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P.O.V: Cash And Carry

Introduction To A New Scoop Column

A point of view. Everyone has one. An opinion, an attitude, a belief, a conviction, a theory, an assumption. Name any subject, from the most controversial to the mundane and someone has an opinion on it. While the search to find people of like mind, others who agree with our beliefs is one of the core formative actions of society.

P.O.V - a new occasional Scoop column from Barbara Sumner Burstyn - will be entertaining cultural anthropology, tackling a single subject with verve and attitude. Unraveling the beliefs and social concepts behind the issues making the headlines or exposing the weird ways of humans and their behaviors, P.O.V. will work to reveal the abstract, often unspoken tenets that underpin our society.

P.O.V will bring an international perspective, canvassing issues, exposing attitudes and activities, blending research, statistics and interviews with opinion, ideas and emotional resonance in a pithy opinionated package.

Point Of View with Barbara Sumner Burstyn

Cash And Carry

Suddenly money as motive is immoral, at least if you're an impoverished woman renting the only space you have left. Your womb. But what of the people who buy the babies? Are they not the true immorals?

Pity Krystal Morgan, the Canadian surrogate mother that gave birth to twins for an Ontario province couple for less than the price of a second-hand car only to have them bilk her out of CAN $1,500.

For her labors she had her identity revealed to the world, her face and the intimate details of her insignificant life spread out for all to read. And it doesn't look much, her life. Imagine her sitting at her Formica table with her new TV and the broken computer the commissioning parents gave her, a single parent with a future so bleak that even CAN $8,500 looked good. It made good reading as we quaffed our organic wheaties and nodded knowingly at all the salacious detail; the sperm filled syringe, the Fifth Form education and the unemployed boyfriend.

But then the commissioning couple, the new parents of twin girls, one of whom has a serious congenital heart defect, are probably sitting at their polished oak, wondering at the injustice of it all, too. 'We never expected to have a sick baby' said the commissioning mother in explanation as to why they've withheld part of the surrogacy fee.

You can almost hear the aggrieved tone of her voice from behind the solid rock of her anonymity. After all, they paid good money and at the very least they deserve a healthy baby. And like any other consumer purchase she clearly thinks she has a right, if not to a money-back-guarantee then at the very least, a generous discount. As if a baby with a heart defect is shop soiled and not quite perfect enough for people who can afford to drop a few grand in return for the nine months womb rental, not to mention a couple of eggs and a generous dollop of genetic material.

So already this small child has disappointed her new parents storybook concept of parenting. And what, one wonders will happen in the future if the power of the commissioning parents to imprint their essentially store-bought children with their own brand of values fails, and the kids revert to type, in behavior as well as health. Will they be condemned to the back room, like a piece of furniture that never quite looked right?

But rather than address such complex social issues as the increasing merchandising of numerous aspects of our lives and the almost feudal power of the wealthy over the poor, we're instead focusing on something we can all understand. Morals. And specifically those of the surrogate mothers.

In a separate surrogate situation, where neither of the commissioning parents contributed their bodily fluids, but paid for a baby de jour, MP Dr. Keith Martin said “anybody who is making babies to sell should be investigated and should be prosecuted for doing so."

Maybe he meant to say 'persecuted' as the Canadian government lines up to respond to the increasing number of surrogacy arrangements by installing simplistic knee-jerk anti-surrogacy legislation. Or perhaps his rhetoric was out of nostalgia for the old double-standard days when that other frightening aspect of feminine ability, prostitution, was illegal for the service providers but perfectly okay for the men with the money.

Although Dr Martin's not alone in ignoring the double standard of condemning the seller while neglecting to mention the culpability of the purchasing parents. Countless media reports so far seem nonchalant about baby buyers, their motives and their disposable incomes. After all they're essentially just consumers, fulfilling the fundamental sacrament of our society - shopping for happiness. While Ms Morgan's stated inducement, money, leaves us shaking our heads at the idea of a disenfranchised sub-group of young women without prospects, providing a cash and carry service.

In New Zealand women involved in surrogacy are far more circumspect, preferring to keep their identities hidden, one spoken to says that while NZ $10,000 is the standard fee, would-be parents will pay what ever it takes. She goes on to say that so far altruism seems to be winning in New Zealand with one baby recently being bartered for an exchange of services.

"It's a very altruistic situation in this country”, said a surrogate who is carrying her second child, "we do to make a difference in the world."

So perhaps we do need to flash the moral card and enact laws to forbid the exchange of money in return for surrogacy services. Because if we don't, then aside from individual instances of altruistic behavior, the only arbiter of the public good will be the market place. Although why we'd shy away from using the market and market-like mechanisms to define public good in this area when policy makers are embracing it almost every other is a little confusing.

But maybe not as confusing as public acknowledgment of the chilling truth that increasing numbers of wealthy purchasing parents and poverty stricken women already know; that we actually value houses and cars and boats and pieces of land at prices far higher than children.

And as the anonymous, tardy commissioning mother of the Canadian heart defect twin and her healthy sister said in print; Ms Morgan did in fact agree to have the babies in return for just a used computer and CAN $8,500. What she omitted to say was that $8,500, minus CAN $1,500 for defects, was also the amount she valued the children at. So what did she expect? Deluxe quality babies for a bargain price.

© Barbara Sumner Burstyn, February 2002, feedback to verb8m@sympatico.ca

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