Almost every time I ride the Path train from New York home to New Jersey, I find myself seated across from the same ad. There's a jigsaw image of women's faces -- different races, beaming assuredly -- and the text "Become a Dreammaker!"
At first it's not clear what the ad is for. (Tampax? Mutual funds? Cotton, the Fabric of Our Lives?) But, as the fine print helpfully explains, a Connecticut clinic
is seeking women to be egg donors, whom they call "Dreammakers . . . because they help to make the dream of a baby come true."
Until last night, I rarely considered the ad except to note that I, at 36, am too old to participate (21-32 only -- harrumph!). My friends who've used surrogates have always made the experience seem heartwarmingly "Juno"-esque. (One of the couples recently posted pictures on Facebook of a cruise they'd taken with the kids and the surrogate.) At the very least, I was sure most of the people involved in a surrogate birth had at some point been in the same room.
Not so in the Brave New World depicted by Israeli filmmaker Zippi Brand Frank
in her documentary "Google Baby
," which airs tonight on HBO. The film brilliantly traces the new international, unregulated market of online baby-making, in which the act traditionally handled by an exclusive duo has been outsourced to a global network of egg donors, fertility specialists, embryo brokers, foreign surrogates, and even short-term wet nurses.
It's a process that a car company would be proud of, one in which a baby is not so much gestated as produced by an assembly line of perfectly coordinated, non-union workers. Only at the very end does the happy couple arrive to pick up their shiny new bundle of joy. And while Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" showed
test-tube babies serviced by quiet, white-jacketed technicians, the cast of baby-breeders in "Google Baby" is positively messy in its humanity.
We first meet Dr. Nayna Patel, who supervises hundreds of Indian surrogates who carry babies for Western customers. She's alternately warm and shockingly businesslike, offering a brief prayer over a surrogate before performing a C-section, then taking a business call from a prospective customer on her cell as she sews up the patient.
Doron Mamet is the gay Israeli father-turned-embryo-broker spurred to action by his own costly journey -- $100,000 plus -- to produce his daughter. During the filming, he's launching his business, Tammuz, so we learn alongside him first-hand, witnessing an egg being made into an embryo by Tammuz's partner, fertility specialist Gad Levy. We see a tank, the size of a small keg, that hold tens of thousands of embryos. ("We can't get rid of them without permission," the lab worker tells Mamet, then sighs, "They take up a lot of space.")
There's also, of course, the women themselves. First, we meet the surrogates, who spend their pregnancy at Patel's clinic, so strong is the taboo against surrogacy in the culture. As Patel sees it, the nine-month sojourn at her clinic is, for the rural women, "a nice break," one in which they get food and leisure unheard-of in their daily lives, even if it's not for their benefit. "If you get a craving for something, be sure to tell us the day before!" one staff member officiously declares to a newly implanted bunch.
We also meet Katherine Gaylean, a much-in-demand young Tennessee mother who has had her eggs harvested three times for Egg Donation Inc. Gaylean, the mother of two, is both nervous and guileless, straining to joke that she hopes the babies she's facilitated aren't as wild as her own. Her hulking husband keeps his back to her and the camera, silently caulking the wall. Standing in front of their Cooper Mini-sized big-screen TV, Gaylean tells us she's donated her eggs to finance their home renovation. Later, she and her husband also proudly reveal the high-tech arsenal they've bought with the proceeds.
And it's in such pedestrian, often ludicrous, details that we find the real story of modern surrogacy. As Mamet shows an online gallery of egg donors to a prospective couple, one of them points at the screen and cackles, "It's like J-Date!" The hormone shots Gaylean must inject before her eggs are harvested come to her via FedEx. Levy lassos an errant sperm under the microscope, discoursing lightly on what he "looks for" in prospects. On his way to the airport, Mamet straps his keg of embryos firmly into a car seat as if it were a toddler. Patel enters an elevator quickly, telling one of her surrogates who's miscarried she'll try to get her as much money as she can for the next implant.
The screens, envelopes, and conveyances are all the accoutrement of our modern society -- but it's just as startling to find that they, not the Stork, are bringing home the babies.
The most fascinating part of "Google Baby," however, is how firmly family is linked to the process -- not the families-to-be, but the families that are, who use egg donation and surrogacy to finance their lives in the present. The father and son of one Indian surrogate visit her frequently and watch with concern while she rests in bed. Later, Patel tells the husband he has to put the house they'll buy in his wife's name. The family of another surrogate, Erin, travels with her to New York for her egg harvesting. In a hotel room, where she injects herself with hormones, her daughter stands on a chair, pinching her mother's belly flesh to help steady the needle. "She always helps me with this," Erin laughs -- it's hard to tell whether with pride or distress.
The only participants in the process who are not part of "Google Baby" are the parents-to-be. Mamet frets over this: "When we had our daughter I wanted to be very involved, in each decision, with the process. Now, parents are happy to . . . leave things to others."
This absence makes clear the degree to which unregulated surrogacy has evolved from an untraditional way to develop a family -- and an act of goodwill in many cases -- to a purely financial transaction. The parents ordering the baby are no different from someone ordering a shirt from J. Crew, who presumably couldn't care less how the seams were stitched. On an even playing field, such financial transactions wouldn't make one squeamish, but the rank power differential between the donors/surrogates and their clients is striking. Patel puts it philosophically to a prospective surrogate: "She cannot have a child. You cannot have a house. Now you can have a house."
As for the costs and payments involved, the Indian surrogates received an unknown share of the fee taken by Patel, depending on how many babies they'd carried to term successfully in the past. Erin received about $8,500 for each egg harvesting. At the screening, Levy declined to tell me how much he is paid. You can see the nearly $60,000 fee schedule
Mamet requires for services on his website, but when I asked him how much he was paid, others in the audience turned on me. "What do you make?" the woman next to me sneered.
And it's in this uncomfortable tension that the conflicts of the new, unregulated industry arises. Because it's one thing to take an egg from a healthy young "Dream-maker" whose donation is -- supposedly -- partly selfless. And it's one thing to pay for a surrogate with whom you develop a relationship. But when a mother must give over her own body to strangers to secure her own family's future, can we really call that a choice?