Speaking of Women's Rights: Assisted Reproductive Technology in Primetime

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Assisted Reproductive Technology in Primetime

by Caitlin Zittkowski

The fall season debut of NBC’s show, The New Normal, has brought a flurry of mixed reactions, ranging from stations refusing to air the show because it is “inappropriate” for a family-viewing timeslot to critics yawning when presented with stock gay male characters spouting quips about fashion. Premised on the reality that the “traditional” family unit has evolved beyond recognition from the Leave It To Beaver days, the show follows David and Bryan, a gay couple in Los Angeles, and Goldie, the woman who acts as their surrogate. They are accompanied by Shania, Goldie’s own wise-beyond-her-years daughter, and Jane, Goldie’s closed-minded grandmother.

Though some have focused more on the David and Bryan’s relationship and how it reflects on gay couples, The New Normal has also brought another set of issues into the limelight: assisted reproductive technology and, more specifically, surrogacy. While surrogacy has been on the rise in recent years, the process is often shrouded in secrecy due to privacy concerns, ethical issues, and shame on the part of some different-sex couples who perceive not being able to get pregnant without medical assistance as some kind of shortcoming. The intricacy of surrogacy issues has also posed complicated questions to feminists and members of the reproductive justice community, ranging from whether and how women acting as surrogates should be compensated, whether surrogacy contracts should be enforced, and whether and how surrogacy should be regulated to protect women’s autonomy while ensuring informed consent.

Infusing additional confusion into an already complex set of ethical issues is the fact that surrogacy’s legal landscape is fragmented and inconsistent. Some states permit surrogacy agreements, some penalize it, and some have no laws addressing the subject at all. There are also no federal laws on the books regulating surrogacy. As a result, there are often no concrete answers to legal questions facing intended parents, women acting as surrogates, and those professionals who facilitate the relationship between them.

The New Normal, perhaps unintentionally, draws attention to a few of the dilemmas surrogacy implicates. In one episode, David and Bryan try to persuade Goldie to stop eating the charbroiled burgers that she craves during her pregnancy. Though meant to be funny, this scene raises weightier questions about the right of women acting as surrogates to maintain control of their bodies. And the surrogacy service employee’s glib comparison of a woman acting as a surrogate to an “Easy-Bake Oven, except with no legal rights to the cupcake” definitely raises some eyebrows.

The first episodes of The New Normal barely skim the surface of the issues that could arise between intended parents and a woman acting as a surrogate. Hopefully as the series develops, it will spur serious conversations about the right to form and maintain families.

Caitlin Zittkowski is a law student and intern at Legal Voice. Originally from Cleveland, she is spending the next few months in Seattle, exploring the city by bike and drinking way too much coffee.