Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I finally decided how I feel about "Her Body, My Baby."

(That's the title of a jaw-dropping, must-read article in the New York Times Magazine.)

The article is written by Alex Kuczynski, an infertile socialite/writer married to a billionaire, who hires a middle-class woman to bear her biological child. Her story, and the way she tells it, is heartbreaking and excruciatingly honest. Her inner monologue ain't pretty. It contains moments of unvarnished classism, elitism, and rich white privilege. The author is, as my mother put it, "not someone I'd like to get to know better."

But the comments page is a sociological bloodbath, and it's what I'd like to focus on.

The sexist, misogynist demands that some commenters make on Ms. Kuczynski's reproductive choices are just as bad as the author's mind-boggling privilege. Some readers are only capable of responding to her story with proscriptive statements: Jeez, she should have just adopted already! Jeez, she should have just accepted that she was meant to be childless! Can't she help us control the population problem and just adopt a kid that's already been born?

It's particularly ridiculous to demand that infertile women help us solve our "population problem" and just adopt a child who already exists. If this is ethically sound, then rich Americans must immediately stop reproducing, and adopt until every third-world baby has been placed in a home. Does any reasonable person propose this "solution" for fertile couples? No.

The claim that Kuczynski "wasted" countless thousands of dollars in her selfish pursuit of a biological child is questionable. Adoptions, whether domestic or international, are no cheaper than hiring a surrogate (around $25,000). In fact, if you want to talk about costs, how about the fact that an acquaintance of mine paid $15,000 in 2003 to give birth to her own, naturally conceived daughter in a hospital? Kuczynski's identity as the wife of a billionaire has certainly raised some hackles, but it is unfair to claim that her use of resources was somehow morally unsound. She spent $100,000 on a baby. Most of her peers have spent that much on a car. Yet her decision to use that money to become a mother outrages us. Why?

Because our culture largely teaches us that we have the right to judge, even to control, women's reproductive decisions. Because women do crazy, world-destroying things like

- have abortions, thus killing babies and making God cry
- go through expensive fertility treatments, thus wasting money they should have given to charity
- hire proletarian wombs, thus exploiting each other
- adopt a brown baby from abroad, thus becoming arrogant colonialist bastards
- remain childless, thus destroying femininity and The Family
- give birth to 12 children, thus destroying the environment, straining the welfare system, and disrupting restaurant dinners across the country.

See? Women just can't get it right.

As Jezebel put it in a different context, we need to GIVE OTHER LADIES A DAMN BREAK.

It took me a long time to decide how I felt about this piece. I can't believe I'm defending a millionaire socialite Times reporter who is personally responsible for a substantial percentage of the fluff in the Style section. I don't care. She's a self-absorbed, spoiled brat. She's also a woman who wants a child, like millions of women before her. So give her a damn break.


Arvilla said...

I'll post my thoughts to the article I emailed LN earlier. Technically, these were from 3 separate emails, as I attempted gathering my thoughts into coherency after reading this mind boggling article. But for the sake of some public discussion, here's my blabbering:

This is mind boggling. And as a starting point, crude response, the privilege and exploitation and personal pain aside, just what is it about genetics that makes people SO insistent on having children "of their own." It's just so excessive to go to these lengths, financially, physically, just so you can have a kid that looks like you. And I realize the idea that having a kid genetically like you is the absolute be-all end-all ideal is old and not this woman's individual fault, so I say this not to blame or shame her for her decision, but to indicate a really "what the hell" aspect of our cultural standpoint on reproduction.

What is it about the value of having a kid that looks like you that I just cannot understand, but which is so compelling to others? And I guess privilege is a major factor here, any way you look at it. I mean, that's great that it meant so much to her, but what if she had been an infertile woman with the resources of her surrogate. I'm afraid she would've had no choice but to "settle" for adoption. But would she really tell someone who was unable to have a gestational surrogate that her adopted child was less valuable or somehow less special than a baby with the parents' genetic material? I can't imagine that she'd dream of saying something like that...but is it because she doesn't believe it? Or just because it would be cruel? I mean, how do you explain her insistence on a genetic kid except for some old fashioned attachment to biology and the fact that she has unending wealth...

Fetishistic. That's the word I'm looking for. It's a fetish with genetic baby. And I think this woman may have a motherhood fetish as well...But again, I don't think it's just because she's a privileged ass or something. Society in general has fetishes about these things...and it's not surprising that she would feel more entitled to wallow in them, given her social position.

Also, for her sake, I hope she doesn't read the comments. Not that I disagree with many of them, or that I think this sort of resentment toward her privilege and situation is unexpected or even unwarranted...but what does it help? What is improved or fixed by making her feel like a douche?

Arvilla said...

I really agree with this sentiment. I don't like when people give women a hard time, and I don't like when strangers think they can tell other women what decisions they should have made or, as you say "make demands" on women's reproductive decisions. But I do think her decision and her ability to make that decision reflect some serious value problems in our society about reproduction, as well as some serious inequalities. And for me those structural problems stand out more in the article and the comments than does my simple sympathy for Alex.

I don't think I have any say over her decisions with her body. But I do think we're entitled to have political discussions about the economic and social dynamics of reproduction, and I see nothing wrong with using an individual's narrative to point out some serious problems.

ln said...

You're definitely right, and my heavyhanded rant doesn't leave much room for the important points you're making. Even as I was writing my rant, I was thinking to myself, is this sympathy I'm feeling a bit too relativist? There very well may be a choice (e.g. adoption as opposed to surrogacy) that is morally, environmentally, and economically more sustainable.

Also there's definitely a distinction between badgering the woman who made the choice ("just adopt!!!1111") and wondering, as you did, "What is this pursuit of a biological child all about? What cultural forces are at work behind this massive use of emotional and financial resources? WHY is this so important to so many people?" It definitely goes beyond "because their biology makes it so."

I could probably muster up an equal rage towards Alex's ridiculous article as towards the comments. But I guess it was my resentment of their attitude that ended up prevailing in my mixed bag of emotions.

Do you think this is the same attitude that allows the pro-life argument to flourish, or is it quite a different one? My rhetorical flourishes at the end notwithstanding ... =)

ln said...

You make another good point: we CAN use Alex's narrative to point out the huge inequalities in the way women and men reproduce (or don't) across class lines. I guess the problems come when we treat the individual as an aberrant problem-person, rather than examining the bigger picture.

Arvilla said...

Yeah, I agree. And obviously liberalism wants us to do the latter. This is actually incredibly interesting in light of this Brown book I'm reading right now. The current chapter focuses on the effects of wounded identities within liberalism. And based on a theory from Nietzsche, she frames a cycle like this: Injured person feels vulnerable and powerless under liberalism. Injured person attempts to become powerful. Injured person cannot because the system is too entrenched. Injured person places blame for this failure not on liberalism or anything structural but on some external force. Injured person strives to injure the person or thing she is blaming for her failure to become powerful. It's called ressentiment.

So my first instinct is to say that the comments in the Times were different from pro-lifers because what they were experiencing seems to be something like ressentiment. Punishing Alex for the fact that they don't have $100,000 to spend on reproducing their gene code. Injuring another party which leaves everyone disempowered. Seems like psychoanalytical nonsense until you actually see it pop up in real life...

Also, there's this section in the next chapter about why middle class is the only class identity that has been politicized, and the reason for it is that the middle class truly needs capitalism to work in order to maintain their status, and because they simultaneously get to play the middleground between the amoral wealthy class and the lazy ass working class. It's really a win-win for the middle class to talk about being middle class.

The comments at the Times remind me of that too. Everyone there got to play the moral indignation card at the rich person, and get moral points for defending the poor exploited surrogate. They were all willing to politicize Alex's class identity and their difference, because it was a win-win for them. They didn't come away with any reproductive freedom out of it, but they sure as hell made sure Alex doesn't get any either. And what do you know: Liberalism 1-Constructive Critique 0

Thinking back, one could probably make a ressentiment argument about pro-lifers as well, however...something like they grow up constrained by religious beliefs that teach them they have no say over their own bodies or reproduction, and because they're powerless over their own bodies they have to place blame on an external source. Why not blame sinful ladies and then injure them? That's a pretty vulgar little application of the concept, but I think it can work...it doesn't necessarily have to be the sole explanation for the pro-life sentiment, but it can have something to do with it.

Arvilla said...

The former. Liberalism wants us to do the former.

I took cold meds hours ago and I have been severely intoxicated since.