Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library


Phyllis Chesler; reviewed by Ayse G. Yesilyurt

In mid-1980s, the custody challenge for Baby M stirred a big controversy in the American public. She was conceived through artificial insemination of her "surrogate mother" by her father's sperm with a prior contract that would allow him to have full custody of her, and her mother to discontinue her parental rights in exchange for a fee, $10,000 and medical expenses that are not covered by her insurance. It is when her mother refused the payment and decided right after the giving birth to keep her that public first heard of this case.

After spending first four months of her life in hiding with her mother, Baby M was removed from her by a court order, which also forbid her mother from breast-feeding her, and handed over to the father on the grounds that the mother signed a contract to do so. Public opinion was almost unanimously on the side of the father and his adopting wife.

The author, puzzled by the public's negative feelings toward the natural mother, decided to examine the very institutions that generated such an ordeal: surrogacy and adoption. This book is about her struggle to stand up to the forces that generate and allow these controversial policies. She actively supported Baby M's mother, testified in her favor in front of the New Jersey Supreme Court, managed a campaign to promote natural mothers' rights.

Throughout her book, Chesler charges that only in a patriarchal society can a woman's labor and attachment to her offspring would be regarded less valuable than the sperm of the father and a contract. She mocks sacrilege of contracts in a "civilized" society and how they could be replacements for natural and sacred bonds. Not only surrogate mothers but also the mothers in regular marriages (she calls them "contracted to their husbands") might not escape this fate, she warns. In more than half of the cases when the father challenged the mother for the custody of children, she observes, he wins. "Many fathers view maternal custody as an encroachment on their rights," she argues. And the criterion, "the best interest of the child", almost always favors the parent other than the economically underprivileged mother: the father, the state, the adoptive parents, etc. She points out how differently society acts and decides in cases of mother and father: judges cannot force fathers to visit their children, yet a mother can be jailed if she interferes with the visitation. A mother has to live up to an impossible standard to be a "good mother", yet a father has to perform just above the already low expectations to be a "good father". If the mother works full-time, then she is subjected to questioning for abandoning her child's care, if she doesn't work, she is considered lazy and selfish, etc.

Chesler thinks the Baby M case has everything to do with gender, how women and men are regarded in the society. She is appalled at how a small contribution of sperm becomes equated to the ovum and the nine months to carry the baby. She wonders if the absence of an outcry from feminists are due to the fact that some of them might prefer delegating their reproductive tasks such as pregnancy to other "specialized" "surrogate" mothers to achieve gender neutrality (the wife of the Baby M's father was a pediatrician, and she chose not to get pregnant due to her fear of passing on the genes of a self-diagnosed multiple sclerosis with no evidence that she really had the disease). Or is it because the very proud figure of Baby M's mother, that resonate dependence, self-sacrifice, domesticity, she speculates, might have repulsed them?

Chesler writes that surrogate motherhood, which she calls "post-industrialized polygamy", became known after the supply of adoptable white babies dwindled due to abortions, wide spread birth control and breakdown of the stigma attached to having babies out of wedlock. In 1978, 131 parents who adopted privately were asked what "categories" of children they would not take under any circumstances. Older black child (85%), normal black infant (74%), older child of another ethnic group (66%), white child with non-correctable handicap (61%), normal white child over six years old (48%), white child with mental illness in background (29%), infant of another ethnic group (29%), normal white child over 2 years old, (22%), and white child with correctable handicap (17%) were the answers.

She writes in fact there is a great need for adoptive parents for older, colored, and handicapped children--the least desirable ones for adoption--and on the other hand, there is an increasing demand for healthy white babies. She also examines the trend to bring babies from overseas to be adopted by white parents. Some people, she argues, still wanted to have babies of their own decent, and surrogacy, the artificial insemination of willing women in exchange for a fee, became a solution. She sees surrogacy also in terms of a class issue: the men who arrange for this procedure are rich, professional, respected. The women who are involved are submissive, poor, working class.

She asks, "what kind of women would give up her child in exchange for money?" From the surrogate mothers she interviewed she makes a profile of a woman: fertile, in her childbearing years, already mother of several children, full-time housewife, middle born, TV addict, either functionally illiterate, dyslexic or a very slow reader, traditional, religious, rebellious, self-destructive, sometimes victim of incest and of course poor enough to think they can give up their offspring in exchange for money. They are usually motivated more to help others even if it means sacrificing themselves along the way. She observes most of these women have a way of disassociating themselves from their feelings when they cause too much pain. (The infamous mother Diane Downs who killed one of her three children and wounded another was a surrogate mother too. In her court hearings the issue of disassociation was brought up many times.) Chesler was also amazed how most of the interviewed surrogate mothers were so concerned about how they looked, what the author thought of them, whether they were pretty (!). They were also very naive and trusting, afraid of questioning authority, in this case, of questioning the agency, the lawyers, the doctors. The ones that knew of the couple to adopt their baby prior to birth thought they would have an ongoing loving relationship with the couple, a wish that never materializes.

Chesler examines how the surrogacy arrangements slowly turned into a big business after starting up with a few women who got national attention by being in many Donahue shows. She calls Donahue the "father of surrogacy (!)" for his contributions. She asserts that there is an "industry" made up of lawyers, physicians and business people whose entire job is to make sure the sperm donor gets the baby and the contract mother does not. She looks at the costs involved for such a procedure and who endures it. She finds only the "industry" makes money and all others--the adoptive parents, the insurance company, and society at large (in case of a defective (!) birth), and the natural mother--lose. She points to the potential dangers of this "industry": cases with imperfect babies, absence of psychological screening of parents and surrogates (Diane Downs flunk the first psychological test and was passed by another and became a candidate), no careful investigation of adoptive families (a standard for mainstream adoptions). She gives anecdotes from the abuses the surrogate mothers suffered in the hands of medical establishment (drug overdoses, sexually transmitted diseases spread during insemination from the donor's sperm). If everything is as rosy as they present it to be, Chesler questions why the surrogate agencies establish support groups for their surrogate mothers and make sure it contains an older woman (she likens her to the convent mother or the madam of a brothel) who "keeps girls in line."


Reviewer: Ayse G. Yesilyurt


First Vintage Books, 1988


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