Channel 4, Tuesday 31 May 2011
This documentary looks at the financial and human cost of international surrogacy and exposes the harsh reality of so-called 'fertility tourism'. It mainly focuses on an Indian fertility clinic, but also visits Israel and the USA.
Director Zippi Brand Frank has a passive style — the film has no narrator and is non judgmental. The lack of a narrator sometimes leaves the viewer confused about what is going on. This is aggravated by the different languages being spoken - at times it was difficult to follow the action while reading the subtitles. Overall the documentary was well made, but it was an hour and 45 minutes long and, at some points, started to become tiresome.
Most of the content was provocative and shocking. The film opens with a statement:
'IN THE 60s THE INTRODUCTION OF THE BIRTH CONTROL PILL TOOK THE RISK OF "MAKING BABIES" OUT OF SEX. TODAY NEW TECHNOLOGIES HAVE TAKEN SEX OUT OF THE ACT OF "MAKING BABIES" AND GLOBALISATION IS MAKING IT AFFORDABLE. NOW ALL ONE NEEDS IS A CREDIT CARD. INSTRUCTIONS CAN BE FOUND ON YOUTUBE.'
It then pans to a room in a clinic where a surrogate is having a caesarean section. Dr Nayna Patel who runs the clinic seems unaffected by the surrogate mother's tears and even conducts phone calls while stitching the patient up.
The documentary shows two opposing sides to Dr Patel. On one hand, she's a strong business woman who is happy to take advantage of Indian women. After explaining the risk, she makes it clear that neither the clinic nor commissioning parents take responsibility if the surrogate mother dies.
On the other hand, she seems to care. For example, when the commissioning parents want to give the surrogate extra money for a house, she only agrees if it is put in the woman's sole name.
The film highlighted the commercialisation of pregnancy. For example, when a member of the clinic team introduced the surrogates, she didn't know how far advanced they were in their pregnancies, but could give the details of their babies' commissioning parent. The commissioning parents came from around the world: USA, Dubai and Zimbabwe to name a few.
The treatment of the women resembled battery farming. With around a dozen single beds per room, the building was full to the rafters with surrogates. The quality of the care seemed traumatic. During one caesarean, a baby was violently pushed (almost beaten) out of a woman. It was shocking and distressing to watch.
But the documentary did provide balance, and the women involved seemed happy and willing in most cases. They wanted to buy homes and provide better education for their children.
One woman was so desperate to be a surrogate that, just three months after having a miscarriage, she asked Dr Patel to get her a good deal. She worried her miscarriage would lower how much commissioning parents would be willing to pay. Unfortunately, in this case, a sexist and controlling husband seemed to be the driving force. He said 'all women are good for is reproducing'.
The documentary also follows Israeli Doron Mamet who - with his partner - used an American surrogate. It apparently cost them $140,000 in total. This self-proclaimed entrepreneur, who worked in computing, decided to investigate outsourcing American / Western sperm and eggs to the surrogacy clinic in Gujarat, India.
Mamet set up a business where he acted as a consultant and intermediary for childless couples going through assisted conception. This seemed to mainly involve him Fedexing sperm samples or transporting a suitcase of frozen eggs and embryos.
Dr Patel met with Mamet, but set out two conditions for arranging surrogates. First, the commissioning parents have a medical need to use a surrogate. Second, the commissioning parents should be either childless or have only one child.
Mamet seemed unconcerned about the lives of the surrogates and even advised his clients to use two surrogates and implant two embryos in each. He also gave bad advice about the chances of conceiving twins.
The gay Israeli couple Mamet was helping seemed to treat the whole thing like online shopping. They used an egg donor website with a video that said 'We have a majority Caucasian — blond, blue-eyed, brown hair, brown eyes; we have an incredible selection of Chinese and Asian donors, we have Hispanic donors, we also have a very, very good selection of Jewish candidates… We have some models, some actresses, some are great at athletics, and some have masters' degrees'.
Via this website, we were introduced to Kat, an American mother of two who donated eggs. During her first donation, she produced 30 eggs. Kat gave financial reasons for donating — helping her purchase a home and raise her 'own' children. Kat did not know the risks of injecting medication to control her ovulation. She reassured herself that - if the medication caused her to develop cancer - it was part of God's plan.
Overall, this documentary is hard-hitting and seriously thought-provoking. Zippi Brand Frank fantastically captures the process of surrogacy from all angles. The film captures the issues that neither ethics nor law have caught up with for the generation with an easily-accessible global community and the Internet.
The film is still available to watch on 4oD.