Jennifer Lahl brings her nursing expertise to the conversation about surrogacy with her new documentary, Breeders, a project of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. Breeders opens a window into surrogacy and its devaluing and demeaning of women and life, showing the details of an industry in which realities are often masked by unobjectionable words like “hope,” assuming the best of intentions and practices. In an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, Lahl talks about Breeders, surrogacy, and her hopes for the future of reproduction technology. (Full disclosure: Lopez has endorsed the documentary.)
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why Breeders now?
JENNIFER LAHL: Much of my work is in the space of reproductive technologies, and specifically what is called third-party reproduction (using eggs, sperm, or wombs of other people to have a baby). Breeders is the third and final film in this series. First was Eggsploitation, which looked at the lives and stories of women who sold their eggs for much needed money, and who suffered serious health complications as a result. Then we released Anonymous Father’s Day, telling the stories of adults created via anonymous sperm donation. We felt it was important to tell the whole story of third-party reproduction, which compelled us to tell the surrogacy story in Breeders.
Lopez: Who is your audience?
Lahl: Our primary audience is the young-adult crowd — those most heavily recruited and targeted to sell their eggs or sperm or rent out their wombs as a means of helping others while earning money.
Lopez: Isn’t surrogacy about hope and any criticism about it insensitive to infertility?
Lahl: Well, that is certainly how the supporters of surrogacy feel about it. There is a case now in Utah where a 58-year-old woman is the surrogate for her daughter, basically giving birth to her own grandchild. The comments on this case are mostly about the miracle and the amazing thing this woman is doing for her daughter. It is often the case that those like me, who are critical of the practice, are seen as insensitive and lacking compassion for those struggling to carry a child to term. I am very sympathetic to those struggling with infertility; it is tremendously painful. But we would be remiss if we only looked at the issue from the perspective of those who want a baby. What about the needs and concerns of the child? What about the use of women — very often women who are of low income — as surrogates, which some refer to as incubators, breeders, and even Easy-Bake Ovens? What about the commercialization and commodification aspects of what is now a multi-billion-dollar-per-year fertility industry? Much of my work is trying to tell the full story, the whole story, which requires that we face these questions and not avoid them because someone so desperately wants a baby.
Lopez: What’s the important connection to Eggsploitation? (And what does it mean to eggsploit?)
Lahl: It is often the case in surrogacy that “donor” eggs are used. There has been a shift in surrogacy. We’re moving away from the traditional method of surrogacy, where the surrogate is both the birth mother and the genetic mother (think Baby M case), to what is referred to as gestational surrogacy, meaning the surrogate supplies her womb but the egg comes either from the intended mother or from a “donor.” Male same-sex couples need both an egg donor and a surrogate in order to have a child. The shift toward gestational surrogacy is a deliberate move made for legal reasons. The less a woman can claim a link to the child (i.e., a genetic link), the less intended parents worry that the surrogate will be allowed to change her mind.
In addition, intended parents may feel they have a stronger legal case against a surrogate if she should change her mind about giving up a child to which she has no genetic connection. Of course, who then is looking out for the child? In particular, what is the impact of being in the womb for nine months and immediately being separated from the only person that the baby has ever known? We’ve learned from adoption history that babies know their birth mothers, and that both mothers and babies experience a loss from such separation.
To eggsploit means to literally use women for their eggs. Egg “donation” (in reality, egg selling) has serious, real, short- and long-term health risks. It is scandalous that we allow young women to be paid to undergo a risky procedure, corrupting their health decisions with a check for $5,000, $10,000, or more. When people watch Eggsploitation, I’m overwhelmed with how many in the audience are woefully uninformed about this practice and how many are alarmed when they discover that it is legal.
Lopez: What are the fundamental questions we need to ask about assisted reproduction? Who should be asking and how?
Lahl: Should we be doing this at all? seems a fundamental question in my mind. Do we have a right, a fundamental right, to have a child? What limits should be in place for people using these new technologies to have a child? These are questions we all should be addressing. As a nurse, I’m disappointed the medical professionals aren’t encouraging this conversation. And our lawmakers must see these as important and serious questions to be wrestling with. As it is now, these messy cases get caught up in our courts in order to decide who gets the baby, or who the rightful or legal parent is.