Jeremy Hersh's feature film debut, The Surrogate, is a powerful narrative on the complex relationships and choices involved in surrogacy. Without a soundtrack to set the tone, he weaves an incredibly rich storyline, cutting across surrogacy, autonomy, disability rights, parenthood, race, and LGBT issues. The end result is a thought-provoking 90 minute film that leaves you thinking about the issues presented long after the credits roll.
We meet Jess, who agrees to act as a genetic surrogate for her best friend, Josh, and his partner, Aaron. Set in New York, in 2019, their arrangement is reminiscent of the current British regulatory framework, as Jess's surrogacy arrangement is altruistic and unenforceable: she has signed an agreement with the couple, and will be reimbursed for all expenses incurred. At the 12 week mark, prenatal testing indicates the fetus has Down's syndrome. From the look on each one of their faces, it is clear that none had anticipated this situation – even remotely – despite it being covered in their unenforceable agreement.
Hersh's characterisation of Jess is intricate and breaks down stereotypes associated with surrogates, reflecting the empirical research conducted on surrogacy. Jess is a financially privileged Black woman, with a Master's degree from Columbia University, New York. She grew up privileged, with highly educated parents and a trust fund. Employed at a non-profit that helps incarcerated women, it is clear that helping people is her calling. She set out to be a surrogate to help her best friends become parents, as she told her family over brunch at the start of the film. Throughout the film she is determined to maintain this role of 'helper', sometimes even when inappropriate. Whenever Josh or Aaron demonstrate any hesitation, she is ready with a plan of attack: she helps Josh inform his friends and family about the news. When Josh and Aaron mention the financial strain associated with raising a child with Down's syndrome, she suggests Aaron move to a different law firm that would offer a higher salary, and later, she offers to help out monthly with the costs.
Jess voraciously researches and learns about raising a child with Down's syndrome, dragging Josh to a day-care for children with Down's syndrome. She is drawn to a child, and – ever the cheery problem-solver – Jess reaches out to his clearly distracted and exhausted mother, Bridget. Over lunch with Bridget and her husband, the trio learn about parenting in an ableist society, and constantly needing to advocate. Josh and Aaron are visibly uncomfortable with this demand, and realistically, why shouldn't they be? At the end of the day, they would have to deal with these difficulties, as they would raise the child – not Jess.
Jess is a passionate person, and confronting the ableist world she lives in fuels her desire to campaign for change. However, the commitment to make meaningful change consumes her, blinding her to the real concerns presented by Josh and Aaron, as well as by her family. She is visibly distraught when her mother mentions how prenatal genetic testing should be widespread, retorting that such policies are reminiscent of eugenics.
Hersh eloquently presents why most would consider abortion as the right choice. Jess' parents remind her that making the choice to be a single, Black mother to a disabled child is one that will require her entire family's involvement, and she finds this offensive. Unlike Jess who asked them to stop mourning the loss of a perfect child and start accepting their situation, at no point did I think of Josh and Aaron as pursuing perfection – instead, I took them to be risk averse. A lot of care is taken into presenting the couple as not simply unwilling to give up their comfortable lifestyle. Their concerns are legitimate and real, as enumerated by Bridget and her husband over their lunch.
The release of this film at this time is particularly pertinent. In early July, a legal challenge was mounted against a law that allows the termination of fetuses with Down's syndrome up until birth, with claimants arguing that this law is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Widespread prenatal testing in Nordic countries has resulted in an almost 100 percent termination rate when there is a Down's syndrome diagnosis. Such policies have been described as eugenics, reducing a fetus to a single characteristic and providing the power to decide what kind of life is worthy of carrying to term.
This film speaks to the need for informed and thorough counselling before starting any medical treatment in a surrogacy arrangement, to ensure that all parties are on the same page. We watch the dissolution of a strong friendship – arguably avoidable if certain safeguards were in place. Whether you side with Jess or Josh and Aaron does not make you a good or bad person, but instead will allow you to consider and reflect on how you frame the issues presented.
I would highly recommend The Surrogate to those interested in surrogacy, whether as an option for family formation, or intellectual curiosity. Additionally, this film is an excellent starting point for those new to the ethical and moral issues related to prenatal genetic testing, as Hersh covers a wide range of view points, ensuring none are pushed onto the viewer.