Gilmore Girls’ Disappointing Take on Commercial Surrogacy (warning: this post contains spoilers)

2016-12-22T10:11:00+00:00 December 22nd, 2016|Biomedical Ethics, Feminist Philosophy, Philosophy of Ethics|

Many fans of the Gilmore Girls were unhappy at how the show’s revival handled the storyline of the abrasive yet lovable Paris Geller. While I too agree that Paris deserves a happier ending, my dismay about her personal life was largely overshadowed by my dismay at how the show portrayed her career in commercial surrogacy and its treatment of surrogacy in general. Viewers are reintroduced to Paris when Lorelai and Luke decide to consider having a child via surrogacy and go to Paris’s clinic for a consultation. As someone currently writing her Ph.D. thesis on the ethics of surrogacy, my ears tend to prick up at the mention of surrogacy in popular media. So I was initially excited to see that Gilmore Girls was weaving surrogacy into a major plotline. But that excitement quickly faded into disappointment.

First, during Paris’s initial spiel about the reproductive services her clinic “Dynasty Makers” offers, she refers to her standard roster of potential surrogates as “bargain-basement breeders,” and informs Lorelai that she would not let “any of those bottle service bimbos” carry her baby. Instead, given that Lorelai was like a mother to her, Paris insists on pulling out “the prime meat” for Lorelai and Luke’s consideration. Then, Paris goes on to explain the surrogacy process: “It’s pretty cut and dry here. We plant an egg in a viable body, fertilize it, and out comes a baby. Bing, bang, boom.”

Paris then informs Lorelai that since she is over 44, using her own eggs in the IVF process would have a very low success rate. She also visually assesses Luke’s genitals and seems to conclude from this assessment that they will be able use his sperm in the IVF treatment. Most bizarrely, she then shows them many pictures of women who seem to be potential surrogates, and highlights their traits like their hair colour, body type, and height, as though those traits would be relevant to the resulting child (something that would only be the case in traditional surrogacy arrangements, which the characters seemed to dismiss moments earlier when they discussed using egg donors). There also seems to be ongoing confusion on Luke’s part as to whether or not he will have to have intercourse with the surrogate in order for her to conceive (he wouldn’t, of course).

The surrogacy plotline continues on throughout the episode, and crops up in later episodes as well (some even speculate that Rory has decided to become a surrogate in the face of her failing journalism career). Paris actually brings two of her “top breeders” to Luke’s diner to try to convince him to go the surrogacy route. During that scene, Paris describes herself as the “Pablo Escobar of the surrogacy world” because she “moves the best product.”

I understand that Paris’s callous attitude towards the surrogates who work for her is supposed to be funny – just another manifestation of Paris’s often endearing lack of tact and social sensitivity. But it’s hard to find the overall picture the show paints of surrogacy to be a source of humor. In addition to the very troubling moral issues surrounding Paris’s treatment of surrogates, the show is outright misleading about many aspects of the surrogacy process. So, before I offer any ethical analysis of surrogacy in Gilmore Girls, it’s worth clarifying what they seem to just get plain wrong.

First, as I briefly alluded to, the show seems to conflate gestational surrogacy and traditional surrogacy. Traditional surrogacy involves the use of a surrogate’s own eggs, in conjunction with the sperm of either the intended father or a third party donor. On the other hand, gestational surrogacy involves the use of either the intended mother’s eggs, or eggs from a third party donor, in conjunction with the sperm of either the intended father or a third party donor. Thus, in traditional surrogacy arrangements, the surrogate is also the genetic mother of the child she carries, while in gestational surrogacy arrangements, there is no such genetic connection. In gestational surrogacy arrangements, which are now the much more common form of surrogacy and the type seemingly offered by Dynasty Makers, the phenotypic traits of the surrogate, like hair colour, are irrelevant.

Second, neither type of surrogacy arrangement involves the intended father having sex with the surrogate (a point Luke continually and inexplicably fails to grasp). I’ll talk about why Luke’s continued confusion about this bothers me below.

Third, the show fails to address the legality of commercial surrogacy arrangements. Although Paris boasts of Dynasty Makers’ impressive array of medical and legal services, she fails to mention that commercial surrogacy is actually illegal in many states. I’m not entirely clear on where Paris’s clinic is located (maybe I need to watch the series more closely?). The show makes it seem like the clinic is located in New York, given that Paris lives there. However, commercial surrogacy is illegal in the state of New York. It’s possible that Paris lives in New York but runs the clinic in Connecticut, which a much more surrogacy friendly state. Either way, it’s a bit misleading for the show not to address this since it makes it seem like commercial surrogacy is legal in New York.

Moving on to the ethical analysis, one of the most glaring ethical issues surrounds how Paris continuously refers to babies and surrogates in commodifying terms. Some feminists have vehemently opposed commercial surrogacy on the grounds that it is tantamount to ‘baby-selling.’ Whether or not you agree with this view (in fact, I’m inclined to reject it), it’s still very troubling to hear Paris talk about babies as ‘products.’ Such a portrayal plays directly into the fear that surrogacy really does turn children into mere commodities.

Referring to surrogates as ‘breeders’ and ‘prime meat’ is also incredibly troublesome. A huge problem with commercial surrogacy is the industry’s general failure to treat surrogates as patients in their own rights whose interests need to be protected. Surrogates are unfortunately often viewed as mere ‘wombs for rent’ – an attitude that is troubling both in principle and in practice. Reducing women to their reproductive capacities is, of course, offensive and archaic. But it’s also dangerous. It can lead us to lose sight of the fact that these wombs belong to women, and that the renting of them can pose very serious risks to their health.

Surrogates undergo medical treatments and tests that carry with them varying physical, psychological, and emotional risks. These procedures may include the injection of fertility hormones, the implantation of embryos, abortion, or caesarean sections. Moreover, while pregnancy and childbirth already pose risks – including eclampsia, gestational diabetes, and death – the use of IVF creates additional hazards. Fertility doctors often implant multiple embryos in surrogates to increase the success rate of pregnancy, which can lead to multifetal pregnancies. According to the ACOG Committee on Ethics’ Opinion on Multifetal Pregnancy Reduction, the maternal risks of multifetal pregnancies can include hypertension or postpartum hemorrhage. There have even been reports of surrogates dying as a result of pregnancy complications. Such concerns should give us serious pause about whether it’s really funny to think of surrogates as mere ‘breeders.’

Finally, the running joke about Luke potentially needing to have sex with surrogates is not only confusing (since it was clearly explained to him that that’s not how it works), it also contributes to the stigmatization of surrogacy. Surrogacy is sometimes viewed as ‘dirty work’ and even thought of as a form of sex work. This can make it shameful and socially dangerous for women to participate in surrogacy. In India, for instance, women sometimes feel compelled to keep their surrogacies secret from their neighbors or family members out of fear that they would be viewed as ‘tainted.’ While it obviously wasn’t the show’s intention to bolster to the stigmatization of surrogacy, the fact that Luke’s confusion plays right into this kind of harmful stereotype made the joke rub me the wrong way.

There many more issues I could discuss – for instance, the thought that potential parents can pick their future children’s genetic traits from a literal binder full of women, or the fact that Lorelai pursued surrogacy primarily out of guilt at having failed to provide Luke with a child. But I do want to give a nod to some of the things that Gilmore Girls got right. For one thing, the show rightly points out that commercial surrogacy can be very expensive in the United States (in states where it is legal, anyway). This is something worth noting since the cost of surrogacy is often what motivates couples to go overseas to access surrogacy services (and as you can imagine, transnational surrogacy raises an even bigger host of problems). It’s also true that there is a cottage industry of military wives acting as surrogates, and it’s cool that the show brought attention to that.

Finally, the show highlights that for individuals who want to have children later in life, surrogacy seems more and more like a live option, especially if they want children who are genetically related to them. As more people consider surrogacy as a means of family formation, it’s important that we have discussions about it. More than anything else, that’s why I’m so disappointed in Gilmore Girls’ treatment of surrogacy. It feels like a huge missed opportunity to open up frank and informed discussion. I would have loved to see a portrayal of commercial surrogacy that had some nuance and grappled more seriously with even a few of the myriad ethical questions that surrogacy raises. Instead, all we got was a clunky rehashing of tired and potentially damaging stereotypes and misconceptions about surrogacy. Paris really did deserve better.


Pictured above: Paris, Lorelei, and Luke from the set of Gilmore Girls. Image courtesy of Netflix.