John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
Kelly Martinez has been a surrogate mother three times (in addition to being a mother to the children in her home). Her first surrogacy bore twins for two French homosexuals. Her second surrogacy brought a daughter into the world for a now-divorced American couple. Her third surrogacy gave two sons, whose fate she does now know, to a Spanish couple. In “#BigFertility: It’s All About the Money,” Kelly Martinez tells her story to Jennifer Lahl of the Center for Bioethics and Culture as a warning to others about what she’s learned painfully in her own skin.
Kelly and her husband Jay admit they got into surrogacy for the money. He’s a construction worker and she’s a waitress in South Dakota. She had an abusive father (whom her brother eventually killed), lost her mother at 16 to cancer, was married and had her first child at 17 and her second at about 19. Surrogacy promised big bucks; her own previous pregnancies suggested no complications. As she saw it, she’d have two “jobs” that did not clash with each other: regular waitress shifts and 24/7 pregnancy.
And then things started going wrong.
Although surrogacy promises big money, the truth is it primarily exploits the poor. While the fertility industry trolls the Ivy League for eggs from Phi Beta Kappa co-eds, it’s happy to find working class women (and military wives), living paycheck to paycheck, to serve as incubators. The fertility industry also downplays—if not hides—the fact that any deviation from “the contract” can leave the surrogate high and dry, not only without money but in hock to repay whatever she’s already received from the commissioning parties. While some lawyers might contend that women’s rights to their bodies under Roe might invalidate some of those provisions, show me the wife of a construction worker who can afford the lawyers to litigate that claim.
Surrogacy no. 1, with Parisian homosexuals, was primarily about lies. Although Kelly was carrying babies conceived using somebody else’s eggs, she says the surrogacy agency pushed her into obtaining the birth certificate listing her as mother and advancing a fabricated story about how she wanted to hand “her” baby over to its father. The reason for the ruse was simple: homosexual marriage was not then (nor is surrogacy now) legal in France, so the fiction of the “parents” exchanging custody of the child was needed to move a child internationally. Later, when France legalized homosexual marriage, the couple contacted Kelly again to change the birth certificate so the other “spouse” could now “adopt” the child. In the film, Kelly describes her visit to the French Consulate in Chicago, six hours from home and just days after a C-Section delivery, to sign paperwork in French she claims nobody ever explained to her to move the children out of the country.
Surrogacy no. 2, with a nearby couple, had its own complications. The wife who donated her eggs for the pregnancy became severely ill as a result of the extraction and gradually grew psychologically distant from the pregnancy. Kelly and Jay were confronted throughout the pregnancy with the question of what would happen if the woman died and the father did not follow through with taking the child. In the end, he did—but the psychological distance in that couple’s relationship led to divorce.
Surrogacy no. 3 involved a Spanish couple. As is often the case, it involved multiple embryos, because commissioning parties get “more bang for the buck” out of increased uterine occupancy. The Spanish couple had commissioned a boy and a girl. As the film explains it, a complication early in pregnancy apparently resulted in the female embryo dying but the male embryo twinning: the Spaniards got two kids, but according to their expectations. Up to the moment of Kelly’s delivery (threatened by pre-eclampsia and featuring placenta testing to confirm parenthood), the commissioning couple questioned “what went wrong” with their boy/girl order. Their sons, born 10 weeks premature, survived neonatal intensive care but, as Kelly admits, at one point the couple simply took the children and disappeared, presumably back to Spain, but with no contact and every attempt to renege on payment for the surrogacy. They finally resolved Kelly’s medical bills—though not her damaged credit (since all bills are in a surrogate’s name)—when others intervened and threatened to expose the story.
Kelly has since become an international herald against surrogacy, voicing her story before the Spanish Parliament and at the U.N.. Like the Center for Bioethics and Culture, she calls for a ban on surrogacy (as opposed to those who simply want to “regulate” it).
One can ask why, if Kelly had such bad experiences, why she agreed to be a surrogate three times for five children? The answer is simple: the fertility industry makes promises of big money to people living economically tenuous lives. Now there have been lots of poor women who, nevertheless, did not provide wombs for rent, but our culture sends powerful messages of altruism and beneficence to women (along with the money) to women willing to be surrogates. And that message is not going to go away, because: (a) there are still plenty of jurisdictions where surrogacy is illegal; (b) America is, as Jennifer Lahl puts it, the “Wild West” when it comes to unregulated, laissez-faire surrogacy; (c) there’s money to be made in them there babies; and (d) with the proliferation of “homosexual marriage” (and the growing expectation that these “spouses” should not be “discriminated against” by nature because of their natural sterility) the demand for surrogacy will only grow.
And don’t have any illusions. At one point, Kelly saw documents from her surrogacy agency depicting the take by the lawyers, doctors, fertility consultants, and others involved in a surrogacy. Let’s just say that the woman bearing the child is not the most lavishly compensated party. Indeed, a little mathematics would show us the truth. It’s argued that “social justice” demands higher minimum wages and, in many places, that wage floor is $15. Pregnancy is a 24/7 experience over 40 weeks = 168 hours per week x 40 weeks x $15 = $100,800. Now, (a) I doubt surrogates see that and (b) in any event, what are we talking about when we treat pregnancy as a “job”?
The parties that deserve the most sympathy here are the children. In this case, we have two children deprived of a mother and a father, two children whose parents disapprove that at least one is of the wrong sex (and, from what the film tells us, treated their children coldly from birth), and a child now in a broken, divorced family. Instead of spreading this modern form of human trafficking, as some states (e.g., my native New Jersey) are doing, Catholics should be working diligently to ban this baby buying, whether altruistic or compensated.
I don’t doubt that Kelly’s made some bad choices, but I also recognize that she is doing her best to ensure that others do not follow her path. Her choices have left their scars on her, but she cares enough to make sure that others know what surrogacy involves and learn the hard lessons she’s experienced on her own skin.
Kudos to the Center for Bioethics and Culture for producing this film, alongside previous documentaries like “Eggsploitation” (on how Big Fertility recruits women to donate eggs), “Anonymous Father’s Day” (on sperm donation), and “Breeders” (the Center’s first film on surrogacy). These are films that deserve viewing and discussion. Don’t expect to see them on your local PBS or NPR station, and fuggedaboutit in your neighborhood theater. There’s a lot of people making a lot of money trafficking in babies and baby body parts, who don’t want you to lift the veil and observe their ugly secrets.
Happily, modern social media gives you access. You can rent “#BigFertility” at Vimeo (see http://www.cbc-network.org/bigfertility/ ); Lahl’s other films are on demand at the Center for Bioethics and Culture (http://www.cbc-network.org/ ). The battle for human and Christian dignity as well as the defense of “these little ones” begins here.