Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Alex Kuczynski’s recent New York Times magazine cover story about hiring a surrogate to carry her biological child was frank to the point of inviting backlash. Some readers were offended by photos juxtaposing the style reporter’s affluent lifestyle (her husband is a wealthy hedge fund manager) with that of Cathy Hilling, the middle-class mother and schoolteacher who agreed to have Kuczynski’s baby for a $25,000 fee.
Enter Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas, who brings a perverse kind of balance to the Wall Street Journal. His snide critique of Kuczynski reminds me that much is still wrong with the traditional male left. Taking potshots at the super-affluent is business as usual this season. Snarky comments about Kuczynski’s marriage (“this spoiled brat and her rich sugar daddy”) and parenting style (“I guess there were no children who needed adoption in your state”) were to be expected from Times readers.
MANY PEOPLE THINK OF SEX AND PREGNANCY ONLY AS BIOLOGICAL FUNCTIONS.
When I saw two women on the cover – “Her body, my baby,” one pregnant, one svelte – I was intrigued because I have long been opposed to the idea of pregnancy-for-hire. In fact, my judgments about the commercialized womb mirror those of puritans who oppose the sale of sex.
Am I being rational? Yes, because prostitution is recreational pleasure between two consenting adults, while commercial pregnancy is a far more serious matter involving children. Reading Kuczynski’s side of the story, I began questioning my assumptions and realized I would never have all the answers.
And what about Cathy Hilling, the professional surrogate? When another woman decides to do things with her body that you won’t do, especially concerning pregnancy or sex, it’s tempting to make snap judgments. Fear of pregnancy colors my view of gestational surrogacy. Then I remember how many times I’ve been hectored for doing with my body what feels correct for me and wrong for someone else. A physical experience that would horrify me turns out to be something Hilling is so good at that she cheerfully nicknames herself “the Easy-Bake oven”. I began to see her pregnancy as part of a very intimate business deal between two women.
Surely it’s possible to talk about class without championing the masses at the expense of the individual? When Frank argues that “surrogacy… threatens to commodify not only babies, but women as well, putting their biological functions up for sale like so many Jimmy Choos,” you wonder if his concern is really the welfare of the working class or a mythically pure female body untouched by the marketplace.
Many people think of sex and pregnancy only as biological functions, but sex requires skill, and pregnancy is a talent. Kuczynski, who experienced IVF and miscarriage, gracefully acknowledges that Hilling is blessed with that talent. Casting Kuczynski as a plutocratic airhead and Hilling as a nameless victim, Frank tells us that pregnancy is becoming a “dirty task for the working class.” For a vast number of women in the world, not as affluent as Hilling, childbirth is already a harsh task – dangerous, unrewarded and sometimes dirty.
Hilling has found a way to profit financially not only from her biological functions, but from technology that makes pregnancy safer. Frank’s cynicism about this transaction may simply reflect a profoundly masculine innocence, his naiveté about the female body.