Maybe you have been following the splashing surrogacy headlines in the last week, or maybe they were lost between Canada’s election (yay!) and the annual articles about not dressing your kid up in a racist costume. So let me give you a synopsis, from my perspective as the mama of 11-week-old twins born with a surrogate.
I am a young woman who had twin babies with a surrogate. I needed a surrogate because I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 29, the same month I stopped taking birth control so I could get pregnant. I was most devastated that my fertility could be destroyed by chemo and that even after my treatment was done, ten years of hormone therapy would make it impossible to grow a baby while also protecting myself from any errant cancer cells.
We found our surrogate Angela through Canadian Fertility Consulting. She was ten years older than me, a childbirth educator, mother of three and advocate for women during their most vulnerable times- birth. She seemed like a pro. We paid her. We signed legal forms with her. We all saw a counsellor. We decided to transfer two embryos, because then we had a 60% success rate instead of a 50% success rate for any pregnancy, and because it was already so expensive, we might as well up our chances, right? We transferred one high quality embryo and one lower quality embryo. There was a 5-10% chance of twins. We got twins. We went to appointments sometimes and she always texted photos. We were so excited. We were stretched so thin for money and our families helped us afford the surrogacy. We spent a lot of time contemplating this arrangement, acknowledging our privilege, and thinking about what it meant for our pregnancy. Angela sent us adorable photos of herself as her belly grew. She carried them through to 37 weeks, which was a major feat, and delivered two healthy little girls- Luna Juliette and Sienna Skye. She continues to pump breast milk for them. We will always love her.
So, the story:
There was a woman from Idaho who decided to act as a surrogate. Apparently she did so multiple times, as many women do as far as I understand. The woman, Brooke, also had three sons of her own. She was most recently carrying a set of twins for a Spanish couple. While she was only days from delivery, she didn’t make it to her c-section, due to a placental eruption which is a rare condition that, undiagnosed, can lead to grave danger for the pregnant woman and the babies inside of her. Shortly thereafter, the woman died from this condition. The twins were briefly kept alive on life support, but neither survived. There is little mention of the intended parents in the articles that sensationalize this story. In a Huffington Post article, Mirah Riben (author of multiple articles in places like HuffPost and Dissident Voice) compares Brooke’s story to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ll get to why this is not a good comparison in a second. As I sifted through the articles, I read phrases like:
In Atwood’s novel, which takes place “after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and blamed it on the Islamic fanatics,” becoming pregnant is the one thing the Handmaids can do to rescue themselves from death. Not so for today’s surrogates.
I read and I read, and I felt icky. I felt ashamed. I felt like I had participated in something bad. And then I realized that was the function of the language in the articles. Nowhere did I see the voices of surrogates or intended parents or babies born from surrogacy. Nowhere did I see my story. My story was one of total transformation- a relationship I will always treasure. Angela might not be my “friend” in the traditional sense, but she is someone I love, someone I respect, someone I will always hold dear. I like to think that it’s pretty fucking awesome that science can allow women to do shit like carry babies for each other. I mean really, how awesome is that? It’s a pretty radical notion that we might be able to share our bodies and our dreams with each other in order to create a world that feels more just, more hopeful, more magical. My world is certainly more just, more hopeful, and more magical because I have a baby sleeping on my chest and another sleeping on the couch next to me. I have those babies because of Angela. My surrogate.
The argument made by Riben isn’t unlike the arguments against surrogacy made by others writing on Brooke’s story: that surrogacy is bio-colonialism and enables the commodification of women’s bodies, especially poor women.* These arguments about Brooke’s surrogacy and death fail to account for the complexity of the situation and perhaps more gravely, fail to account for the intelligent, wild, hopeful, thinking, independent spirits and MINDS of everyone involved with Brooke’s surrogacy- including Brooke’s own ability to decide how to use her body. Brooke becomes a woman caught in patriarchy, a woman who needs taking care of. Now I am well aware of the classed dynamics of patriarchy, and of the possibility for harm. However- women need legal protection so they can use their bodies in ways they desire to, not outdated laws that dictate how they are allowed to use their bodies.
When told this way, surrogates become poor, incapable women who don’t know what’s best for them, who make decisions because they have no other choice, who succumb to the system and who would be better off with someone to contain their bodies, make choices for them, and keep them safe. I think that rather, we need a way to think about these relationships that allows for agentive action and thoughtful involvement on the part of the surrogate and also, a way to account for the ways in which class, gender, race, and sexuality structure all relationships in the world.
Of course we are not completely autonomous beings. We use language. We exist in racist, capitalist, colonial, patriarchy. But we resist, too. We organize. We teach and learn. We hold protests and refuse to go to Starbucks. Surrogates can- and do- resist racist, capitalist, colonial, patriarchy. We might even say that surrogacy- coming into relationship with people to change their intimate lives- is itself a way to resist racist, capitalist, colonial, patriarchy. Yah, yah, I know it’s not all unicorns pooping rainbows: I’m often the first to point out colonial tendencies. However- these blanket statements don’t help. We need a wider analytical lens to understand what’s going on with surrogacy, and power, and women’s bodies, and the desire to regulate what women can and cannot do with our bodies.
In these popular articles floating through mainstream media, people who pursue surrogacy to have a baby- called intended parents- become money-grubbing snobs who don’t want to stretch their flat tummies and instead pay some poor, unfortunate woman to do the dirty work of birthing their children. Intended parents are painted as wealthy folk participating in colonialism, keeping the wheels spinning on racist, capitalist, classist patriarchy. It’s not really useful to just call it that, though, is it? Does it give you a better idea of the people that surrogacy braids together, and their lived experiences? It’s not very ethnographic, is it? Rather, we need real description of real lives, we need to re-think why a writer could ever argue that someone else doesn’t deserve to figure out how to have children, in the most non normative ways. We need to consider the politics, toxins, and capitalist systems that cripple women’s bodies and reproductive systems (like cancer!), and lead them to reach out to other women (like surrogates!) in order to have a baby.
So when I read that surrogacy is the real-life manifestation of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, and that “becoming pregnant is the one thing the Handmaids can do to rescue themselves from death. Not so for today’s surrogates” I have to wonder, has this writer done ANY research? Does she really think that we are living in Atwood’s novel, and that if Angela hadn’t been my surrogate she would have been sent away to die? Perhaps she isn’t trying to be literal: maybe Atwood’s novel is a warning, and maybe surrogates would live a metaphorical death by capitalist/patriarchy if they weren’t growing babies for a little bit of money. But really? Really? There’s lots of other ways to make twenty grand (or in the US, even a hundred grand) faster and cheaper and easier than growing a baby and pushing it out your vagina for someone else.
What we did was not dirty. Our surrogate wasn’t forced to bear Luna and Sienna. We- me, Sam, Angela, and her hubby- entered into an agreement. They selflessly cared for our babies in utero. I won’t speak for her, but I only ever understood Angela to love being pregnant and believe in her power to help another woman become a mama.
I should not feel shamed for growing my babies this way. In fact, I am proud. I am proud I pursued these little girls until they came into the world. I am proud I didn’t stop when they told me chemo would destroy my fertility and that my uterus would be hostile for ten years. I am proud I worked through my grief about not being able to have a pregnancy and found Angela. I am proud I shared both the joy of knowing babies were coming and the sadness that I was not carrying them with her. I am proud that she held them inside for 37 weeks. I am proud of these tiny little people, who sleep so profoundly on my chest but somehow are instantly awake the second I try to put them down. I am proud I had twins with a surrogate.
But you know what I’m ashamed of? I’m ashamed to live in a world where women are vilified for their choices, instead of respected and given the appropriate supports to live their lives as they wish. I’m ashamed that the climate is so hostile that many women involved in surrogacy feel like they cannot share their stories and feelings for fear of being attacked. I’m ashamed we can’t have a more careful, respectful conversation about how to hold these women carefully and closely, how to honour their hearts and connect them with parents who will love and cherish their gift.
So yah. Don’t shame me for having a surrogate. Just don’t.
*I’m certain there will be others applying a racialized and transnational lens to the relationships manifest through surrogacy- especially those who work with surrogates internationally– I cannot speak to these relationships. I can speak to surrogacy arrangements between two North American women- me and my surrogate.