There are several scenes that catch viewers by surprise in HBO's new documentary film, "Google Baby": The exact moment an Indian surrogate mother sees the child she has held in her body for months, and is told not to cry by the doctor performing a Caesarian-section; The tired afternoon in which a 28-year-old American mom plugs in her big-screen television, and explains that she donates her eggs to afford her lifestyle; The telephone conversation in which an Israeli businessman sells a childless couple on the idea of impregnating more than one surrogate to have a better chance a viable pregnancy, and then hangs up to wonder out loud about what he has done.
Following the new big business of unregulated, international surrogacy, "Google Baby" goes to places both familiar and foreign, tracing the strange supply and demand of baby production. If those words sound cold, consider that many of the parents applying for international surrogates are desperate for their own children, and see this as their only affordable means. Consider also that this desperation has resulted in a worldwide market, where sperm and eggs from various donors (American, European, Asian) are implanted into women in India, with parents arriving to pick up their newborns some 10 months later.
Shine spoke with director Zippi Brand Frank about her complicated, disturbing documentary.
When did you first hear about this process? Is it relatively new or something that has been going on for years?
This is a relatively new process. About three years ago, Dr. Nayna Patel was the first to offer surrogacy service from India. In the beginning of the filming process she had 70 surrogates, she now has about 300.
How long were you filming?The whole process took three years. We took two trips to the US, three trips to India and filmed in Israel.
How many surrogate clinics exist in India today?
There are many Indian doctors who have imitated Dr. Patel and now offer surrogacy to Western clients.
I was surprised that Dr. Patel, who runs the clinic and ostensibly profits from the surrogates was also the one performing the C-section. Did you think this was a conflict of interest? Did she strike you as genuinely concerned for the health of her surrogates?
Dr. Patel is a very good doctor and yes, she is a one-woman show. She does everything. No, it is not a conflict of interest because it is her business. She's taking care of her name. She takes very good care of her surrogates and is a very experienced doctor. In my opinion, her clinic is up to Western standards.
In the movie, surrogates seem enthusiastic about the idea of being able to buy homes, or send their own kids to school with the money they will make, and yet in the birth scenes, they seem visibly upset. Did all of the surrogates you filmed with feel sadness when their babies were taken?
It's not easy to be separated from a baby and more and more the surrogates are touched by these babies but they've known all along that they will be detached. The surrogates are looking forward to buying themselves a house and having a chance to educate their children with the money they earn.
In one scene, Doron [an Israeli entrepreneur who decides to go into business as a surrogacy intermediary after having his own child] is seen selling a prospective parent on the idea of impregnating two surrogates at once to increase the odds of a viable pregnancy. Afterward, he admits something about this makes him uncomfortable. Did he ever figure out what that was?
For Doron, in this scene, it was the first time he actually faced the moral side of his job. Before then he was naïve. Whenever I asked him questions he answered quite naively. He was facing all of these moral questions and since then they have increased.
It was a true moment for him not knowing what bothered him because before, in my opinion, he was too naïve. When he used a surrogate himself, he was in touch with the mother and invited her to his country. At that moment in the film, he understood that couples and customers prefer to have long distance relationships, if at all with the surrogate. Now he understands it's much more of a business.
One of the saddest sidebars in this film is the role that men play. From the Indian husband who maintains that his wife's brain isn't as good as a man's, to the silent, unresponsive husband of the American egg donor, these men seem to be profiting from the women in their lives without giving them thanks or even respect. Did you find that to be true throughout your filming, or do you think this was about the specific couples involved?
Most of the American egg donors I spoke to were single so I cannot comment on the men in their lives. There is something in what you are saying about the Indian men not being thankful enough for the Indian women doing this. I think that's something Dr. Patel realizes and she's trying to protect these women by putting the money they earn into a separate bank account under their name or buying a house in the woman's name.
How do you, personally, feel about outsourced surrogacy now that you have seen the details of the business? Do you think that parents getting the children they so desperately want makes this process a viable one? Is it, as Dr. Patel says, "one woman helping another"?
I can understand those who see the outsourcing of surrogacy to India, for a fraction of the price of western surrogates, as exploitation. However, after having spent considerable time in India, I am more inclined to accept Dr. Patel's point of view and her feminist agenda as she perceives it. Dr. Patel believes that for these rural women in India, surrogacy is almost the only way to make a life-changing move. They are transforming their lives and the lives of their families and children by making education and/or housing a viable option. I endeavored to keep any personal judgment on my part out of the movie. People tend to have strong opinions on these issues, and what is perceived as salvation to some, is viewed as diabolic by others.
What do you see as the future of international surrogacy?
The situation will become even more complicated, as I believe that in the future, surrogacy will not only be used as a last resort but rather as an alternative for women who do not wish to have stretch marks or might not want to be pregnant because of their careers. I believe the business aspects of the reproduction industry are intriguing as well as frightening. With an absence of moral rules or ethics, the global economy is exploited to its full measure. Thus, with no existing legal barriers to overcome and lots of money to be made, the human reproduction industry is steaming ahead. A cold and distant business reality guided only by the principles of the free market dealing with the most sensitive of issues. I tried through Google Baby to provide a glimpse of what I believe is likely to become a major concern for humanity in the future.
"Google Baby" will re-air on June 19th at 7:45am and June 22nd at 8 am and is available on HBO On Demand. Just select Documentaries, Feature Films. For more information, go to www.zippibrankfrank.com to read about Frank's views of surrogacy and her film.