It is always tempting in approaching any work of art to reduce things to categorical binaries. In looking at documentaries, especially ones like Google Baby, the temptation is to think of the directorial point of view as intrusively and self consciously partisan or scrupulously neutral. Some films or film directors fit such categories well enough, but the categories themselves may slight subtle or nuanced films or imply that there is little craftsmanship involved in the editing of material.
Zippi Brand Frank’s Google Baby may not feel the need to verbalize judgments about those who participate in the outsourcing of surrogate pregnancies to India, but does that mean they aren’t there? When a Tennessee woman explains that her motivation for selling her eggs for a few thousand dollars is so that she and her husband can have money for necessary home repairs, Frank herself may not challenge that statement the way, say, Michael Moore might of one of his interviewee subjects, but the camera does seem to linger on the large flat panel television the woman is moving from room to room while she says it. In a later scene, the same subject shows off an expensive firearm she has purchased and admits that most of the money she has made has, in fact, been funneled into life’s accessories.
No, if there is no easy, clear-cut moral perspective to take on any or all of the participants in the global baby industry, this impression has less to do with any confusion or ambivalence on the film’s part and a lot to do with its ability to bring to the surface the contradictions embedded in our culture by the narrow or ambiguous way we frame moral, technological, and sociological issues.
I’ll cop to my own biases here rather than try to slough them off on them film. I’ve long been puzzled (and maybe frustrated) by evangelical or fundamentalist Christians (or members of communities who identify themselves as such) who will oppose legalized abortion on demand or stem cell research with the zealous, absolute certainty of the righteous and yet turn around and willingly participate (as consumers or support) in forms of surrogate pregnancy that may include the transportation or destruction of fertilized eggs. I probably lack the patience or nuance to make a sustained, informed, intellectual argument capable of persuading those who think otherwise, so I will only report my own response. I felt a pit in my stomach watching Google Baby that I hadn’t felt since listening to some of the subjects in Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire. (As with Kaye’s film, that’s meant as a response to the subjects of the film, not the makers of it.)
In two of the films’ most infuriating scenes, participants talk about or realize how separating prospective parents from the pregnancy process not only alters our view of parenthood but shields us, allowing us to remain (willfully?) ignorant of the dilemmas created by our pursuit of a self-defined absolute good. In one, a clinic worker opens just one vat (of many) containing stored embryos, remarking that because the lab has no legal right to destroy them without permission, they exist in a sort of limbo. Many are decades old, from donors who successfully got pregnant (or had surrogates carry the eggs to term and now have children), do not wish to have more children but also cannot justify in their own minds destroying or disposing of what they know to be potential human life. In another, an Israeli broker gets off the phone and opines on how surprised he is that prospective parents are willing to see multiple surrogates impregnated at once if it increases the odds of a successful pregnancy (and does not raise the cost), even though this means the potential of selective abortion should both surrogates gestate. (When one customer accepts the possibility of having twins should both surrogates carry their pregnancy to term, he laughs that the only real problem is what to do should both surrogates have multiple births.)
In one bit image so ripe with meaning I wasn’t sure whether to think of it as Orwellian or Huxleyand, the baby broker charged with transporting the embryos to the surrogacy center lovingly and carefully puts the canister of embryos into the passenger seat of his car, carefully fastening the seat belt. Psychologically, he (and we) are thinking of the canister as people. Then he arrives at the airport, places the canister into his suitcase, and zips it up. Now the precious cargo is just one more piece of luggage.
Were I more—Hopeful? Cynical? Naïve?—I might wish that such documentaries would, in the historical tradition of Melville, Sinclair, Lewis, or Stowe, bring to light that which is only acceptable because it is hidden. That may be assuming too much. Nothing is hidden in the Internet age. The key to keeping unpopular practices from garnering too much protest is to make information and opportunities about them readily accessible to those wanting to participate while keeping the most egregious costs and consequences out of the public mind.
It’s been a long time, though, since Lincoln claimed a book could galvanize public opinion to such a point where it actually influenced public policy. Has the persuasiveness of art changed or just the ability and willingness of the public to roused?
Or, perhaps, do enough people really believe that participation in international surrogacy is mutually beneficial to both parties, an exchange of love between women who can make each others’ dreams (for a baby, for a better economic life) come true? How one answers that question, I suspect, will go a long way to determining whether one finds the film inspiring or infuriating.
Google Baby played at the 2010 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and has been purchased by HBO films.