Jennifer Lahl, founder of the Center for Bioethics and Culture and an award-winning film director, recently released her latest documentary entitled Breeders: A Subclass of Women? The new film examines the harmful consequences of surrogacy. Breeders concludes her three-part film series on sexual reproductive technologies. The first installment, Eggsploitation (California Independent Film Festival Best Documentary, 2011), highlighted the risks for women in selling their eggs, and was followed by Anonymous Father’s Day (2012) which featured the stories of men and women conceived as a result of sperm donation.
Breeders explores surrogacy’s effects by way of interviewing four women who have been surrogate mothers, one woman who is a child of surrogacy, and medical experts and activists. Surrogacy is the sexual reproductive process by which a woman is contracted to carry the child of others by either: artificial insemination of her egg by the intended father’s sperm (traditional surrogacy), or by undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) in which both egg and sperm from the intended mother and father are transferred into the surrogate mother’s uterus (gestational surrogacy).
As a form of “third-party reproduction,” surrogacy raises many ethical concerns that are poignantly highlighted by the women’s experiences in Lahl’s documentary. The commodification of women’s bodies to be rented, the lack of consideration for long-term effects on the child of surrogacy, difficulties with the separation of surrogate mother and child, lack of federal law to regulate the industry and help resolve disputes, the precarious path towards creating a subclass of women paid to be “breeders” for those who can afford surrogacy, and finally abortion as a solution when something goes wrong among any of the four parties (mother, father, surrogate mother, and child) involved – these all are real harms present in the lives of the surrogate mothers Lahl interviewed.
Just as abortion has been used as a back-up after failed contraception, it likewise can play a disturbing role in the complex dynamic among those involved in surrogacies. One interviewee shared her heartbreaking experience in which the child she was carrying was detected with a fetal abnormality. While still in the doctor’s office undergoing the sonogram with the intended mother, she was temporarily abandoned by her to shoulder the emotional burden alone. Though the surrogate mother expressed her personal opposition to abortion, she decided to defer to the intended mother, and she regrets that abortion to this day. Because data in this area is scarce, there’s no knowing how many similar cases there are to this.
When asked for reasons they became surrogate mothers, the four women cited financial need and altruism towards infertile couples. As for money, one woman related that she was compensated $20,000 the first time she was a surrogate mother, and that with each additional surrogacy, she was able to ask for more money. Laurel Fertility Care Medical Director Collin Smikle, M.D. stated that the entire surrogacy process could cost “anywhere from $40,000-$70,000.” According to one surrogacy company, gestational surrogacy itself can actually cost around $100,000. In retrospect, one surrogate mother realized, “This child’s foundation of existence is a contract, an agreement, and more often than not, money. That’s not in the best interest of the child.”
Family therapist and author Nancy Verrier agrees, appearing in Breeders to provide insight into the harms brought upon the child. According to her research, the infant’s separation from his surrogate mother is a traumatic experience for both infant and mother, inflicting upon them what she calls a “primal wound.” Speaking on the part of the child, she says, “As wonderful as other people might be as parents, the baby knows that that’s not the mother they were expecting.” Jessica Kern, the child of surrogacy interviewed by Lahl, articulated another wound, saying, “At the end of the day, there is a feeling of being bought, having a price tag.”
Kern shared her story as personal testimony before members of the District of Columbia City Council last June alongside Jennifer Lahl during the Council’s consideration of the Surrogacy Parenting Agreement Act of 2013. The bill looks to overturn the District’s current restrictive law. In the United States, though state laws exist regarding surrogacy, there is no federal law to regulate or prohibit it. Lahl concluded her testimony against the bill by powerfully summarizing the nature of the procedure: “Surrogacy takes something as natural as a pregnant woman nurturing her unborn child and turns it into an unnatural contractual, commercialized endeavor. It opens the door for all sorts of exploitation.”
Breeders: A Subclass of Women? illustrates the real and painful consequences of surrogacy. While Lahl opens her film by recognizing the deep longings of men and women to have their own children, she calls for this to be addressed in responsible ways. With so little information systematically collected and studied on the long-term effects, with the weight of numberless stories of harm, and with a host of ethical concerns to consider, it is in the interest of our country – second only to India in the number of surrogacies – to create a moratorium on the procedure.
For more information about Breeders: A Subclass of Women?, including upcoming screenings, please visit: http://breeders.cbc-network.org/.