Monday, January 3, 2011

Breath taking obliviousness

Last week's New York Times Magazine allocated a stunning amount of prime print real estate to an account by a forty-something woman who built her family through the use of not one, but two surrogates, plus an egg donor. I slogged through the entire article, because it was a long, cold weekend and because the topic seemed interesting: a close friend recently welcomed twins delivered by a gestational carrier (a surrogate who provides a womb but doesn't have any genetic connection to the baby).

I was so disappointed.

First of all, if the NYT wanted to highlight this relatively new and therefore controversial practice, they could have assigned a reporter to interview all the parties involved. I get why Ms. Thernstrom went this route: she wanted babies desperately and none but her husband's genetic offspring would do. What I would have been fascinated to read would have been an account of the thought processes of her egg donor and the gestational carriers.

Egg donors receive a fair amount of compensation: usually upwards of $10,000 a cycle, which is a considerable sum for most twenty-somethings. However, these young women subject themselves to hormone treatments, anesthesia and surgical retrieval of the eggs, none of which come without risk. Of course the gestational carriers take on the risks of pregnancy and childbirth, but since only a total moron would hire a gestational carrier who hadn't previously delivered a healthy child, there's something that feels more knowing and voluntary about the gestational carrier's decision. Besides, the risks of pregnancy and delivery generally don't stay with a woman for life.

Not so for hormone injections. There's simply not enough data on the long term effects of the mega-doses administered to hyper-stimulate egg production. No reasonable physician would tell a patient, there's absolutely no risk of future cancer if you take these (medically elective) hormones in your twenties. To me, anything designed to kick one's body into overdrive should be undertaken only as a last resort, not as an income source.

Ms. Thernstrom, for an educated person, seems blithely dismissive of the risks undertaken by her children's biological mother, a woman she cheekily refers to as the Fairy Goddonor, a woman who (unsurprisingly) seems eager to keep her distance from the family she helped create. So sadly, we don't get to hear from the college girl who provided the eggs.

Nor do we hear first hand accounts from either of the gestational carriers. I would have been fascinated to read their thoughts, largely because I loathed pregnancy so intensely that you could not pay me any amount of money to do it again - especially for someone else. Not that anyone would ask me, with my medical history and age.

Instead we get an excerpt from the journal of a woman who comes off as so out of touch it takes your breath away. Here's a hint: if you're going to mistreat well-meaning nurses, doulas and various innocent bystanders, it's probably better not to brag about your irrational short fuse in an international forum.

Melanie Thernstrom produced a self-indulgent, rambling piece about her experience, wrought with angst about what to call everyone in the picture. The whole thing screamed, look at me. Case in point: her two surrogates delivered her son and daughter five days apart. Ms. Thernstrom agonizes for inches upon inches of NYT ink about how to explain the relationship between the children. She settles on the idiotic term "twiblings." Nonsense. Her kids are full biological siblings, the biological offspring of a single egg donor and Ms. Thernstrom's husband.

And since they're only five days apart, it seems reasonable to let the larger world assume they're twins. People not close enough to know the whole story, for example, pre school teachers, won't have their lives enhanced by enduring the entire explanation. And as an aside, since when do new mommies of twins have time to ponder such trivial questions anyway?

Nowhere in the eight pages did Ms. Thernstrom acknowledge the fact that surrogacy is an option for the wealthy only. Agency estimates vary, but typical costs range from $60,000 to $80,000 and up (and that doesn't include the egg donation, which could easy tack another $20,000 onto the bill). So, conservatively speaking, Ms. Thernstrom's twins cost a minimum of $140,000 to create, and quite probably much more. And that's not counting six failed cycles of IVF at about $16,000 a pop, assuming they weren't living in one of 16 states where insurance covers the bill. Or the significant legal fees incurred by drafting not one, but two, lengthy surrogacy contracts. People have a right to spend their money as they see fit, but a little empathy from the author, acknowledging that most women devastated by infertility could not dream of creating a family this way, would have been refreshing.

My friend, RC, and her husband chose to pursue the surrogate route after several years of more traditional fertility treatments failed to produce a full term pregnancy. They had a couple of frozen embryos left over, and they hired their gestational carrier through word of mouth. Over the next nine months, RC and her surrogate forged a bond that's probably difficult for most people to comprehend, but one that incorporated clear boundaries. The surrogate always referred to the twins in utero as RC's babies. Although they met without an agency, RC and her husband paid the surrogate. They signed a thick contract covering all kinds of crazy eventualities. The surrogate got a bonus check when circumstances necessitated an emergency cesarean.

Now that the twins are here, RC and the surrogate continue their friendship, but there's no blurring of the mommy lines: the surrogate has a family of her own, she's clear that it's complete, and care and feeding of the twins falls to RC and her husband. RC's twins won't be confused about their origins, largely because their parents, unlike Ms. Thernstrom, are at peace with the way they came into the world. Their surrogate, should everyone remain friendly, will be a sort of friendly auntie type - not another mom.

The NYT piece yielded a torrent of comments, many laced with unwarranted vitriol. Yes, the author comes off as an oblivious, unsympathetic twit. But, her children are loved, wanted and apparently will not lack for resources or opportunities. I didn't read all the comments (the weekend wasn't that long), but I was surprised by the volume of readers who insisted Ms. Thernstrom was a narcissist who should have "just adopted."

There's no such thing as "just adopting." If prospective parents doubt their ability to bond with a child of unknown parentage, or deal with the uncertainty of the process, or the special needs of an institutionalized child, or one who's not an infant, then they're doing the right thing by not adopting. Simply put, the infertile masses do not exist to provide homes for the hard-to-place children of the world. Life's just not that neat and easy.

I wish the NYT had chosen a more sympathetic writer. Surrogacy, with its costs and pitfalls, does provide a legitimate avenue for many women desperate to have children. Unfortunately Ms. Thernstrom gives the imperfect, yet largely positive practice of surrogacy, a highly disagreeable face.

Here's the link to her piece:

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