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“[A] thoughtful ethnography, possessing fluid yet technical writing that reads like a page-turning novel.”
Birthing a Mother is the first ethnography to explore the intimate experience of gestational surrogate motherhood. In this insightful and beautifully written book, Elly Teman shows how surrogates and intended mothers carefully negotiate their cooperative endeavor. Drawing on anthropological fieldwork among Jewish Israeli women, interspersed with cross-cultural perspectives of surrogacy in the global context, Teman traces the processes by which surrogates relinquish any maternal claim to the babies they carry even as intended mothers accomplish a complicated transition to motherhood. Teman's groundbreaking analysis reveals that surrogates develop profound and lasting bonds with intended mothers even as they psychologically and emotionally disengage from the babies.
There are a number of metaphors that I observed surrogates using to describe their bodies during the process. These metaphors could easily be considered most feminists' worst nightmare: woman as technovessel, implanted with the seed of the patriarchy and lacking control over her body, which is nothing more than a vehicle serving wider systems. They could also be interpreted as mere reflections of the mind/body separation that goes hand-in-hand with the body-as-machine metaphor that is so central to the mechanical model of pregnancy and birth in postindustrial, capitalist societies. However, paradoxically, these kinds of images were often conjured up by surrogates in the context of rebutting ideas suggested in radical feminists' critiques and as assertions of agency and autonomy. During a conversation with Neta, thirty-three years old and the mother of one when she gave birth to her couple's baby, I was surprised to hear her express anger at "those feminists" who critique surrogacy as reducing women to "mother machines" and then refer to herself through a mechanical metaphor:
What do they think? That we are robots with no feelings? ... I am here in order to help.... I don't even call it a womb for rent. I call myself an oven.... An oven that bakes the bread for hungry people. I just help them.... Like if my friend needed a loan, I would save from my own food, and I would give her a loan. Would they then say that I am being used? What idiocy that is.
Why did Neta call herself an oven? The explicit self-objectification of the body that the metaphor expressed was alarming to me, especially when many radical feminist opponents of surrogacy employ similar metaphors to argue that reproductive technologies exploit women. These authors use technological images to describe surrogacy as reducing women to "uterine environments," "living laboratories," "test-tube women," "mother-machines," "fetal containers," and "vessels." In addition, they draw from agricultural images to compare women to "fields" for men's "seed," "breeders," "stables of reproductive whores," and "women-as-cows" on patriarchal "factory farms."
It struck me as contradictory for Neta to reject being called a robot while at the same time asserting that she was another kind of mechanical instrument. Two years later, I spoke alongside Neta at a national conference of IVF doctors. There, in front of a large audience, Neta again responded to a question about surrogates as victims by firmly stating that she was not a victim but "the oven that bakes the bread of hungry people." While I was still puzzling over what Neta was trying to express through this metaphor, I interviewed Shahar, thirty-two, who was already a mother of five when she gave birth to twins for her couple. While narrating her experience, Shahar applied another seemingly dehumanizing metaphor:
I am only carrying the issue, I don't have any part in the issue.... I mean, I gave them life, because without me they would not have life. Because [the intended mother] couldn't carry them. Only someone with a womb, a good womb, could hold the children for her. So I am the one.... I just held them in my belly, like an incubator. I was their incubator for nine months! ... And the second that they were born, I finished the job and that was it.
Like Neta's oven metaphor, the image of the incubator connotes the technological colonization of women's bodies. Some radical feminist opponents of reproductive technology, such as Raymond, have pointed to the example of U.S. surrogates describing themselves as incubators as evidence of how far women using these technologies internalize patriarchal views of their bodies. Overall has interpreted surrogates' use of the incubator image as a sign that surrogacy is an extreme form of alienated labor that negates the surrogate as a person (see figure 1).
If ovens and incubators are both machines, could these women be using such metaphors to express the idea that they are technological instruments—mother machines—during surrogacy? If so, then, why did Batya draw on images from the world of plants, rather than machines, to describe her body during surrogacy? Aged thirty-one and a mother of five, Batya arrived at our interview with her sister-in-law, who actively participated in our meeting. When I asked Batya if she would ever donate an egg, she immediately answered, "Never!" and then went on to explain why she saw egg donation as completely different from gestational surrogacy:
Batya: There's a difference! It [the egg] is mine! It is created from me!!! Here [in surrogacy] it is not created from me! It is his egg and sperm ...
Sister-in-law (interrupting her): She is just storing it [me'achsenet] ...
Batya: Yes! ... I am just like a hothouse [hamama]!
Sister-in-law: Like a refrigerator. Like a wrapper.
Batya describes her womb as a hamama—a hothouse or a greenhouse in which plants are grown in conditions of controlled temperature, irrigation, and sunlight. Like the oven and incubator metaphors, the "seed and the soil" have had their fair share of attention as images linked to the patriarchal control of women's bodies. Batya's use of this imagery could thus be understood as reflecting the influence of patriarchal kinship ideas on her thinking: perhaps she is implying that she sees herself as the soil in which men's seeds grow, as Rothman's work might suggest (see figure 2). But what can we make of Batya's correction of her sister-in-law, who described her as a wrapper and a refrigerator versus her assertion that she is a hothouse?
SURROGATE METAPHORS AND MEANINGS
The specific set of metaphors described above share similarities with those prevalent among U.S. surrogates. Indeed, the slogan "their bun, my oven," has become so commonplace among American surrogates that it appears on products sold online, such as T-shirts and license plates (see figure 3). Israeli surrogates I spoke with also used variations of this idea, speaking of "an oven baking a cake" and "a kiln baking a sculpture." Yet U.S. surrogates also used a variety of other metaphors, such as "gardens," "cows," and "baby machines," that were rarely used among Israeli surrogates.
Following the many studies that have revealed the world of meanings encompassed by metaphors in reproduction narratives, I decided to try to decipher what these metaphors alluded to beyond their patriarchal surface connotations and what the slight differences in imagery might reveal. Kirmayer notes that metaphors are microcosms of meaning that relate to the larger context of a narrative. They also extend the scope of expression of the narrative and open up new paths for exploring it by gesturing toward other stories that may not be overtly taken up by the narrative. I suggest that underlying the dominant surrogate metaphors of baby incubator, hothouse, and oven is a conceptualization of the body during surrogacy as a complex map of nature and culture (technology), depicting parts that can be integrated or detached. Whereas a garden and a cow can be solely ascribed to the natural realm and the "baby machine" to the technological one, the way dominant metaphors are used reveals that the linkages between these two realms are important to how Israeli surrogates envision their bodies and roles.
All of these metaphors designate the surrogate's womb as an artificial, containing environment in which the couple's "nature" is nurtured to viability in a controlled, warm temperature, as in a baby incubator, hothouse, or oven. The metaphors suggest that the couple's nature has been formed even before entering the surrogate's body: the couple's baby, sprouted sapling, and kneaded dough originate in the couple's egg and sperm, but additional processing is needed to produce their final form as infant, plant, and bread. Surrogates therefore are implying that they do not create the fetus in any way but develop an already prepared fetus to viability. Eva, who gave birth to twins for her couple, said this explicitly: "I took them [the twins] when they were small, fed them and helped them grow, and then sent them home." The metaphors thus encapsulate the general conceptual scheme that surrogates apply to their bodies in surrogacy: each surrogate sees her body as a complex puzzle, constituted by the coexistence of her personal nature, the artificial womb she embodies, and the couple's nature that she gestates inside it.
In a particularly clever twist on the nature/culture/other nature amalgamation, Batya's hothouse metaphor implies she is an artificial environment that simulates the natural habitat in which precious, valuable, expensive, and cultivated plants grow. Shahar's incubator metaphor draws on a device that is routinely used in hospitals to temporarily replace and simulate the pregnant mother's "natural" womb. Incubators are used in the IVF process to keep the embryo alive before it is implanted in the woman's uterus, and, in the world of premature babies, an incubator's task is to "artificially gestate to maturity" a baby born before thirty-eight weeks' gestation. Consequently, Shahar's incubator metaphor positions her on a continuum of artificial environments used to simulate the "natural" womb without threatening the "natural" mother's claim as the only mother of the child.
In addition, all three metaphors encapsulate a tension between external control and personal agency. Specifically, it is not the surrogate herself who turns on the oven or who places the plant or baby in the artificial environment, which suggests that she is controlled by the baker/gardener/doctor. The idea that the pregnancy is "switched on" and controlled externally enables the surrogate to emphasize its non-naturalness but does not negate her view of herself as the most essential person in the process. In this light, Shahar asserted that she was an incubator because she "gave them life, because without me they would not have life," that is, the twins she bore would not have been born without her warm, embodied, artificial life-support system. Her use of the word "them" leaves the question of to whom she "gave life" open to interpretation: the twins she bore or the couple for whom she bore them.
The metaphors thus encapsulate the complex power structure of surrogacy: the surrogate may be structurally constrained and, as popular portrayals of surrogates in the media have highlighted, she may have become a surrogate to "feed [her] children," but she sees herself as powerful. Neta's use of the oven metaphor vividly evokes this power, for she is feeding not only her own child and the fetus, but also the "hungry" couple, helping them by baking the bread that they would not otherwise have. Their hunger, as a classic signifier of powerlessness, is positioned in opposition to her power to feed, upturning any connotations that the couple is more powerful than she in the relationship.
Finally, we might understand the metaphors as each affirming that bringing the fetus to viability depends on the surrogate's own nurturing, warming capabilities. An oven, an incubator, and a hothouse are all necessarily warm environments, in contrast to the cold, distant connotations of a "mother machine." Each apparatus maintains a constant, controlled temperature that is needed to warm the couple's nature to viability. Batya's assertion that she was a warm hothouse, as opposed to her sister-in-law's description of her as a cold refrigerator or a neutral wrapper, highlights the centrality of warmth in the women's imagery.
Roberts points out that technology is usually assumed to be cold but that it ironically "warms up" the process of surrogacy by creating connections between the parties involved through the hormonal synchronization of the two women's bodies, the ultrasound, and labor induction. Tempering Roberts's claim, I would suggest that, through the metaphors they use, surrogates assert that it is not technology that is warming up surrogacy but they themselves: they warm up their artificial womb simulators to provide the warmth assumed to be necessary for gestation.
Technology cannot produce the comfort that the surrogate can, as Yana expressed several weeks after birthing her couple's child: "I just gave him [the baby] a warm and comfortable place to be, so that he would be happy to enter this world." This is a human warmth that emanates from the surrogate's heart, rather than something "artificial." As Tamar told me when she was seven months pregnant with her couple's child, "It isn't a womb for rent ... it isn't quick money and finished." Instead, she asserted, "It is a warm place, both in the belly and in the heart.... We surrogates prepare this fetus, feed [it], give him life. We need to develop what is inserted into us until it is ready." To sum up, if "culture" is the cold, instrumental hand of medical technology and "nature" is the warm, nurturing womb, then surrogates are using culture to simulate nature as they artificially incubate other nature in an artificial womb.
PARTITIONING NATURE AND THE ARTIFICIAL BODY
Central to most of the surrogates' narratives was the belief in an all-powerful nature that makes conception occur (through sexual intercourse) and fosters an instinctive emotional attachment between women and their "natural" babies. Idit, thirty-two years old and the mother of two, told me that during surrogacy she "didn't feel an emotional connection" with the fetus as she had during her pregnancies with her own children, when she had "felt joy with every development." Explaining this difference in terms of nature, she said, "Nature created it in a woman ... the woman's attachment [to the fetus] is a part of the process of biological pregnancy.... It cannot be explained."
Idit's idea of nature encompasses women universally in biogenetic pregnancy, as she established by referring to my own potential future motherhood and to the commonality of innate emotions that I, too, as a woman in nature, would hypothetically develop in pregnancy. Yet she believed that this force does not uncontrollably spring forth from "deep inside" the "body and soul" of a woman when the pregnancy is "artificial":
Nature and the body make sure that the work is done. From the moment that it is your own egg, then automatically the woman feels that it is her pregnancy. Even if she doesn't want it, and even if she miscarries, she will feel that it is her child, deep inside, in her soul. I hope that you will be a mother one day, and you will feel it, because it is hard not to feel that feeling. Also, when the mother gives birth, how does she receive the baby? Naturally! In a natural way. So that way, in the same natural and biological way, the mother feels toward the fetus. [But here] ... it is all artificial! Everything is artificial ... so what is there to become attached to?
Technologically assisted conception, to Idit, is far from natural. She describes it using the Hebrew word m'lachuti, meaning artificial, simulated, unnatural, and man-made. By aligning the IVF conception process with artifice, Idit stresses its departure from the nature she has described; to her, the technology is a substitute, copy, or simulation of a natural process:
It [conception] was done in an artificial way.... First of all ... the conception itself. It isn't biological. The fetus in the womb isn't aware of this during the pregnancy, but the initial development of the pregnancy was different from a regular pregnancy. When the pregnancy is regular, you get pregnant by your [male] partner and it unites [the sperm and egg] in a natural way. Here, the pregnancy isn't mine. It's from other genes ... from him and from her ... and you use artificial hormones to keep the pregnancy.
Like Idit, all of the surrogates that I spoke to aligned ideas about nature and artifice with a conservative cultural script about the way maternal emotions operate. They all believed that women have an innate love for their own children when those children "come ... from nature," as one surrogate put it. This attachment was considered part of every woman's "biology" and related to the way female "hormones" work. Nearly all of the women contrasted the strong emotional attachment they felt to their own children prenatally to their emotional distance from the surrogate child. The intensity of their comparisons between their own gestations and surrogacy hints at "an internal sense of transgression" that surrogates may experience upon realizing that their emotional distance from the fetus might be publicly interpreted as a sign of deviance. Surrogates routinely told me about comments to which they were subjected on a daily basis. For instance, Shiri noted, "People are so ignorant. They look at you like you are doing something bad when you tell them. They ask, how can you give away your children? This [points to belly] is not my child!"
Excerpted from Birthing a Mother by Elly Teman Copyright © 2010 by Elly Teman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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List of Illustrations xi
Prologue: Yael xvii
Part 1 Dividing
1 Surrogate Selves and Embodied Others 31
2 The Body Map 54
3 Operationalizing the Body Map 75
Part 2 Connecting
4 Intended Mothers and Maternal Intentions 110
5 The Shifting Body 134
Part 3 Separating
6 Rites of Classification 184
7 The Surrogate's Gift 205
Part 4 Redefining
8 The Surrogate's Mission 238
9 The Hero's Quest 263