Thursday, 12 March 2009

On surrogacy and sensationalism

My experience of being part of the IF community has taught me that there are many, many different ways of building a family - whether that be through fertility treatments such as IUI or IVF/ICSI, the use of donor gametes, or else via adoption or surrogacy. Each and every one of these potential paths to parenthood brings with it its own highly complex set of choices, its own unique dilemmas. Yet it seems that, by focusing on only the most extreme stories, media coverage of these issues all too often fosters misunderstanding and suspicion, rather than promoting any real acceptance.

As many have already suggested, the recent furore surrounding the birth of the California octuplets is, of course, a case in point. The media coverage of this event here in the UK has been marred by an erroneous use of terminology (viz., the persistent use of the word 'implant' to describe the transfer of embryos into a woman's uterus), and has sparked a pronounced backlash against the use of assisted reproductive technologies (after the Nadya Suleman story first broke, I caught the tail end of a radio phone-in on the topic of the octuplets, in which caller after caller suggested that IVF should be outlawed on the grounds that it interferes with the laws of nature. Many of those who rang in to voice their opinion were of the view that, if a woman cannot have children, she should simply 'get over it', or else adopt.)

On Monday evening, a documentary entitled 'Addicted to Surrogacy' aired on Channel 4. While this could have been a golden opportunity to explore this complex and emotive issue from the twin perspectives of both the surrogate and the intended parent(s), it all too quickly descended into sensationalism, with the filmmakers choosing to focus only on the most extreme cases.

Firstly, it presented to us Jill Hawkins, a woman who is described on the Channel 4 website as Britain's most prolific childless surrogate, having 'given away' seven babies over the past 18 years. The programme followed the forty-four-year-old Ms Hawkins as she described the process of home insemination and then waited to carry out a pregnancy test, which turned out to be negative, leading the programme makers to ask, Is it finally time for Jill to wean herself off her need to have babies for other people, and start living her own life? Once again, then, we are back to that time-honoured stereotype: that of the baby-hungry woman trying desperately to drown out the ticking of her biological clock.

Next it turned to the case of Janie and Peter, a couple in their fifties who have been trying to have a baby through a surrogate for three years. After several [unspecified] bad experiences in the UK, Tammy Lynn in Kansas is now having twins for the couple, and they've travelled the 5,000 miles to be with her at the birth.

After that, we moved to Essex where Amanda - a first-time surrogate - is having a baby boy for Stephen and Olga. With Olga and Amanda not always seeing eye-to-eye, we witness the complex and emotional journey that leads to having a surrogate baby.

I found these latter two cases particularly hard to watch, although for different reasons. While Janie seemed anxious to forge a relationship with Tammy Lynn, and to maintain some contact with her after bringing the babies back to the UK, in order that they might grow up to have a sense of who their 'tummy mummy' was, Tammy Lynn resisted all overtures on her part. The second intended mother, Olga, on the other hand, seemed at times to behave with gross insensitivity towards her surrogate, and in particular her surrogate's children, refusing to allow them to say goodbye to the baby. Although I have obviously never been in the position of having to negotiate such a complex relationship, from reading other people's stories here in the blogosphere, I do have a sense that many surrogates and intended mothers are able to form a more productive connection. But I guess that those cases don't make for such compelling television.

As if these cases were not quite gripping enough, the programme was then rounded off by an interview with Carole Horlock, the world's most prolific surrogate, who tells the story of her career-low: when she discovered that a baby she had given birth to had been accidentally conceived with her own partner.

While one could argue that any television programme that explores some of the issues raised by infertility and assisted reproduction is a good thing, it saddens me that all too often their aim is not to foster awareness or understanding, but rather to provide an hour's entertainment. It seems to me that much media coverage tends to reduce infertility and its treatment to a circus sideshow, rather than acknowledging it as a genuine medical condition.


loribeth said...

Very true -- they frequently (if not always) go for the lurid, sensational angle. I guess the science is too complex & plain old personal grief & suffering just isn't exciting enough. :p

Shinejil said...

I think it takes true understanding and depth to tell stories as complex as the ones that evolve from surrogacy. It's easier to just stage a freak show of Octomoms.

Anyone who rails against IF treatment as an interference in nature's ways is an idiot. By that logic, they should be living in a cave, eating nuts and berries, letting the sick die, if they don't want to interfere with nature. Such astounding stupidity.

Lisa said...

Our society has such a proclivity towards senationalism that anything that is viewed as either out of the norm or extreme and excessive becomes fodder for gross media attention.

That said, I don't always think attention is a bad thing. While it is currently negative in nature, this is an opportunity for the IF community, medical professionals and patients, to speak up and try to cast a different light on this disease and the treatments we have turned to.