Rachel weeps. That’s all I could think of as Jennifer Lahl’s words over social media resembled a wail. News had broken that a California woman named Michelle Reaves had died in childbirth. Only this wasn’t your everyday childbirth. She had been serving for the second time as a surrogate for a family. And while the baby was born, this wife and mother of two did not survive.
It is, in a way, fake news for me to use the phrase “breaking news” — because the most detailed report of her death came from a friend’s GoFundMe page to help the Reaves family go on with all the expenses of her funeral and life without their beloved Michelle. Meanwhile if that night or the next morning you were to Google something along the lines of “California woman dies surrogate,” you would first see an ad from an “egg donation” site encouraging you to “Become a Surrogate Angel Today.” That’s what Reaves thought she was doing. And now her husband and two children no longer have her in their lives.
More people that day — and probably any day you read this column — are more apt to know that Lady Gaga has reportedly declared her desire to become a mother by adoption or surrogacy. Of course, adoption and surrogacy are very different things. In adoption, you are really placing the needs of a child above your own. In surrogacy, you are having your desires met in a way that we really haven’t fully considered ethically, morally, or medically. Just because it can be done, should it be?
Actually, when Jennifer Lahl, a nurse who is the founder and president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network searched, she got an ad offering $85,000 to California women to be a surrogate. You can imagine the temptation for a woman in need, believing she is giving a gift to another, when, in fact, it may be that she’s just being exploited. The inability to have a child the old-fashioned way can be the deepest heartache of one’s life, or of a couple’s life together. No one is denying that. But reproductive technology has become an industry. Who protects all the human lives involved in the transaction?
One of my favorite Lahl success stories in recent years is that she worked with feminist Gloria Steinem to help educate people about the dangers of surrogacy. Being a surrogate is a risky business — riskier than natural pregnancy because of all the foreign elements being introduced into the woman’s body. It’s all quite new, but when a woman is being offered a lot of money, she may overlook the dangers, which surrogacy agencies may be downplaying to her anyway.
Reaves’s death deserves to be a major news story. Especially considering that just days ago, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, where Steinem spoke up as part of a broad coalition of women opposed to surrogacy, said in his State of the State address: “New York’s surrogacy ban is based in fear not love, and it’s past time we updated our antiquated laws to help LGBTQ couples and people struggling with fertility use commonplace reproductive technology to start families.”
In a letter in June to Cuomo, Steinem and others said:
Our opposition to this bill emerges from our conviction that the legalization of commercial surrogacy contracts in New York state will undermine women’s control over their bodies, thwart women’s reproductive rights, render women vulnerable to reproductive trafficking and exploitation, and further subordinate and harm women, especially those who are economically disadvantaged, in our state.
As Ed Mechmann, director of public policy for the Archdiocese of New York, and himself a former assistant district attorney, notes:
Those dangers are self-evident from the way that commercial surrogacy works. There are standard contracts for surrogacy, easily available on the internet. A contract is agreed upon between “intended parents” and the “gestational carrier.” That terminology alone tells you enough about the degradation of women that is inherent in this practice. The standard surrogacy contracts impose all sorts of obligations on the “carrier,” and there is a severe penalty if she doesn’t comply — if she violates any provision, she forfeits any payment under the agreement and has to reimburse the “parents” for any of their expenses. This could entail tens of thousands of dollars in penalties and lost income. How is it “progressive” to treat women this way?
Mechmann uses the P-word because, running for reelection, the governor is painting himself as a progressive hero.
Then how about taking some time to consider what your election priorities could do to human lives — continue to devalue the vulnerable and at the expenses of families? Stop using fear as a bludgeon, and consider the Reaves family.
The same governor who expanded abortion a year ago could prove himself a real leader by making adoption and foster care a priority. I’d love for that leader in American politics today, how about you? Many an American heart is longing for someone who would bring two sides of contentious debates together for the common good. Surrogacy is dangerous territory, and there are children already alive whose lives would be saved by adoption. Can we talk about this before we plunge deeper into treating life — and women’s wombs — as a commodity?
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.