Breeding Exploitation
The faces of surrogacy.

Jennifer Lahl (inset) and a promotional image for Breeders


Lopez: It’s hard to ask these questions, isn’t it, when so many Americans seem to have made use of some kind of assisted reproduction? If you’re in a classroom teaching, how many students could be products of these technologies?

Lahl: Yes, it is hard work. I’ve been surprised just how hard it is because the emotions are so real, so deep, and yes, everyone either has used or knows someone who has used these technologies to conceive. Often when I speak to a large audience I will say that I know many in the room have used these technologies, are here because of these technologies, or may be here because of these technologies but don’t even know it (many people don’t tell their children they were born via donated eggs or sperm).


Lopez: Hasn’t this all gone too far for it to be possible to roll anything back?

Lahl: We have a history, at least here in the U.S., of making large-scale changes in thinking and behavior. Smoking is a good example of a product that was rolled back because we became aware of the risks and harms. Seatbelts in cars is another example of a large-scale change. I’m old enough to remember standing up in the backseat of the car when my family went somewhere. My hope is that as we are now increasingly seeing the fallout and the negative consequences for both women and children, we will begin regulating these technologies like many other countries have done.

Lopez: How much does gay marriage factor into the questions Breeders raises?

Lahl: The majority of people using surrogates are heterosexual couples, but with the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships, homosexual couples too are seeing this as a way to have a child of their own.

Lopez: How important is the maternal-bonding question to surrogacy?

Lahl: I was a pediatric nurse for nearly 20 years, and the bonding issue is a real concern of mine. As a nurse I worked mostly in the intensive care unit, and we worked so hard to keep moms with sick preemie babies connected and attached because that bond is so important. We are learning more and more about all the important things that happen those nine months in the womb, but in surrogacy we simply ignore the importance of maternal-child bonding, treating it as irrelevant because someone who desperately wants a baby gets one.

Lopez: Should there be any exceptions? Are there conditions in which surrogacy is a merciful option, like if a sister wants to help a brother and sister-in-law, etc.?

Lahl: Again, although I have compassion on those who can’t carry a child to term, I don’t think the ends justify the means. We can’t predict how these situations will end up. One of the women we interview in Breeders was a surrogate for her brother, and that went terribly wrong. I’m in the process of interviewing an egg donor now who has just been diagnosed with cancer. A surrogate I know lives with daily regret knowing the child she surrendered is in a less than loving home. The Baby M case is the classic case of a woman who changed her mind and couldn’t surrender the baby. I want to build a society where we want mothers to connect with their babies and not turn their bodies into objects to be used, bought, or sold.

Lopez: What’s the unique voice you bring to this as a nurse?

Lahl: My expertise is unique because I can speak to the real risks and harms of the drugs and procedures used on women. I understand the medical problems that children have who are conceived through reproductive technologies. Many seem to think this is all so easy and that a woman just donates eggs, loans out her uterus, and a baby almost miraculously appears (as if carried in by a stork). As a pediatric nurse, I have expertise in maternal-child health. And I understand the use of and corruption of informed consent. In my 20-something years of nursing, I never watched someone give truly informed consent to medical risks while staring at a check for $20,000–$30,000, which is what a surrogate can easily make.

Lopez: What Breeders story is most compelling to you? Whose testimony do you wish everyone would listen to?

Lahl: That’s a hard question. Maybe it’s because I’m a female documentary filmmaker, but I just fall in love with all of the people I interview in my films. Their stories, bravely told, are each so very compelling. They all started out wanting to really help someone, but things went so terribly wrong. Heather is so vulnerable as she talks about being told to abort the baby she was carrying but refusing. Tanya, who closes the film — when the cameras were rolling and she was telling her story, I just knew we had the ending to the film! Cindy’s case is gut-wrenching, as she was truly used by a man to have babies for himself and his partner. Gail, who was the surrogate for her brother and his partner, has an important story, since people think surrogacy within families is the best or only way to go. Her case demonstrates that even then everything can go terribly wrong.

Lopez: Is this a women’s-rights issue? A health issue? A human-rights issue?

Lahl: Yes, yes, and yes! It is a women’s-rights issue, which is why I’ve been able to get such support for my work from a diverse range of leading international feminists. It is definitely a health issue: the risks of the technologies, the drugs, and the separation to both the women and the children. And it’s a human-rights issue, especially when you see how poor women in India, Thailand, or Mexico are treated. Often these are illiterate women who can’t even read the contracts they’re agreeing to. They are truly impoverished and simply cannot be making free and informed choices in such circumstances.

Lopez: As a political issue: What’s next and realistic to do?

Lahl: Part of our educational work is directed toward lawmakers. Last year we saw legislative successes in Minnesota on a surrogacy bill. We were influential in Louisiana, where Governor Bobby Jindal vetoed a surrogacy bill. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have allowed researchers to pay women for eggs in my state of California. We are watching a bill in the District of Columbia that would make surrogacy legal there. These aren’t issues that politicians gravitate toward, though. No one makes third-party reproduction one of their platform goals.

But I believe our best contribution is educating ordinary people so that they will think twice about these practices. I’ve met several young women who were thinking about selling their eggs but watched Eggsploitation and it changed their minds. I hope Breeders will have the same impact.

Lopez: What does a parent say to a child who was conceived through exploitation of a poor woman?

Lahl: Honesty is still the best policy. I’m a believer in telling your children as early as they can understand how they were conceived. Acknowledge and accept their feelings of loss, grief, or anger. I’ve learned a lot from my friends who were conceived through anonymous sperm donation and also the young woman in Breeders born via surrogacy. They really are truly happy to be alive, but they want (and are right to want) and need validation of their real feelings.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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