasn’t biologically related to him. I think DV, unless I’m mistaken, that you’ve written about how it may be men who are more driven to pass on their genes, whereas many fertility clinic mothers would be happy to adopt but for their partners’ determination…or am I imagining a conversation we never had?

    Geoff makes very interesting points too, especially about the toll work takes on our bodies. Since I’ve got a cushy office job, I forget that there are others who don’t! Perhaps Rayven will weigh in again, but I’d say that your union guys have probably sustained greater damage than surrogate mothers do, simply because surrogacy isn’t something that people can do for decades. And, it seems like the women who volunteer for surrogacy are people who do pregnancy really well–there are people who are really good at it, and who even enjoy it. But even then, there’s a limit I think to the number of times one could serve as a surrogate.

    And, Mary: wow. Actually $100 ain’t bad, but I guess what you’re suggesting is that the wine-pouring was an inappropriate solicitation between profs and grad students. That’s also a relationship which it’s better perhaps to keep un-commercial? (Unless the work in question is school- or professionally related, that is.)

  15. Mary on 05 Dec 2008 at 7:45 am #

    That is what I’m suggesting and it was just a very weirdly worded email.

  16. Buzz on 05 Dec 2008 at 10:02 am #

    When I finally got to read the original article, my overriding impression was that Kuczynski did seem quite frank, but otherwise she seemed to live a profoundly unexamined life.

  17. Historiann on 05 Dec 2008 at 10:43 am #

    Buzz–well said. I’m kind of shocked that she’s so open about her life and motivations, and I was impressed in a way that she was. As Geoff said upthread, “clearly she was exposing herself in many ways to criticism, and that is probably for me her redeeming feature.” If I were in her shoes, I would have written a much more self-flattering and sanitized version of the story, so I kind of admire her moxie for telling it as she experienced it. But as you say–she doesn’t appear to have a great deal of insight into her own “unexamined life.”

  18. Fratguy on 05 Dec 2008 at 1:49 pm #

    This is all well and good, but, I just want to know where the market is for surrogate penises ?

  19. AcadeMama on 06 Dec 2008 at 6:33 am #

    It wasn’t long after I started graduate school before I seriously considered donating/selling my eggs to earn money. By “seriously considered,” I mean that I’d filled out all the paperwork and completed a phone interview. It turned out that I was “perfect” for donor status: mid-20′s, white, tall, slim, healthy, pretty, and I’d already had one successful pregnancy. They basically considered me the ideal specimen for the process.

    The reason I even thought of doing this? To pay off credit card debt and supplement student loans. I was a single parent, working on my MA, living five states away from my family. The ONLY thing that prevented my from doing it was that the clinic wasn’t geographically close enough for me to rush over for temperature checks, harvesting, etc. when my hormone tests were positive. Further, the only thing that stopped me from going the route of surrogacy was that the child I already had wasn’t really old enough to understand, and I didn’t want her being confused about the process.

    Make no mistake, I was fully aware of the class implications throughout all the paperwork, applications, questionnaires, etc. I knew I was virtually pimping myself out; I may not have been selling sex, but I was selling pieces of myself nonetheless. What’s even worse? As I sit here now, less than one year away from earning my PhD, I’d absolutely consider doing it again. With a academic husband who brings his own share of student loan debt to the table, this is the only kind of pimping that doesn’t come with the stigma of being a whore. But I know that’s what it is: a reproductive whore of sorts.

  20. DV on 06 Dec 2008 at 11:57 pm #

    Thanks for the suggestion, Historiann. I think I might have an ax to grind and that’s a good way to do it.

  21. Historiann on 07 Dec 2008 at 9:43 am #

    Academama, thanks for stopping by to comment. Sorry I’ve neglected this thread for a few days. Your description of your through process about egg donation is fascinating. When those ads went up on college campuses in the mid-1990s, I was already close to “over the hill” to be a donor, but I considered it, too, although not as seriously as you. But as you point out, the experience is invasive, time-consuming, and then there’s the whole concept of a person genetically related to you that you’ll never meet. That was a hurdle for me, as for you, especially re: your own child.

    I agree with DV that mystifying blood and biology is primitive thinking. And yet, I feel very proprietary about my own eggies. I know exactly what has become of every single one of them, and I like it that way. I don’t think this is because I am selfishly attached to my DNA–I think it has more to do with my control issues–but I can’t deny that the DNA may be a part of it. DV needs to write her memior/novel about the fertility clinic so that I can review it here and we can have a book club discussion!

    DV, let me know if you want to do a guest post here someday, OK?

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