While issues with infertility and adoption have been represented frequently on television over the years, surrogacy stories have been spotty or treated more superficially. But as hiring a gestational carrier, aka a surrogate mother, has become more and more prevalent in society, television is racing to keep up with the conversation — which is multilayered, nuanced, and constantly evolving.
High-profile celebrities have helped spark conversation about the practice. Kim Kardashian’s announcement that she’d use a surrogate for her third child led to “surrogate” being Google searched more than “adoption” in January. Surrogacy has also become common among many married gay couples looking to have children.
It’s probably no surprise that the peak TV era, featuring so many shows looking to tackle original and contemporary subjects, has dived into this subject. Recent TV shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Roseanne,” “Superstore,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Top of the Lake: China Girl” have addressed some of the issues surrounding surrogacy. Here are a few ways these shows must balance some of these realities with creating compelling storytelling.
The Rights of the Surrogate: Ethics and Exploitation
Surrogacy is not always done with the full cooperation of the woman whose body is being used, and even it is, the conditions under which she is providing the service may not be optimal. That’s because it seems that everyone has a different opinion about what rights a woman has to how she treats her body.
While the breeding slave trope had been popular in science fiction, it’s not an issue that is alien or speculative at all. Women around the world today are used, often without their full consent or under coercion or disadvantaged circumstances, to have babies for others.
Hulu’s Emmy-winning series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on the Margaret Atwood novel, imagines a world in which infertility due to pollution is so rampant, that the few fecund women are rounded up, subjected to ritual rape, and forced to breed for an elite group of men in the government. This is couched as if it’s done to preserve humanity, and therefore being one such handmaid is supposedly an honor.
In an interview with IndieWire, Yvonne Strahovski discussed how even women can treat other women as slaves using this rationalization. Her character Serena Joy helped bring about this new world order because she was one of the infertile women who felt that having children by any means necessary was paramount.
“I think it all goes back to this core belief that Serena Joy had, that the greater good was going to be served with her good intentions,” she said. “I think she truly believed that she had the answer — she was going to be a part of this amazing revolution, this amazing movement that would better the world. And that made it okay.”
Over on Sundance TV’s “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” which also coincidentally stars Elisabeth Moss, her detective character Robin investigates a case that leads to discovering sex workers who are exploited and acting as illegal surrogates to wealthy Australian couples. Set in contemporary times, the story is a reflection of what is currently happening in the world today.
Since there are no consistent regulations on how surrogacy is supposed to work, the terms of how a pregnancy and birth proceed can be difficult to negotiate if the parents and carrier have different values.
On a recent episode of “Roseanne,” Becky (Lecy Goranson) wants to look like an appealing surrogate candidate and agree to any terms that the potential parent Andrea (Sarah Chalke) might have. Andrea wants Becky to have a natural birth (i.e. no pain meds), which frightens Becky. Later, it’s also mentioned that Andrea plans to eat Becky’s placenta after birth. The episode highlights how little thought Becky has put into this scheme that she’s mainly doing for the money.
Finally, surrogates in the real world don’t have any legal rights to the children they have while under contract. This is also seen in the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” when Janine (Madeline Brewer) unfortunately becomes attached to the baby she gives birth to and is forced to give up.
The Rights of the Parent(s)
Couples with infertility issues like the ones mentioned in “The Handmaid’s Tale” above might be the most commonly depicted people who seek out surrogates, but gay couples and single parents are also in the mix.
On The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” bisexual character Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner) already has a child with his ex-wife, but felt the need to be a father again. Since his boyfriend didn’t want to be a parent, Darryl broke up with him and then sought a solution. Eventually, his friend Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) offers to donate one of her eggs, and Heather (Vella Lovell) offers to be the surrogate.
“I think that sometimes we judge people for taking strong efforts to have their own biological children, but I feel like if it was a straight couple people might not have asked so many questions,” said series co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna. “That’s a drive that we look for in heterosexual couples kind of without a second thought. I think that Daryl’s drive to become a good dad, and we know he’s a good dad, is one of the things that we love about him. He wants to bring this person into the world, and so much that he sacrifices his relationship to do so.”
On “Roseanne,” Andrea questions Becky on her family medical history to see if that genetic makeup is desirable for any potential offspring but also to assure herself that Becky is healthy enough to carry a child to term. While “Roseanne” depicts strangers trying to negotiate a surrogacy relationship, both “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and NBC’s “Superstore” depict women who volunteer to be surrogates for someone they know well.
“Everyone has a slightly different experience. There’s different laws also in different states,” said Brosh McKenna, who has friends who have gone through the process. “I know people who have done it through people they know really well, and then I also know people who have found people through agencies and they’ve done egg donations.”
On “The Handmaid’s Tale,” couples wanting kids can’t be choosy about the surrogate they are assigned, who will be the biological mother of their child. In the real world, people often choose a surrogate whose race matches their own, but in the Hulu series, that’s not a requirement. This means that on the show, despite the inequities and oppression people face, none of it is based on race.
“I talked to Margaret Atwood and we thought it through and it came from a couple of different places,” said series creator Bruce Miller. “One was that if you imagine a world where the birth rate drops 95 percent – now in our world I imagine that people have already bent a bit towards accepting children of other races. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t know at least one other couple who has adopted a child of a different race, and it’s because of the global option [that] it’s just happened. So I think there’s a little bit more comfort with that.
“And then the other thing was honestly was that when you’re biting off politics and this incredible misogyny, why don’t we just bite off the whole story of racism?” he said. “It seemed like a little bit bananas on bananas that we were just adding things to the story that we might not be able to do justice to.”
The Realities for the Parent(s)
Scott Everett White/The CW
Even with everything arranged, having a viable egg or even surrogate does not guarantee a baby. On “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” two attempts Darryl makes to fertilize a donor egg fails, which leaves him out of tens of thousands of dollars. The cost of the process can be prohibitive for many people, and it’s not until Rebecca offers her egg free of charge, and later, Heather offers to carry the baby that it all works out.
All of that took less than a season to realize, but that’s where television can take creative license.
“We did some research, and one of the things that happened was we had to change the storyline,” said Brosh McKenna. “The timeline of the storyline is not realistic. That’s because those things can take a very long time to kind of unfold, and we didn’t have that. We fudged reality of it a bit because we wanted those things to happen in a certain timeline, and often with those surrogacy stories, there’s a lot more time that’s put into it.”
The Realities for the Carrier
Sometimes, the reasons why a woman wants to be a surrogate represents an underlying problem. On “Roseanne,” Becky wants the $50,000 in order to quit the waitressing job that she had to get after the death of her husband. Unfortunately, the would-be parent Andrea discovers Becky’s real age, 43, and backs out of the deal.
“In the history of the show she was the daughter who seemed to always have it together academically. Everyone assumed she’d do well in the working world,” said the series writer and supervising producer Bruce Rasmussen. “This was the start of us dealing with the idea of what happens when your life doesn’t go the way you thought it would. She’s at a point in her life where she’s struggling financially and she’s single. She’s convinced herself she doesn’t want kids.
“But when she’s told it’s very unlikely she can conceive we get to see how hard that hits her,” he said. “It reveals her grief over the death of her husband Mark and how it stopped her in time. Through the season we see her start to heal and hopefully move forward.”
PATRICK WYMORE/THE CW
On “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” although Rebecca isn’t the carrier, she does provide Darryl one of her eggs, which requires multiple ongoing hormone injections. Since she’s been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, the effect of the hormones on her was uncertain.
“The aspect that we researched the most was the hormonal stuff. Anything that has to do with hormones and women’s bodies, it’s very individual,” said Brosh McKenna. “Some people are greatly affected by it and some people less so, but Rachel and I had an idea that Rebecca’s probably someone who is very affected by hormone swings. And also, because the theme of the season was her learning to kind of take responsibility for her own actions …but some of it is also that in her mind it gives her some license, how much of those is she going to use to excuse some of her choices, decisions.”
On both “Superstore” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the surrogates begin to have second thoughts partway through the pregnancy. Dina (Lauren Ash) on “Superstore” wants to transplant the baby from her body into another person’s once she learns of what childbirth is like. On “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Heather is not comforted when she hears about the miracles of birth.
Both characters can’t back out though and push through their fears and doubts to accomplish something that is ultimately selfless.
“We had two writers go through pregnancy in our writers’ room over the course of the show, and so they were very amused by that idea when you got to that point where you’re just thinking, ‘I want to unsubscribe,’” said Brosh McKenna. “In Heather’s work life, she has a tendency to quit everything, and it struck us as funny that it would be something that she would be regretting and trying to quit as she was gigantically pregnant. So she finds something that she can’t quit.
“It’s something that Heather does and she follows it all the way through. She’s proud of herself and it’s one of the benchmarks of achievement that she has. The very last thing she does in the season is give birth.”
The Rights of the Children
While the focus has been on the parents and the surrogate, another life is also involved in the process: the child. Since they are minors, they may not have the rights afforded those senior to them. But what happens when they’re older?
The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network (CBC) says, “Transferring the duties of parenthood from the birthing mother to a contracting couple denies the child any claim to its ‘gestational carrier’ and to its biological parents if the egg and/or sperm is/are not that of the contracting parents. In addition, the child has no right to information about any siblings he or she may have in the latter instance.”
The 2013 MTV reality series “Generation Cryo” focused on a teenager who discovered her 15 half-siblings, all the result of one sperm donor, through the Donor Sibling Registry. Meeting her half-siblings in person, she also aims to try and search for their biological father.
So far, most scripted shows haven’t tapped into this aspect yet since most of the surrogacy stories focus on the adults through the process of birth, after which the surrogate bows out of the child’s life. On “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the surrogate only stays long enough as breastfeeding is needed. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” ended its third season with the birth, and it remains to be seen if future seasons will follow the child’s maturation.
Additional reporting by Liz Shannon Miller.