A new short documentary, “#BigFertility: It’s All About the Money,” exposes the seedy underbelly of an industry that produces custom-order babies by exploiting vulnerable women. The 45-minute film from the Center for Bioethics and Culture details the story of Kelly Martinez, a three-time surrogate mother, shining a glaring spotlight on how money is often surrogates’ greatest motivator.
The film reveals the coercion and manipulation inherent in the relationships between the agencies, intended parents, and surrogate mother. While you may have heard that surrogate pregnancies drastically increase the chance that women will suffer life-threatening complications, this documentary forces you to look into the face of the woman who has lived it. It’s a revealing peek into the gilded tent of the lucrative fertility industry, and they don’t want you to see it. All the more reason to watch.
Viewed as a children’s rights advocate, I found it interesting that “#BigFertility” also unintentionally revealed three major threats that surrogacy poses to children. While not central to the script, the effects on the children themselves should be central to all conversations around this booming global industry. After all, everyone else in the story — the intended parents, the sperm or egg donors, the fertility clinics, and even the surrogate herself — have decision-making power. The children have none. Yet it’s the children who have to live with whatever choices the adults make.
With that in mind, here is the Cliff’s Notes version of “#BigFertility’s” points about how surrogacy can harm the children.
1. Intentional Motherlessness
Two Frenchmen who claimed to be married, but were not, used donor eggs and implanted multiple embryos in Kelly to maximize cost-effectiveness. Kelly became pregnant with twins, and though Kelly’s history with her own pregnancies was flawless, this one put her on bed rest. Why? Because while carrying twins comes with complications, carrying genetically unrelated children adds an even greater level of difficulty.
The babies were born premature via C-section, which is common with IVF babies and surrogate pregnancies. Because surrogacy is illegal in France, the agency and intended parents forced Kelly to lie repeatedly throughout the process to get the babies out of the United States and into France. If she refused, they threatened not to pay her medical bill. They even leveraged the babies against her, threatening she would have to keep the children if she didn’t comply.
I get daily Google alerts of surrogacy headlines, so I tend to think that I know what fertility agencies are up to. But not even I was prepared for the callousness with which the agency treated Kelly and the babies as recounted here.
Intentional motherlessness through surrogacy is on the rise. Although no one tracks the numbers of gay couples and single men using surrogacy to have children, there are entire organizations devoted to creating permanently motherless children.
Not only are these babies, like all donor-conceived persons, denied half their biological identity, they are also deprived of the maternal love that children crave. If, like many donor-conceived children and adoptees, the twins try to track down their birth mother, they will find Kelly, because she is on their birth certificate. But it’s unlikely they will ever know from whom they get their curly hair, or their green eyes, or the long fingers that made them a great pianist.
Even if they do connect with that Ivy League co-ed who was paid $10,000 for her eggs, they will never be able to recreate the moments when they longed for the comforts only a mother can provide. Here’s how one woman who was raised by her father and his partner felt when she realized what was missing:
In Kansas there were no women, only Dad and Billy and my baby brother … We were a family. It was the only family I had ever known. … At the end of Kindergarten, we had a free day at school. We got to watch a movie in the gym, ‘The Land Before Time.’ It is a classic movie. But for me it was a traumatic experience. I watched, eyes glued, as Littlefoot lost his Mother. Littlefoot had a ‘Mother’ and she died saving his life. Littlefoot spent the entire movie mourning the loss of his ‘Mother.’ It was in that moment, as a five-year-old girl, that I realized there was such a thing as a mother. It was also in that moment that I realized that I did not have one. I spent the rest of our free day at the gym crying into the arms of a teacher I would never see again for a mother that I never knew I never had.
In no other context would we condone a process that exists to separate children from their mothers. In fact, just last summer the entire country was up in arms about this very thing. Separating a child from her mother is a human rights violation of the highest magnitude.
2. Household Instability
A husband and wife in the United States implanted an embryo who was genetically related to both intended parents. The wife, desperate for a biological child, underwent egg extraction. But, as is often the case with “egg donors,” the wife suffered hyperovulation syndrome. So at the time of the embryo transfer, they weren’t sure if the wife was going to live or die.
Although the biological mother survived, the couple divorced after their daughter was born. The biological mother is no longer in contact with the daughter Kelly carried for her. Not only did the little girl, like all children born to surrogates, lose the critical bond she developed with Kelly in utero, she was also born into an unstable household.
There are no reliable studies on long-term marital stability for “intended parents,” hetero- or homosexual, who use reproductive technology to create children. But after reading hundreds of stories and comments from children created with the help of Big Fertility, it’s clear that the little girl from Kelly’s second surrogacy is not alone. It seems that spending thousands of dollars to have a child does not correlate to secure connections between the two parents, or between the parents and child.
When asked how many of their their half-siblings by the same donor had parents who were still together at the age of 18, some donor-conceived adults responded:
My sibling group has 1/5 parents still together and alive at 18.
All of my 7 half siblings and I were born into heterosexual marriages. Only 3 of these marriages did not end in divorce. I know hundreds of donor conceived people and feel like there’s a higher divorce rate amongst our parents.
Well, out of the eight known dc [donor-conceived] kids (myself included) only three of us had social fathers [a nonbiological father figure]. David’s mom just married his social father, but they have been together for many years. Clara’s mom and social father divorced when she was 13. My social father died when I was 7. So only David still has both his mom and social father. I have three younger siblings that were born of a married lesbian couple. I know that they have been divorced for a few years now. Then I have 2 siblings born from the same mother who has always been single. So, one in eight.
As desperate as two “intended parents” are to have a baby, it’s amazing how few kids make it to adulthood living uninterrupted with both. It makes sense. If you believe that you have a right to a child, even if the child has to bear the cost — either by severing his bond with his birth mother or cutting off a relationship with one biological parent — there’s a good chance that same entitlement mentality will bleed into your marriage.
A husband and wife from Spain, where surrogacy is also illegal, implanted both a male and a female embryo. The baby girl died in utero, then the male embryo twinned. Instead of marveling at their crazy fortune of having two babies, Kelly recalls, “The couple wasn’t happy, you know, with the fact they were having two boys, because they did pay an extra $5,000 to get the girl embryo implanted and it just didn’t take.”
Kelly suffered preeclampsia during that pregnancy and nearly died. The boys were born 10 weeks premature, and instead of focusing on the fact that both Kelly and the babies were in critical condition, the intended parents obsessed over the fact that someone (Kelly? the doctors?) got their order wrong.
This exposes the commodification that often characterizes children created through Big Fertility. Embryos are routinely manufactured according to specification — their genetic makeup is literally chosen from a catalogue based on physical and ethnic characteristics. Large sums of money are involved when creating the child-product.
Then if something goes wrong, the baby just might be rejected. The agency talked to Kelly about “Plan B” in case the intended parents, disappointed that they were not getting what they had ordered, refused to pick up the children.
It will be years before these twin boys can share their opinions about their conception. Will they know that their parents didn’t get what they paid for? How did that affect their identity and self esteem? Whatever their parents choose to tell these boys, the effects of being treated as a product has deeply affected other surrogate-born and donor-conceived adults:
Many donor offspring, I know, frequently say that they would prefer to be conceived from a one night stand rather than from sperm donation which is a clinical, often commercial conception between strangers, who are your genetic parents. This, along with the intentional alienation of all our associated kinship and cultural heritage on the donor’s side, is a source of profound identity loss and burden for us. — Joanna Rose
I knew from an early age that I was purchased and selected from essentially a catalog. I knew that my blonde hair and blue eyes was somehow valued above other colorations … I always knew that I was purchased and created precisely to make her happy, that was my raison d’etre. — Alana Newman
I am told, ‘Look how much your parents wanted you, they planned and saved to have you.’ … When you know that a huge part of the reason that you came into the world is due solely to a [surrogate’s] paycheck, and that after being paid you are disposable, given away and never thought of again, it impacts how you view yourself. — Jessica Kern
Very few people understand how surrogacy can harm women and children. For most, the only information they have on the topic is celebrity Instagram baby announcements. But for those who want to understand why surrogacy should be opposed in all its forms, “#BigFertility” is the film to watch.