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The Documentary Filmmaker Who Wants to Ban Surrogacy



Mark Stricherz - published on 10/17/14

Jennifer Lahl hopes bracing truths will reframe the debate
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WASHINGTON — “I have a 56-year-old uterus.”

Jennifer C. Lahl said those words after a showing of her documentary “Breeders: A Subclass of Women?” at the Catholic Information Center Tuesday night. She had asked the audience of two dozen their reaction to the documentary about surrogate motherhood, and to illustrate the fragility and limits of the human body Lahl disclosed her age.

Lahl felt uncomfortable sharing the information, though. Her arms were crossed and she spoke with the speed of a sideline football reporter interviewing the head coach before half time. But comfort and convenience ranked low on her list of values Tuesday night. Letting people cling to illusions ranked low, too. A trim, petite woman, Lahl said people tell her she looks younger than her age, but she reminded the audience of the truth. “I’m 56,” she said, leaning back to emphasize her point.

Disclosing bracing truths is routine for the former pediatric care nurse, and it was her goal for both her talk and the film she produced and co-directed. “What are the costs and what are the extremes to fulfill these inborn desires for children?” Lahl asked in the documentary’s introduction.

The documentary interviews surrogates, advocates, ethicists, psychologists, doctors, and children conceived through surrogacy. But it does not interview parents who paid for or received children through surrogacy. Lahl said the omission was intentional. “Their stories have already been told: they want babies. I’m a documentarian. This isn’t journalism. I don’t need to tell all sides,” she told Aleteia after her talk.

Telling the other side in the debate over surrogacy has earned Lahl the opposition of surrogacy supporters. “This isn’t a movie about the surrogacy industry, which is how they market it,” Dawn Marmostein, founder and director of the Los Angeles Surrogacy Center, said in a YouTube video. “It’s a movie about what happens when you do surrogacy independently without an agency, without a therapist, without a lawyer, without any of the necessary people that it takes to have a surrogate who’s ready physically, mentally…. This is what happens when you skip steps.”

In fact, “Breeders” has interviews with surrogacy industry spokespeople, and the 52-minute documentary has received praise for the breadth and depth of its interviews. The Washington Post and New York Times have written about the documentary at length and ABC News ran a segment on it.

Reporters have cause to write about surrogacy. Celebrities such as Elton John, Joan Lunden, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick have used surrogates to bear their children. Two thousand children are born via surrogacy in the United States each year, according to one estimate. The figure represents a fraction of the 3.96 million births in the country last year, but both supporters and opponents say the number is growing. State legislatures in Louisiana and Kansas have considered legislation to loosen or tighten their laws this year.

Surrogacy has appeal for gay couples and single women. For poor and working-class women, surrogacy is way to make $20,000 or more.

Supporters argue that surrogacy provides relief to infertile couples in the form of children.  “At the Surro Centers, we believe everyone who wants to have a family should be able to do so,” Marmostein wrote on the company’s Facebook account. Marmostein wrote she has been a surrogate mother four times already, and she seeks to provide legal, financial, and health services for surrogates and clients alike.

The Catholic Church opposes surrogacy and other forms of assisted human reproduction. “Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church says. “These techniques (heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses’ "right to become a father and a mother only through each other."

Lahl has plunged into the debate over artificial reproductive technologies. She is the president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, a nonprofit based in Pleasant Hill, California.  The think tank differs from competitors in using films rather than white papers, blogs, or books alone as a means to influence legislation. The center has sponsored documentary films on embryonic cell technology (“Lines that Divide,” 2009), egg donation (“Eggsploitation,” 2010), and sperm donation (“Anonymous Father’s Day, 2011).

Lahl helped make each of those documentaries, and she served as co-writer, co-director, and co-producer for “Breeders.” Lahl’s contribution to the debate over surrogacy is to use a documentary film to reveal sober truths about the pitfalls and de-humanization of the process.

Early in the documentary, a woman identified as Heather said she served as a surrogate for $15,000. “I had such a wonderful beautiful experience with surrogacy. I thought, ‘Why in the world would I not do this again?’” she said.  But Heather said she found out that her clients thought of her not as the mother of their child but a “gestational carrier,” the term that the Los Angeles Surrogacy Center and other pro-surrogate groups use. The baby boy she carried had a brain problem. The couple who paid her money wanted to abort the child. “I was devastated for her, me, and the boy,” Heather said, sobbing.

Later in the documentary, Jessica appears on screen. A pretty, white 20- or 30-something, she said she was conceived through surrogacy. A Korean woman and white man paid a contract for her, and she felt no connection to her mother. “You’re paying a woman to rent out her uterus,” Jessica tells the camera. “At the end of the day, you’re conceived because of a contract and money.”

Around the same time, a surrogate mother by the name of Tanya emphasizes that surrogacy disrupts the mother-child bond formed during pregnancy. She saw one child she served as a surrogate for. The child had colic, wailing and unable to sleep at night. But as soon as Tanya rested and held the child, the child fell asleep.

After the documentary ended and the lights in the room went on, Lahl called for the outright ban of surrogacy. Then she delivered news to the audience. Facebook and Apple announced their benefits package would allow female employees to freeze and store their eggs. What should surrogacy opponents do, a woman in the audience asked. Lahl didn’t pause. “I would say play to your strengths. If I was an employee of Facebook or Apple, I would write them a letter,” she said.

Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

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