BOOKS OCTOBER 25, 2013
Rhonda and Gerry Wile are the perfect all-American couple. Rhonda is a nurse with thick blonde hair and a friendly grin. Gerry is a firefighter and military veteran. He is broad shouldered, well-muscled, and looks like the rugged star of a truck ad. After Rhonda and Gerry got married, they wanted a couple of kids, like everybody else. What makes them extraordinary is that Rhonda has two vaginas, and two uteri, which left her unable to carry a child to term. And so the Wiles spent $50,000 to have a baby, ultimately enlisting the services of several surrogates in India.
The Wiles are the glossy main subjects of Leslie Morgan Steiner’s unabashedly pro-surrogacy book, The Baby Chase: How Surrogacy is Transforming the American Family. These hard-working, attractive, staunchly middle class folks are much more sympathetic than the stereotypical surrogate parent—for example, uber-wealthy, Park Avenue-dwelling Alex Kuczynski, who wrote about her experience with surrogacy for the New York Times magazine a few years ago, or singer Elton John—which is probably why Steiner focuses on them.
In fact, everyone in Steiner’s book, about a growing fertility industry that’s currently worth $10 billion worldwide, is good-looking and kind. Dr. Yashodhara Mhatre, one of the specialists at Mumbai’s Dr. L.H. Hiranandani Hospital where the Wiles’ surrogate delivered, is “petite, demure and dark-haired,” and she “always waits for her patients to speak first, like a priest hearing confession.” One of the Wiles’ potential surrogates is, like Dr. Mhatre, “petite” and “dark-haired” but she’s got an “easy, warm smile” and calls the doctors and nurses at the fertility clinic “my friends.”
All of these glowing descriptions obscure some very complicated ethical questions that should be at the center of Steiner’s well-researched but excessively positive book. To her credit, Steiner does ask some of those difficult questions: for instance, whether an embryo is a person, or whether the slum-dwellers in India who are bearing babies for relatively well-off Americans being exploited. But Steiner often leaves those questions hanging in the air without examining them. And when she does provide answers, they are colored by her desire to show that surrogacy is a beautiful, worthy, life-affirming practice.
The framing of the book suffers because of Steiner’s uncritical view. She takes as a given that wanting to have children is “a biological craving” and that Rhonda’s “mad, burning desire” for children is innate. This isn’t a proven fact. As David Barash, a professor at the University of Washington and the author of Strange Bedfellows: The Surprising Connection Between Sex, Evolution and Monogamy, wrote in an email, “There is in fact no clear scientific evidence that women (or men, as well) possess a biological urge to reproduce, totally independent of culture.” Steiner’s gender essentialism is distracting and unnecessary. She writes that a woman’s “eggs are tricky and temperamental…Some might say like women ourselves.” The Wiles’ story is meaningful enough without this padding, and Steiner should have trusted the reader to be empathetic to their struggle without overselling the case.
Speaking of overselling, while Steiner packs the book with a lot of fascinating data about women’s bodies and history about the fertility industry, she also lards on unnecessary information, which sometimes ends up being unintentionally amusing in its obvious excess. Reading The Baby Chase, you learn that 10 to 12 percent of couples are infertile. You discover that blocked tubes, polycystic ovarian syndrome and low sperm count are common causes of infertility. You hear about the first legal surrogate in the US, a woman who called herself Elizabeth Kane and gave birth to a baby created from her egg plus sperm from another woman’s husband in 1980, earning $10,000 in the process. But you also learn that India produced some of history’s earliest astronomers and mathematicians between AD 100 and 900, and that in the city of Orlando, where the American Society of Reproductive Medicine held their sixty-seventh international convention, you can buy underwear with your favorite Disney character on it.
The book’s treatment of Elizabeth Kane reveals one of the biggest problems of The Baby Chase’s pro-surrogacy stance: Steiner does not spend enough time with the surrogates themselves, and tends to side with the intended parents whenever she discusses legal issues that have arisen in disputed surrogacy agreements. Kane ended up turning against surrogacy and became an advocate for the National Coalition Against Surrogacy. Steiner speculates that this happened, in part, because “Kane received no support or counseling and had no peers to comfort her” after she gave birth. But maybe even with counseling, Kane would still have regretted becoming a surrogate. Steiner doesn’t seriously consider this.
Steiner only offers glimpses of how difficult surrogacy can be for the women carrying the Wiles’ babies. Though Gauri, who gave birth the Wiles’ twins (a different Indian surrogate gave birth to their older son), is mentioned throughout the book, her discomfort with being a surrogate only gets a few pages toward the end of The Baby Chase.
Gauri, who has a “shy, pretty smile,” and became a surrogate because her family could barely afford to eat, was troubled when she heard the twins’ heartbeats. She turned her head away during ultrasounds. She wanted a c-section so the birth would feel more like an operation. But Steiner immediately undercuts her descriptions of Gauri’s ambivalence. They are flicked away by quotes from Dr. Anita Soni of Hiranandani Hospital: “The surrogates are emotionally well-prepared” for the experience,” the doctor says. “Look, their lives are hard. They are tough women, even at eighteen or twenty. All slum women have already faced far greater disenchantments than giving up a baby they already knew they would give up.”
That’s a chilling statement, one I wished Steiner had grappled with more thoroughly than she did. After all, Rhonda Wile’s wrenching emotional journey of infertility—every disappointing phone call from a doctor, every “big fat negative” pregnancy test, every tear shed when Rhonda looked at a pregnant woman, even her sadness over the death of her beloved dog—is included. We have to take Rhonda’s word that her surrogates all had smiles on their faces. “Children are priceless. Especially to the people who cannot have them,” Steiner writes. Indian surrogates, presumably once children themselves, who earn $5,000-8,000 per pregnancy, seem less valuable when you give their experiences short shrift.
Jessica Grose is a writer and editor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad.