Et tu, TiVo?
Oprah's gotten it wrong before — bad wrong, quite wrong, really, really wrong — so it was with great trepidation that I set my DVR to record Tuesday's show. I halfway expected the TiVo to tell me, "I'm sorry, Julie, I'm afraid I can't do that," and then vengefully fill its hard drive with back to back episodes of Deal or No Deal. And then, since I simply can't have 18 pounds of hyperintelligent plastic trying to kill me like that, I'd have to unplug it, and then some other stuff would happen with big flying monoliths and whatnot, and I'd hurtle unchecked through time and space, and some other stuff would happen — I'd fast-forward through this part if I hadn't already disconnected the TiVo, but you're my witness: it was him or me — and then I'd be all old and wrinkly, and then I would mysteriously become a fetus, orbiting the earth, bathed in light, mellowing out to Also sprach Zarathustra. Or maybe watching Oprah. (I've kind of lost control of this metaphor.)
But, yes, I did watch Oprah, because she was doing a show on infertility. Since her last foray was so disappointing, I fully expected this one to be just as bad: a carnival of finger-wagging. A festival of sanctimony. A 44-minute-long make-your-peace-a-ganza. A veritable let-go-and-let-God-a-go-go. (I've kind of lost control of this one, too.)
Anyway, you know what? It...wasn't...all...that...bad.
Wait, wait, this is even worse. It was almost...kind of...good?
Great. Now y'all are going to try to kill me, too, just like my treacherous DVR.
I began my viewing with great trepidation, especially since Oprah opened the hour by promising to reveal "why they will stop at nothing to have a baby," and asking her viewers in an ominous voiceover, "How far would you go?" This didn't bode well, especially when she revealed that the answer for one couple, Jennifer and Kendall, was "Innnndiaaaa," in a tone one might normally reserve for "halfway up the ass of Satan himself."
Lisa Ling, as it turned out, would travel there with Jennifer — to India, I mean, not the Devil's Duodenum, which is, I believe, a breathtaking rock formation somewhere in the American desert — to report on one clinic's surrogacy program, where poor Indian women carry babies for women from the U.S. and elsewhere. And to witness, according to Oprah, "her...dessssperate...pursuit of motherhood." (At this point I decided to count how many times "desperate" was used during the broadcast. I can call myself desperate, but you, Ms. Winfrey, may not. That's one.) And to figure out "why Jennifer and Kendall chose a developing country like this" — wrinkled nose from Lisa Ling, as if assaulted by the unholy vapors of Beelzebub's bunghole even within the soothing beige confines of Oprah's stateside studio — "to try and have a child of their own."
So this was not, in my opinion, beginning well.
But it got better fast. Jennifer, age 34, told us a bit about their struggles thus far. She and Kendall have been married for five years and trying to conceive for three. "On all the infertility procedures over the three years," she estimated, "we've probably spent about $25 or 30 thousand — basically, everything we had saved up." (Hearing this I tried not to compare the total unfavorably to my own tab at Schraft's, or to calculate the cost of the cycles endured by my friends inside the computer, because however you look at it, Jesus, that's a lot of money.) "How does it feel not to be able to get pregnant?" Oprah asked. To her credit, Jennifer did not roll her eyes and tell her it was a sunny stroll down motherfucking Fifth at the goddamned Easter Parade — how does Oprah think it feels? No, she was sincere, and said it exactly right. She talked about having believed that she could do anything she put her mind to, that if she put in enough effort and time and heart, she would eventually be successful. Infertility, she said, gives the lie to that belief. Simply, "it's the worst kind of failure."
So as soon as she started to talk, I knew I liked Jennifer. I liked her even more when she ignored Oprah's inevitable "Why didn't you adopt?"
Unable to afford surrogacy in the U.S. — which can run up to $70 to 80 thousand, according to Lisa Ling, whose numbers I cannot vouch for — Jennifer and Kendall turned to a program in India, where "healthy embryos could be implaaaanted into a surrogate." (Here I paused the recording to titter, imagining the heads of countless infertiles simultaneously exploding at Oprah's clumsy choice of words. One.)
The program they chose was Dr. Nayna Patel's Akanksha Infertility Clinic, which was profiled in Marie Claire a few months ago. Shots of Jennifer and Lisa's arrival in the small city of Anand were heavy on the shantytown poverty, editorial cinematography if ever I saw it, with Dr. Patel explaining that Indian women choose to become surrogates to provide better lives for their children. Seeing the footage, I was moved, and could only hope they'd succeed. (Then Lisa threw out another "implanted," so I was back to being amused. Two. And not a moment later, again! Great Lucifer's vent, that's three.)
Amid all the abject poverty, Lisa explained that the surrogates stay at the clinic after transfer — get it, Lisa? Transfer? — at least until a positive pregnancy test. This is a big investment, she pointed out, and the stakes are high, not only for the foreigners who hope to have a baby, but for the surrogates, whose hopes for improving the lives of their own families hang on whether they're successful. With the total cost of a surrogate cycle at Patel's clinic running approximately $12,000, the surrogates themselves make between $3,500 and $6,000, an amount it would take a lifetime for these women to amass otherwise.
Then Oprah asked whether this constitutes exploitation. It's the most important question she would ask all day, one Lisa would later repeat. Jennifer's answer spoke volumes. She pointed out that the critics who'd charge exploitation haven't walked in her shoes — unable to have children — or the shoes of her Indian surrogate — unable to pay for her children to be educated, or to provide them a decent home — and therefore shouldn't judge. "We are able to give each other a life that neither of us could achieve on our own." Lisa added that couples from other countries commonly employ surrogates in the U.S., and claimed that no one says that American women are being exploited. (This is, of course, not necessarily so, but that is the subject for another day, and thousands more cranial explosions.)
And then Oprah misused "implanted" again. Four.
But back to the question of exploitation. I found that my earlier inclination — how could it not be? — was not an easy position to maintain when watching Jennifer's emotions as she described receiving news of the positive pregnancy test. Her husband was just as visibly moved. And when I saw Jennifer present for her surrogate's first ultrasound, and watched her hold up the cell phone so that her husband back in California could hear the embryonic heartbeat? Well, in the moment it was easy to agree with Jennifer's stance on the deal Dr. Patel has brokered, which benefits two families enormously: "I don't see what's wrong with that."
Even more incredibly, so did Oprah. In her habitual holy tone. Right before she cut to commercial.
But the issue isn't nearly as clear-cut as that, and I confess I was pleasantly surprised that their coverage acknowledged it. In the final part of the report, Lisa visited a home for surrogates provided by Dr. Patel. Many surrogates stay in seclusion during their pregnancies because of the enormous stigma attached to surrogacy. Lisa asked the women whether they miss their homes during their long absence. Many of the women cried because they miss their own young children. They worry about surrendering the child after the birth, and the sense of loss they may feel: "It is [the parents'] choice to remember us or not but we will be remembering the child to the end of our life." And they are well aware that their decision to carry another woman's baby could have enormous social consequences, so they plan their stories carefully: "If someone sees them pregnant, they'll say it's their own child." Upon returning to their villages without a child after the birth, they'll say the baby died.
A sobering note, and one they chose not to end on. After this, the focus swung again, back to the positive changes in the surrogates' lives made possible by the fees they collect. Lisa visited one former surrogate in the new house she and her husband have built, an ugly concrete edifice that seems like a palace next to the rickety tarp-roofed shacks that surround it. And then a cut back to Jennifer and Kendall, whose surrogate was 10 weeks at taping, and then the segment ended.
Despite my wanting to grab Oprah by her shoulders and give her a good firm shake, and despite how vapid Lisa sounded when she described couples like Jennifer and Kendall as "cultural ambassadors" instead of "people who only want what the rest of us get to have easily," and despite the repeated disgusting jokes about how the 4'6" surrogate would surely need a C-section to deliver the child of 6'5" Kendall, because, people, it's surgery, and we don't take that shit lightly, okay?...I thought it...wasn't...that bad. I appreciated the window into the surrogates' lives; and I really related to Jennifer, enough to question my own convictions; and I was glad for the discussion of the ethics of the situation, as far as it went.
Frankly, I'm surprised. I was...not overly offended..., when I'd expected to be enraged, particularly since I started Lupron this morning. Lupron, as you'll know if you watched the remainder of the broadcast with Alexis Stewart, is a drug given during IVF cycles "to make sure you don't develop endometriosis." Wait, what? You didn't know that? You didn't know that's what it's used for in IVF? You've done umpteen cycles yourself and you never heard that?
Well, in that case, come back tomorrow morning and I'll clue you in on what else Stewart had to say. That is, if my TiVo doesn't kill me in my sleep.