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Elizabeth Marquardt Headshot
Jennifer Lahl Headshot

Are Women Easy Bake Ovens?

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PREGNANT SHACKLES
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Co-authored with Jennifer Lahl

The New Normal, a sitcom that debuted on NBC this fall, features a gay couple deciding to have a child. They settle upon using an egg donor and a surrogate mother, the latter described cheerfully by a fertility industry representative as "an Easy Bake Oven except with no legal rights to the cupcake."

It may look cute on television, but what's the real impact of social acceptance of treating women as "Easy Bake Ovens?" A case right now in Texas highlights the devastating consequences being seen in the U.S. and around the world.

On July 27, Cindy Close gave birth for the first time, to twins, at Texas Children's Pavilion for Women in Houston. The twins were conceived via donor eggs and with sperm from Marvin McMurray, an acquaintance of Close. While Close and McMurray were not in a romantic relationship, her understanding was that they would co-parent the children together. In court documents she says she did not learn until the day the twins were born that McMurray is gay, planned to raise the twins with his partner, and considered Close "just a surrogate." McMurray rapidly filed a suit to adjudicate parentage outside of the Texas family code. He also filed a temporary restraining order that, Close's attorney Grady Reiff says, the hospital used to deny her maternal rights and send the babies home with the biological father's male partner, Phong Nguyen, where they have lived since.

There's only one major problem here: Close never agreed, verbally or in writing, to be a surrogate mother. Even if she had, such an agreement would not be legal in Texas. In that state, only women who have already given birth can agree to be surrogates, and only married, heterosexual couples can enter such agreements. And in Texas, as in all states, the birth mother is the legal mother, even if donor eggs were used, so long as there is not a valid surrogacy contract.

So, why on earth were these children separated from their loving mother and, in a further bizarre twist, not even sent home with their biological father but rather with his partner? A statement from the Texas Children's Pavilion for Women says only that "the hospital was directed to follow court orders." An associate of McMurray's attorney Ellen Yarrell said that Yarrell is out of the country and this case is "so personal and litigation is ongoing so we're not going to comment."

Since the infants' discharge from the hospital, Close has been allowed just two hours daily supervised visitation. The door must remain open, she cannot bring a friend to help her hold the twins, and she is not allowed to breast feed -- she is not even allowed to take their picture. For now, she can only wait until the next court date to hope for being reunited with her children.

No matter your opinion about rights to gay marriage, this case should outrage and chill you, because the violation it represents of women's bodies is not isolated. Women in India are being used as cheap surrogates for western couples, straight or gay, in some cases housed and monitored in dormitories and delivered by caesarean section for the convenience of the "commissioning" couple. In the U.S., many surrogates are military wives, supplementing their husband's low pay by renting their wombs, with labor and delivery costs paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. Donated eggs are often involved in these cases. In addition to the identity issues such complex forms of parentage force upon the children, egg donation is a risky business, luring mostly college-aged women into rounds of hormone shots and surgical extractions that are a documented risk to their own health. In this climate, it is disturbing but hardly surprising that at least one man has decided to claim the woman who gave birth to his children was just the hired help.

As mothers ourselves, we reject the exploitation and commodification of women's bodies happening right now in the U.S. and around the world. Women are not Easy Bake Ovens and our children are not cupcakes. Harris County, Texas, give Cindy Close back her babies.

Jennifer Lahl is president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture. Elizabeth Marquardt is editor of FamilyScholars.org.

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