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Our Babies, Ourselves

When I first saw the cover of November 28 New York Times Magazine, I was eager to read Alex Kuczynski’s story about having a child via surrogate—not so much because I am especially interested in infertility, but because Kuczynski is a writer I love to hate. I was pretty sure that her first-person narrative was going to give me plenty of fuel for my antipathy.

I was pretty much right, but, after a couple of pages, though, I thought to myself, “This is only going to make you crazy and filled with spite, and then you are going to feel guilty and conflicted about the spite because you don’t actually know what it’s like to want a baby and not be able to have one, and that’s just no fun at all.” (I still have not processed all my thoughts and more instinctive reactions to Sarah Palin; indeed, I doubt that any feminist has, and I believe that there could be a whole women’s studies conference devoted to collectively navigating that cognitive and emotional thicket). So, I closed the magazine, but not before I looked at all the photos, which were—as has been noted by the Public Editor and others—outrageous.

I did read the letters to the editor in the latest issue of the magazine, of which there were many. I found this one to be the most interesting, as it raised some substantive, philosophical issues that hadn’t been addressed elsewhere:

In words that echo Aristotle’s view that a woman is a receptacle for the life force implanted by a man through intercourse, the author refers to Cathy Hilling as “the woman who carried our child” and explains, “Strictly speaking, she was a vessel, the carrier, the biological baby sitter, for my baby.” The title of the article, “Her Body, My Baby,” engages in the same obliterating action, with the author as the stand-in life-force impregnator, situated outside the nine-month process of creating a child but claiming responsibility for and complete ownership of the result. And Kuczynski perceives Cathy as participating in this reduction of her role when she likens herself to an Easy-Bake oven.

That simplistic formulation of so-called gestational surrogacy (“organ rental,” per Kuczynski) may have helped two strangers leap over chasms they couldn’t have traversed otherwise. But it is a shortcut that relies on denigrating concepts, concepts that have historically led to inhumane treatment. As infertility and intervention increasingly muddy the meaning of the word “mother,” we must traverse that terrain and not take shortcuts.

A woman’s body and the growing being inside her participate in an astounding symphony for about 40 weeks to build from egg and sperm a human that can survive outside the woman’s body. The woman’s feelings, thoughts, meals and actions influence that symphony, helping create what the growing being experiences at every moment. Yet Kuczynski literally reduces Cathy’s whole self to her uterus. This is a disturbing denigration of a beautiful, astoundingly complex phenomenon that builds life and that bonds most living beings and their offspring for life.

Wyncote, Pa.

After reading this, I wondered what my favorite fertility-challenged blogger would have to say about Kuczynski’s article, and I was surprised—and somewhat chastened—by what I found. It was salutary to be reminded that, while Kuczynski’s wealth made it possible to afford 11 IVF cycles, it probably didn’t do anything to relieve the pain she experienced when those attempts to become pregnant failed. And I know that money didn’t help her overcome the grief of 4 miscarriages. I thought about this, and I also thought about the most elegant line from that very wise letter I quoted above: “As infertility and intervention increasingly muddy the meaning of the word ‘mother,’ we must traverse that terrain and not take shortcuts.” My dislike for Kuczynski—which is, if I’m honest about it, mostly sour grapes—allowed me to take a shortcut through her story. It allowed me to dehumanize her, to ignore her very real pain and the complexity of her situation—a situation I have never had to confront. I like to think that I’m better than that, and it’s good to be reminded that I should be.

December 17, 2008 | Permalink