TLC, Thursday 5 November 2015
Presented by Jodie Marsh
It goes wrong from the very beginning in 'Jodie Marsh is Making Babies'. The documentary opens with Marsh's shrill complaints when the 36-year-old former model has blood drawn as the first step of a fertility test. I wonder if Marsh has given any thought to the fact that childbirth will be more considerably more painful than a blood test. But watching the show I realise that, in more ways than one, Marsh does not seem to have thought much about the greater picture at all.
In the programme, Marsh is investigating the 'booming multi-million dollar baby-making industry', while also gaining information on her own fertility. We follow Marsh as she travels to the Netherlands to visit a man who goes under the name 'Ed the Inseminator', who has sex with women to make them pregnant (only to be helpful, of course). Marsh also travels to the USA and explores the baby-making industry there, where rules are much more lenient and options for the rich and famous are very different from those for the average person when it comes to having children that are not made the old-fashioned way.
Marsh manages to portray that assisted reproduction is a huge industry in the USA, where people will pay the price for anything from good genes and blue eyes to fast sperm. This perception of children as a market product like any other is provoking and, to me, the show raises a number of ethical questions. Unfortunately, Marsh seems more bothered with sensational details than ethical contemplation, and often her reactions to even the most disturbing comments are limited to 'jaw-dropped-in-surprise' or 'isn't-this-crazy?' expressions worthy of a teenager.
When the director of a surrogacy centre says that they let potential parents choose every possible attribute for their future child, Marsh exclaims: 'You're like God!' Not a comment that leaves much opportunity for critical journalism. Likewise, when the same director says to Marsh that now they will go and find the 'perfect child' for her, instead of questioning the concept of the 'perfect child', she responds with an excited, 'Okay, show me!'.
Marsh does seem slightly uncomfortable when the director compares having a donor-conceived baby to buying a Louis Vuitton bag (where an egg from an expensive model donor is like a real Louis Vuitton, and one from a less physically gifted donor is a like a fake bag). But Marsh cannot manifest much more than nervous laughter as a response, and any reservations are quickly forgotten as she moves on to selecting the physical features of her potential child.
It is a shame, because there were a fair few questions that would have been interesting to ask: Is a baby really just a product like any other than can be ordered with different characteristics, just like when you order a sofa? Should these high-profile babies be reserved exclusively for those who can pay the price, and is it even meaningful to talk about some babies being better or more valuable than others? And how does it feel to grow up as a child knowing that you are only good enough because your parents have decided all the 'right' physical features for you in advance? Or even worse: knowing that you didn't turn out quite as expected?
Marsh also follows egg and sperm donor scouts around on a beach, where they try to entice new good-looking donors with the prospect of earning money. Many are immediately interested and Marsh concludes that Americans are much more educated in this area than the British. But she does not ask if these people are aware of the hardships of egg donation. Neither does she question whether the act of fathering a potentially large number of children has more far-reaching consequences than earning good money for doing it in a cup.
And, finally, there is the alternative sperm donor who has sex with women to make them pregnant. He claims this is an altruistic gesture to help women conceive in a natural way, since he is gifted with super-sperm. But is he really just being helpful when he sleeps with desperate women who merely do it hoping to conceive? Marsh does ask what he is hoping to gain from this, but mostly reflects on the matter after she has finished talking to the man, musing to the camera on her own.
One of the only times where Marsh asks a direct critical question is when she speaks to a doctor who helps rich, healthy women become mothers using surrogate mothers because it is more convenient. Here, Marsh asks the doctor if a woman wanting a baby shouldn't want it enough to carry it herself, if that is an option. But after a very short note on 'old-fashioned values', Marsh is quickly on to asking which celebrities have used the service, and we are left in the dark about the wider consequences. Hence, many questions are left unanswered (and un-asked).
The documentary portrays the chase for self-realisation and the picture-perfect life. A baby in this context appears to be nothing more than a means to achieve these things. It seems left to these future children to fulfil all the dreams of their parents. I wonder if some of the parents using the designer-baby and convenience-surrogate services would be better off wondering, not how the right baby would look, but how they can be the best possible parents for it. If that is not the primary goal, perhaps they should not be parents in the first place. This aspect of the show is interesting, but Marsh does not sufficiently challenge this take on modern life – she just uncritically accepts its premise.
This documentary gives a biased view into the world of assisted reproduction, and does not address the concerns of real people who have problems conceiving. To be fair though, that is not what the show sets out to do. Where the programme does succeed is in showing that assisted reproduction is a huge and real business in the US. However, it does this without asking the necessary critical and ethical questions that would make it genuinely worth watching.
Towards the end of the show, Marsh gets her results from the fertility tests, and they are not encouraging. But she is optimistic, now that she knows how many options assisted reproduction offers. And as she has said throughout the programme, she is not even sure she wants children now anyway. Her husband is okay with it too. They can just get a dog instead.