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?