3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Elizabeth A. Root
- Published on Amazon.com
I remember loathing this book when it came out, so before dumping it I decided to reread it and see if it looked a little better when the issue was not so hot. Baby M is 20 now.
There is a kind of eloquence that makes people who agree with the author feel that their views have been forcefully and aptly expressed. There is another kind of eloquence that is persuasive to people who are willing to think about the issue. I leave it to Chesler's supporters to decide the first, but I think she was an utter failure at the latter. I'm not even sure that she tried. I don't whether Chesler is too dense, too smug or too enamoured of seeing herself as the rare voice of righteousness in the wilderness of misogynistic, patriarchal, capitalism, but I don't think that she even attempts to consider, and therefore be able to respond to, anyone else's point of view. I actually agree with Chesler on a number of points, but I disliked her so much by the end of book that I almost hate to admit it. She certainly goes out of her way to insult as many people as possible.
Chesler is oblivious to nuance. There is a difference, although I'm sure she doesn't see it, between asking how this particular situation should have been resolved and asking how such fiascos should be avoided in the future. People who supported giving the baby to the Sterns, or didn't really care which family got custody, sometimes still favored outlawing surrogacy. Further, Chesler sees in this case the paradigm of all custody cases, but this is only partially true. I spent hours discussing this with friends and family, and all our attempts to reason from other cases faltered in the almost unique aspects of this one. She also throws in what I'll call false negatives, that is issues that have some legitimacy, but are actually irrelevant since resolution wouldn't alter her opinion. As an example, she throws in the case of a surrogate who contracted a venereal disease from the donor. Certainly outrageous, but actually irrelevant to the case at hand. In the first place, the Stern-Whitehead contract called for testing of both parties, and in the second because Chesler would still oppose surrogacy.
She never resolves most issues. Oh, she throws out dozens of topics of varying relevance, but without any serious discussion. Many people found Mary Beth Whitehead (MaryBW) unlikable. Chesler's response is that we don't have to like all slaves to oppose slavery, but MaryBW wasn't a slave and brought a lot of the trouble on herself. She inappropriately brings up issues of class, ignoring the fact that the Whitehead's weren't poor, weren't desperate, and that MaryBW said that money wasn't the issue. And of course, since Chesler seems to agree with Germaine Greer that middle- and upper-class people in western industrial cultures are necessarily poor parents, not only are the Whiteheads and the Sterns both disqualified, but Chesler must be a bad mother to her own son.
As Chesler sees it, mothers are virtually the sole parent of their children. Apparently, a mother putting her child up for adoption is the same thing as that child being kidnaped from her arms. I would suggest reading Sarah Hrdy's Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. I can remember when there was a movement to terminate parental rights after a period of time, because some children spent years in foster care because their parents, including their mother, would neither give them up not take them back. Mary Gordon, in a thoughful article in Ms. wrote of her ambivalent feelings about the case, and reflected that the chief issue is: how much do we want men involved with children? I would give mothers the clear advantage with newborns, but as children grow up, the issue becomes trickier. I take it that Chesler would agree with a friend of mine: the mother should determine the emotions of the father. If she doesn't want him around, he should leave without a backward glance; if she wants him around, he should learn to love diapers.
She starts off by telling us that there are no heroes or heroines in this story, only flawed human beings. MaryBW is soon promoted to heroine. Chesler misleadingly says of her: "It is as if these experts were 19th century missionaries and Mary Beth a particularly stubborn who refuse to convert ... ." Oh no, MaryBW was an early and eager convert, seeking out surrogacy. Another agency claimed that they had rejected her as unsuitable before she went to Noel Keane. Chesler infantilizes her: it's not her fault she wanted to be a surrogate, signed a contract that she didn't read, etc. Chesler fails to grasp that for some people, the fact that MaryBW signed a contract isn't inherently binding, but it does affect how they view her. Chesler also says that she cannot understand why people reacted badly to the fact that MaryBW became pregnant again, glossing over the fact that in doing so she was abandoning a husband who had be remarkably faithful to her as his life was turned upside down.
There actually is a villain in this episode: Noel Keane. Chesler does go after him somewhat, but not nearly as viciously as she goes after the Sterns. Chesler tells Betsy Stern (BetsyS) what she thinks or ought to think. She refers to her as MaryBW's "unofficial physician dominatrix" (did she have a little whip?) although she also tells us that BetsyS has such a submissive personality that it should have disqualified from parenthood. Richard Whitehead also has a submissive personality, but that apparently doesn't count. The Sterns are held to be unilaterally responsible for the contract that all four adults signed. Chesler talks as if granting custody to the Sterns was the equivalent of leaving the baby exposed on a hillside for the wolves.
If one does want to read up on surrogacy, this book probably shouldn't be missed. Chesler was very active on behalf of MaryBW. There are a variety of appendexes, including the original surrogacy agreement, briefs, statements of support, etc., some of them complete, some of the tendenciously edited. Some of the selections contain more information that I would think Chesler wants; I don't know if she is being fair or can't imagine how other people might read them. There are numerous footnotes, sometimes containing explanatory information, but no index.