When I tell people that commercial surrogacy is the topic of my PhD thesis, they often jump, recoil, or at the very least raise an eyebrow. The subject remains taboo and widely misunderstood – something which certainly isn't helped by Hollywood blockbuster movies such as When the Bough Breaks or British soap operas, such as the current surrogacy plotline in EastEnders. It is far from a new topic for filmmakers, who often warp or misrepresent the practice in the name of dramatic license. For those interested in a more accurate depiction of a surrogacy journey, however, then Jonathon Narducci's 'Ghosts of the République' would be a good place to start.
The documentary follows Nicolas and Aurelien on their journey (or perhaps more accurately, odyssey) to parenthood. A property manager and flight attendant respectively, they are newly married and like so many others in this position, open about their desire for children of their own. What sets them apart, however, are the enormous obstacles they face in realising this dream.
As a same sex couple in France, they know that discrimination will prevent them from adopting: no matter what the law might say. Yet their other option, surrogacy, is also prohibited in their home country. The impossibility of this situation leads these previously law-abiding citizens to resort to desperate measures – travelling to Las Vegas and working with an egg donor (Diana) and surrogate (Crystal) in order to conceive.
The emotional honesty of the people involved makes for a compelling documentary. The joy, fear and frustration shown by the parties throughout does justice to the rollercoaster that is assisted reproduction. Though intended parents are often demonised as selfish in discussions about surrogacy, this documentary illustrates the reality – that more often than not, people are driven to surrogacy because they have no other option and are deeply invested in the process.
One particularly touching aspect of the documentary is the involvement of the grandparents-to-be. They speak openly of the pain they experienced believing that their sons would not be able to have children, their tears making the eventual arrival of baby Louise all the sweeter. Their participation serves as an important reminder that childlessness does not just affect the couples directly involved.
Though largely pro-surrogacy, this project is not blind to its challenges. Witnessing Diana in tears after the egg extraction does not make for easy viewing, nor the distress of Crystal as she undergoes the 'worst-case scenario' C-section. These moments illustrate at least some of the concerns of Jennifer Lahl – an anti-surrogacy campaigner seen elsewhere in the documentary. While many of her claims are contestable, there are clearly unavoidable physical risks involved with assisted reproduction. Yet the joy of the people involved as they come together to celebrate Louise's first birthday suggests that they consider it all worthwhile. Certainly, that they are planning a second surrogacy journey together does not indicate support for prohibition.
That being said, it is not all's well that ends well. A comparatively underexplored element of this documentary is the severe precarity of Louise and her fathers' family situation. The last five minutes of the documentary sees her effectively rendered an illegal immigrant as their application for citizenship is denied, having entered the country on a three-month visa. Yet while Nicolas and Aurelien reflect on the stress and frustration this has caused them, no reference is made to the fact that it is the fundamental rights of the child – not the intended parents – which the European Court of Human Rights has found France to have violated in similar cases.
The refusal of the French state to recognise her existence has potentially wide-ranging ramifications. It is legal parents, for instance, who are responsible for making any medical decision that may be required. Lack of a legal relationship between them also has a significant impact on her intestacy rights – not to mention overall sense of identity and cultural belonging. Despite being the eponymous 'Ghosts of the République', the severity of this could, in my opinion, have been spelled out more clearly. They are the consequences of this practice that cannot continue to be overlooked.
With a landscape as acutely complex and contested as transnational commercial surrogacy, it is perhaps unsurprising that these legal intricacies are not captured in a 1 hour 20 minute documentary. As a snapshot of what a transnational surrogacy arrangement looks like however, this documentary is doubtlessly a useful tool – particularly for anyone not otherwise familiar with the issue. The title, however, should not be forgotten. Those with an interest in understanding the need for surrogacy reform ought to explore further what it means to be a ghost of the republic.