Elizabeth Kane’s road to her own personal hell was paved with a vision of enduring selflessness.
In her book, “Birth Mother: The Story of America’s First Legal Surrogate Mother,” Kane writes that as an Illinois housewife who gave up her first child for adoption, she wanted only to help an infertile couple when she responded in 1979 to a clinic seeking a paid surrogate. Her account chronicles the events of the following year: the $11,500 contract, the artificial insemination, celebrity talk shows, the surrender of her child to a happy couple. An epilogue fast-forwards to the year’s dark residue: depression, suicidal despair, her family in shambles.
Her turnabout mirrors that of Mary Beth Whitehead, the New Jersey surrogate who tried unsuccessfully to win legal custody of her daughter. Kane believes she made cases like Whitehead’s inevitable by her public appearances which “carved the word surrogate into the American psyche.”
Highly personal and opinionated, the book is sure to fuel an already emotional debate on surrogacy under way in three dozen states where legislators are trying to sort out how and whether these contracts should be made. At the least, Kane’s story, a disturbing depiction of willful determination and underestimated consequences, should inspire calls for rigorous screening requirements if not, as she implies, a complete ban on the practice.
As Kane describes it, her lust to provide the ultimate gift--the “gift of life"--was so fierce that it must have surpassed the couple’s urge to procreate. When her husband balks, Kane brings an arsenal of “feminine tricks” that include hands-on-hips pouting, sarcasm, threats and guilt. Dazed by this emotional footwork, he caves in.
Kane admits she and her husband were able to fool two psychiatrists into believing he was supportive. If the second psychiatrist had not let her pass the screening, she writes, she would have found another psychiatrist “and another and another, if necessary, until we could find two who agreed that I was emotionally stable enough to cope with any problems that might arise. I would not let him deprive me of the opportunity to give another woman a child.”
Despite national publicity with photographs, Kane continues to use the pseudonym given her by People Magazine after the poor family in Citizen Kane who gave their child away to wealthy parents. In her book she reveals that her real name is, coincidentally, Mary Beth.
Her style, combined with surrogacy’s natural elements of sex, power, family and unusual relationships, gives her story the appeal of a romance novel/daytime soap.
On giving up “Justin,” however, her anguish is wrenchingly real--at least to someone who’s known the primal force to love, nurture and protect a newborn infant. Kane writes that she had underestimated those feelings, naively assuming her altruism would see her through.
Besides her own despair at giving up her child and watching her marriage crumble, Kane raises a new concern that siblings may grieve for the loss of their mother’s child. She cites a study by Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Steadman warning that surrogates’ children may become anxious and fearful watching their parents willingly give away their brother or sister. Kane’s young son, who murmured “Baby gone” after the birth, is learning-disabled and a daughter became passive and withdrawn.
Who’s to blame?
Throughout her story, Kane gets back at whispering neighbors, a manipulative minister, friends who neither understood nor approved. She portrays her doctor and go-between, Richard M. Levin, as a cavalier publicity seeker. She complains about the ubiquitous reporters from People Magazine and about Phil Donahue who unsportingly brought up the subject of money on national television.
Finally, she scatters the blame to infertile couples who expect medical science to solve their “every problem,” to entrepreneurs who don’t adequately inform couples of the risks, to “wealthy” men who exploit low- to middle-income families, to an age of “advanced reproductive technology” that has forgotten ethics and morals. (Although artificial insemination is hardly a high-tech science.)
She also condemns a judicial system that--at least in the Baby M case--won’t invalidate a surrogacy contract when a mother changes her mind.
While Louisiana has held surrogate contracts to be unenforceable, the majority of the other proposals have sought only to regulate the practice, indicating that surrogacy is being accepted as a service and not necessarily baby selling as Kane now contends.
Once again, Kane appears to be swimming upstream--with only the best of intentions.