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Google Baby: A lesson in global capitalism

4 July 2011
By Professor Anne Kerr
Sociologist specialising in gender, genetics and reproduction at the University of Leeds
Appeared in BioNews 614
Zippi Brand Frank's documentary 'Google Baby' gives us a fascinating insight into the global business of making babies. The programme follows an Israeli business man as he recruits commissioning parents via the internet, US brokers and egg donors, Indian assisted conception clinics and gestational surrogates.

Egg donation and surrogacy are certainly not new, but there is no doubt that the market for 'reproductive outsourcing' has expanded in recent years due to a number of technological, legal and economic developments. Differences in national legislation, a thriving assisted conception industry (particularly in developing countries like India where the clinic in this film was based), and the growth of the Internet and medical tourism, have stimulated a market in reproduction. This market attracts wealthy commissioning couples and predominantly poor providers of services, brought together by entrepreneurs like Doron Mamet - the main protagonist in Frank's documentary.

Academics have tended to approach these issues from two positions. Some argue women provide reproductive services for financial and personal reasons and are meeting a legitimate demand on the part of commissioning parents. Others consider that, like sex tourism, fertility tourism is immoral and exploitative. However, proponents on both sides tend to agree that it is not wise to seek to ban these practices because legal solutions to the problem cannot be easily co-ordinated across national borders. Furthermore, outlawing practices in one country is liable to stimulate the practice elsewhere.

Frank's documentary sheds new light on these issues, echoing some of the more insightful scholarship on the ambivalent experiences of surrogates and egg donors involved in this business. The film also draws some subtle parallels between the experiences of gestational surrogates in the developing world and egg donors in the developed world. Frank shows us that these women are driven by economic necessity and a sense of duty to their husbands and children. They do not know much about the risks involved with the procedures, and, in the case of Indian surrogates, they and their families are rarely protected should things go wrong. The stigma associated with this kind of work is also evident in the ways they conceal their involvement from their community and assert their self esteem with accounts of 'feeling special' or of being in a caring relationship with the commissioning couple or the child that will result from their labours. Yet the film invites us to look beyond these stoic narratives. It highlights the dissonance between these women's justification of their work and their experiences of pain, fear and sadness which unfold before us on the screen.

Dr Amrita Pande, a sociologist who has studied surrogacy in India, has suggested that 'narratives that increase [surrogates'] feelings of self-worth are also instrumental in eroding recognition of the significant role that they play as workers, breadwinners and wage earners for their families' (1). Frank's documentary also shows us how their status as wives and mothers rather than wage earners affords them little protection against exploitation by husbands, brokers and clinics servicing commissioning couples. As workers they deserve protection but there is little national or international impetus for appropriate regulation which could quell the development of this burgeoning industry.

Although there are several disturbing scenes in this film – the gay couple 'shopping' for an egg donor, the deadened eyes of the surrogate contrasted with the violence of the caesarean section she is undergoing - one of the most poignant moments, for me, was when the egg donor showed off her new television bought after the last round of donation. What this film shows us is that wealthy consumers and entrepreneurs are creating the conditions for poor and vulnerable women to turn their reproductive potential into tradable commodities so that they too might join the consumer classes. 'Google Baby' should not be pigeon-holed as a shocking insight into baby farms in far off lands. It is a lesson in global capitalism we can ill afford to ignore.

1) Pande, A. ''Not an 'Angel', not a 'Whore': Surrogates as 'Dirty' Workers in India'
Indian Journal of Gender Studies 2009 16:141-173: 169 |  29 November 2021
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