Repost from BlogHer: Baby Selling is Everybody’s Business

The following was originally posted to BlogHer.com on 12 August 2011.

It came across Twitter. Just an AllTop adoption link. Sometimes I click them and sometimes I don’t, but “Baby-Selling” caught my attention.

And that’s how I found out, via Malinda at AdoptionTalk, that Theresa Erickson, big fish in the small pond of surrogacy and assisted reproduction, had pleaded guilty to fraud. The charges are related to wire fraud, but the meat of the story goes like this:

Ms. Erickson hired gestational surrogates abroad (to avoid certain surrogacy laws in California), transferred embryos to their bodies, and when they passed the second trimester of their pregnancies, she found prospective adoptive parents for the to-be-born babies, telling them the babies were planned for intended parents (that is, the people who hire surrogates to bear their children) who had since backed out of the surrogacy arrangement. (Just to clarify, there were no original intended parents. The gestational surrogates were literally bred to provide healthy infants to a hungry adoption market.) When the babies were born, they went to these “new” parents to the tune of 100 to 150 thousand dollars.

My jaw was on the floor when I read this. I even cursed on the Internet — something I rarely do — in the blog comments. But then again, however horrible the case, however wildly unethical the scam, it wasn’t all that very surprising.

The fact is, neither the assisted reproduction nor the adoption market in the United States is very well or consistently regulated. People frequently shop around for the state laws that most benefit them when using these means to grow their families. And when it comes to profit in these industries — (I’m calling adoption an industry because in many ways, it is. I leave aside foster-adoption for now.) — there is woefully little oversight for insuring that people are not taken advantage of — people in any part of the equation, whether prospective parents or pregnant women (however they came to be pregnant).

My opinion of surrogacy is pretty much the same as my opinion on adoption. I believe there should be no profit involved and that there should be as much openness as possible regarding the gestational mothers and their gestational offspring (regardless of genetic ties or their absence). That’s not a mainstream opinion within the assisted reproduction world, but nevertheless, there I am. The Erickson case flies in the face of honesty and openness and non-profit ethics, of course. But it also highlights something that a friend mentioned in a Facebook conversation about this case. Children are commodified in the world of assisted reproduction and adoption. Nine times out of ten, (really, more often than that) adoption is about finding a baby for parents who want one rather than finding parents for children who need them (again, I am not speaking of foster-adoption). And of course, given that it involves the production of a whole new human, assisted reproduction is always about babies-for-parents rather than parents-for-babies.

Now, adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents and their correlates in the world of assisted reproduction will often say, “so what if I just want a healthy newborn baby? Other people — fertile people, people who didn’t choose adoption — just want healthy newborn babies and nobody holds them up to ethical scrutiny about that desire.”

(This isn’t entirely true, plenty of women who fall somewhere on the margins of middle-class white marriedness are absolutely scrutinized and criticized for their desire to be mothers.)

Mel at Stirrup Queens, said it thusly:

“I am so [f***ing] angry that the majority of people in this world don’t have to navigate the ethical concerns that come with assisted family building.”

She is right, of course.

But what I would add, is that they should.

Every child in the first world is commodified and fetished by capitalism. Every prospective parent ought to think long and hard about why s/he wants a child and what the ethical questions about any form of parenting and family are, before jumping in and doing it. (I’m speaking here of people who don’t find themselves with unplanned pregnancies.)

We are lambasted twenty-four-seven with images of little mini-mes and fantasy versions of adults in child form, from Baby Gap to Toddlers and Tiaras. Parents cast their fantasies and desires onto their children all the time. They project them in place of themselves. All those Facebook avatars featuring children rather than the adults whose pages they represent come to mind. Internet handles like “Ashley’sMom” come to mind. Tee-shirts like “Daddy’s Slugger” come to mind.

Children are the ultimate commodity in a society that trades on everything, including human relationships. Weddings, after all, are not about people becoming a family, but about wise and tasteful shopping. Just watch cable television for lessons on how much to spend on a dress.

But that’s not all! The children of developing counties are commodities too, and I’m not talking about international adoption, though that is the place many go to point fingers. I’m talking about all the kids who work in the factories where our clothes — from wedding dresses to Baby Gap rompers — are made. Cheap labor is the best product out there in our times.

In a world like this, is it any wonder that an experienced third-party reproduction lawyer found herself willing to slip from making real surrogacy arrangements and real adoption placement to merging those two in a convenient way that benefited (however unknowingly — and the eventual parents did not know) the “customers” she wanted to please, made the surrogate labor happy (presumably — she paid them the going surrogacy rates) and made her a tidy profit?

Really, it’s just corporate synergy in action.

I’m an adoptive parent. I never tried to get pregnant, but being a lesbian, if I had, I would have required assistance. So I could be in any number of boats with the people who get the most finger-wagging about the commodification of children. I do what I can to reduce that commodification by advocating for openness in adoption, taking the profit out of adoption, asking tough ethical questions of myself and others using similar means to build families.

But working to end the commodification of children is hardly just the job of us third-party reproducers. A case like Erickson’s is simply a glaring example writ large. Everyone who cares about children — who cares about how capitalism diminishes human values universally — ought to join us.

How are you fighting against a society that prizes stuff above people; goods above relationships; money above families? What are you doing to assure that what Theresa Erickson did is unfathomable in the future?

5 responses to “Repost from BlogHer: Baby Selling is Everybody’s Business

  1. Interesting post! I was so glad that you included other forms of commodification of children into your discussion, as it is hardly limited to the adoption or assisted fertility worlds. In fact, I think that one of the reasons that people facing infertility, whether social or biological, often become so “desperate” is that they are being bombarded by constant messages that without a child you cannot be a valid or fully realized woman or family. I’m not saying that is why infertile people choose to grow their families at all (that certainly isn’t the case for me), but rather that it’s a factor that aggravates the pain that infertility causes.

    One point I’d like to quibble with–I really doubt that the surrogates would be happy to learn about what happened. In my opinion, the surrogates are victims here as well. You can learn a lot about surrogacy by listening to actual surrogates, and if you visit Kym’s blog (http://thesmartness.com) and read some of her older posts, you will learn that many (most, I believe) surrogates are absolutely committed to the goal of helping specific people grow their families. Whether they go through a lengthy matching period or work for an agency that assigns them to the next intended parent or parents waiting, surrogates are mostly not (just, if at all) doing it as a source of income, even if they are paid. Many are profoundly committed to helping others, and care deeply for the children that they have gestated. I can only imagine how devastating it would be to discover that you had undergone a pregnancy with its inherent risks and profound emotions with the goal of helping someone for whom that specific child was the realization of their heart’s desire only to find out in fact that your “surrobaby” had actually been created as a part of a cynical scam. A little-appreciated factor here is that surrogates often have spouses and children of their own, and that the financial compensation often helps to convince reluctant spouses to agree with their wife’s desire to become a surrogate, and can also offset the guilt that the surrogate would otherwise feel for the impositions placed upon her own family. The bottom line–however you may feel about compensated surrogacy, I don’t think that it’s fair to assume that a surrogate that accepts financial compensation is primarily or only in it for the money.

  2. I actually agree with you, Sara. What I said about the surrogates being happy was meant to be a sarcastic comment about what might have been going through the scammers’ minds–that as long as they were compensating the surrogates at the going rate (or higher) they didn’t owe them ethics.

    I don’t believe in compensating third-party reproductive assistance (not paying for “donor” gametes either), but we have it now and I definitely do respect individual women’s decisions about this in the current system.

  3. IMHO, I think that the “healthy baby” thing is different in regards to how it is seen by some prospective adoptive parents and some expectant parents. As an expectant parent, I wanted my sons to be healthy because I don’t want them to have additional struggles in life that special needs might bring. However, I would not reject them if they did have a special need or disability. I would have accepted them as they are no matter what because they are my children and I love them.

    I see a different kind of “I want a healthy baby” when it comes to some APs and PAPs. A “I’m going to pick and choose what I want” kind of attitude. IMHO, I think that the “healthy baby” thing is different in regards to how it is seen by some prospective adoptive parents and some expectant parents. As an expectant parent, I wanted my sons to be healthy because I don’t want them to have additional struggles in life that special needs might bring. However, I would not reject them if they did have a special need or disability. I would have accepted them as they are no matter what because they are my children and I love them.

    I see a different kind of “I want a healthy baby” when it comes to some APs and PAPs. A “I’m going to pick and choose what I want” kind of attitude. It’s part of where the “I HAVE to be PERFECT, I was ‘CHOSEN’” complex comes from that adoptees have. Unconditional love is for those who are “born to.” Love for the “chosen” is doled out as we meet the expectations set out for us before we were even adopted. If this may not be what some APs intend to communicate but this is very much how it is often perceived by adoptees.

    I do think there are equally bad reasons for having a child as there are for adopting one. I do tend to hold APs to a higher standard–I’ll admit that. For one, APs are billed by the industry as “superior” than biological parents. For another, adopted children have two families, not just one and their entrance into the second family involves ethical issues that are irrelevant in a biologically-raised family. So to me, there’s not much comparison between the ethical issues from a biological family to a family formed by adoption. All parents have a responsibility not to commodify their children and other people’s children. Adoption, surrogacy, and donor conception involve ethical issues that are simply by nature much more complex.

    I’m limitted in what I can suggest for surrogacy and donor conception because I have serious ethical issues with both.

    Thought-provoking post; thank you :-)

  4. When it comes to donor conception and surrogacy, I believe they ought to be treated exactly like open adoption. That is an extreme minority opinion. But I think that whatever the adults in a situation say they intend to do, it has absolutely no bearing on how a person born of those circumstances might feel or think about it. If a person born to a gestational surrogate thinks of that woman as one of her mothers, that’s her prerogative and her right to think that way should be anticipated and respected by the parents when they make these arrangements. Same with gamete donors.
    Some people are going to say “that person means nothing to me” and some are going to care very much. But it should be the offspring’s choice not the parents’.

  5. And…on the topic of wanting healthy babies and unconditional love, I don’t think adoptive parents are any different than biological parents about this. The fact is, I know adoptive parents (more than one family, I mean) who believed they had adopted a healthy infant, and when that infant turned out to have special needs, they responded to it with the exact same unconditional love as the best biological parents I know in a similar situation. I know biological parents who have rejected their children who turned out to have special needs.

    And of course, I know loads of adoptive parents who chose to adopt children with special needs, or older children or sibling groups–or all three. Many gay men I know have done this, and lesbians too. We are often given the “imperfect” adoption choices as our only choices and take them with gratitude and enthusiasm and great, great love.

    For adoptive parents for whom an imperfect baby is unacceptable, I have my doubts about how they would parent an imperfect child born to them as well.

    Think about it a minute–surely you cannot imagine loving a child you adopted, who turned out to have unexpected special needs any less because of it? This is about a person’s heart and maturity and mental health, not about adoption versus biology.

    Sometimes I hear people saying that adoptees are “returnable” in a way that children born to their parents are not. But that’s simply not true. Too many kids are in foster care due to neglect and abandonment to say that. Biological parents abandon and reject their children all the time.

    Perhaps this is obvious knowledge to me because I’m queer and know too many people first-hand who have been rejected by their parents (many of them, as children or teens).

    I am certainly not saying there aren’t people out there adopting for all the wrong reasons in all the wrong ways–they vastly outnumber those doing it well, in my opinion. But I actually believe the same is true for bio parents. Too many people have babies for thoughtless and/or selfish and/or completely unexamined reasons. I would not lower the bar for those seeking to adopt. But I would raise it for everyone else.

    You know, when I get my magic wand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s