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Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank

Posted: December 12, 2008 02:03 PM

Rent-a-Womb Is Where Market Logic Leads


At long last, our national love affair with the rich is coming to a close. The moguls whose exploits we used to follow with such fascination, it now seems, plowed the country into the ground precisely because of the fabulous rewards that were showered on them.

Massive inequality, we have learned, isn't the best way to run an economy after all. And when you think about it, it's also profoundly ugly.

Some people haven't received the memo, though. Take Alex Kuczynski, author of the New York Times Magazine cover story for Nov. 30, which tells how she went about hiring another woman to bear her child.

For years Ms. Kuczynski worked the plutocracy beat for the New York Times, and in her whimsical way she described the travails of the world's supermodels, the scene-making that went on at this or that high-end restaurant, and the feeling on the hard streets of Greenwich and the Hamptons.

Somewhere along the way, Ms. Kuczynski went from observer to observed. She married a hedge-fund billionaire and in 2005 was the subject of a memorable bit of plute-worship in W magazine. Here we learned about her four homes (including one on Park Avenue and one in Southampton) but mainly about her really inaccessible spread in Idaho, where everything has to be flown in: the masseuses, the meat, the guests, the yoga instructor, the chefs, and the logs that were required to restore the property's log cabins to her husband's exacting standards.

Now Ms. Kuczynski's trademark concern for the moneyed becomes memoir as she relates to us, in last week's Times Magazine, her "adventures with a surrogate mom." The story starts with Ms. Kuczynski's infertility, which is genuinely piteous, but quickly goes wrong, as she and her husband decide to hire a woman to carry their child and review applications from women with available wombs.

Surrogate motherhood has been the subject of much philosophical and political dispute over the years. To summarize briefly, it is a class-and-gender minefield. When money is exchanged for pregnancy, some believe, surrogacy comes close to organ-selling, or even baby-selling. It threatens to commodify not only babies, but women as well, putting their biological functions up for sale like so many Jimmy Choos. If surrogacy ever becomes a widely practiced market transaction, it will probably make pregnancy into just another dirty task for the working class, with wages driven down and wealthy couples hiring the work out because it's such a hassle to be pregnant.

Ms. Kuczynski is not entirely oblivious to these issues; indeed, she considers them for several poignant paragraphs before inevitably brushing them off.

It's "organ rental," Ms. Kuczynski decides; nothing worse. She is taken with the surrogate's reference to herself as an "Easy-Bake oven" -- a toy appliance -- and further describes her as "a vessel, the carrier, the biological baby sitter, for my baby." And, yes, the surrogate applicants could all use the money, if not desperately; the one who gets the job plans to use it to help pay her kids' way through college. Additionally, one of the surrogate's children, Ms. Kuczynski notes, "had been an egg donor to help pay her college tuition."

Maybe if this young woman had been donating her eggs to buy groceries Ms. Kuczynski would have understood that all this reproduction-for-hire was a product of her billionaire-centric world as surely as the Blahniks and Versace she used to trill about -- that college and surrogacy are available to people like Ms. Kuczynski and not to others because that's how our system works.

Instead she tells us, very sincerely, how much she enjoyed spending the last few months before the child arrived "by white-water rafting down Level 10 rapids on the Colorado River" -- presumably Level 10 rapids are really quality rapids -- "racing down a mountain at 60 miles per hour at ski-racing camp, drinking bourbon and going to the Super Bowl." She also does a lot of "Bikram yoga," which is presumably a really quality form of yoga.

What she doesn't tell us is even more revealing. Of the story's nearly 8,000 words, there are only three quotations from the surrogate mother. Ms. Kuczynski does not describe this remarkable woman's clothes or, really, tell us her thoughts about much of anything. About Ms. Kuczynski's own feelings and fears and cravings we get paragraph after maudlin paragraph. The one who does the labor is almost completely silent.

Then there are the photographs, already infamous: Ms. Kuczynski in a black sleeveless sheath and stiletto-heel pumps, posing next to the pregnant surrogate in khakis and a tousled pink flannel shirt. Ms. Kuczynski holding the baby on the lawn of her Southampton estate, with columns, topiary and servant. The surrogate sitting, barefoot and alone, on a beat-up porch of her house in Pennsylvania.

According to the Times's "Public Editor" column, Ms. Kuczynski objected to the pictures before the article was published. And who knows? Maybe the photographers and art directors were out to subvert her story all along. If so, they understood market relations far better than the author herself.


Thomas Frank's column, The Tilting Yard, appears every Wednesday at OpinionJournal.com

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