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(Gebär)Mütter zu vermieten - Deutsche Oper Berlin

Mother (and womb) for hire

In THE WOMAN WITHOUT A SHADOW Richard Strauss explores the tension caused by a childless marriage. Tobias Kratzer brings the material up-to-date and discusses the protagonists’ attempt to buy happiness at other people’s expense

The earliest »surrogate mother« to feature in the texts of our culture was Hagar. She was a slave who was prevailed upon to give birth to a child for Abraham’s wife Sara, who was barren. Ismael, the son born to Hagar, is known as the founder of the Arab nation and Isaak, whom Sara gave birth to despite her assumed infertility, the founding father of the Israelites. This story from the Hebrew Bible contains a web of creation myths whose repercussions reverberated long afterwards and traces of which can be found in THE WOMAN WITHOUT A SHADOW. The story explores the patriarchal notion of the male line, whose randomness can nowadays be done away with thanks to in vitro technology.

The arrival of Louise Brown, the first-ever test tube baby, in 1978 was something that Abraham could only have dreamt of: an ethnically »clean« lineage that is possible by virtue of the artificially induced fusion of an ovum with a spermatozoon. An ancient human dream come true! Men were finally in a position to muscle in on the offspring business. And what of the women? Freed from the inconvenience of pregnancy, they now had recourse to surrogate mothers from whom they could simply order their progeny! In some sections of the women’s rights movement in the 1970s this was considered a step towards the liberation of women. US feminist Shulamith Firestone was not alone in calling for the smashing of the »tyranny of the biological family« as a way of raising levels of self-determination in women. Men in same-sex relationships today are going through similar thought processes. And why should homosexuals or involuntarily childless couples in Germany be denied what celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Paris Hilton, Cristiano Ronaldo or the Kardashians – for whatever reasons – seem to attain as a matter of course?

Nonetheless, as with egg donation, surrogate motherhood has been prohibited in Germany since the passing of the Embryo Protection Act of 1990. There have been repeated attempts to reform the law. A commission set up by central government is currently looking at options, but a liberalisation of surrogacy legislation is not expected. In its Directive »on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings« the European Parliament recently underscored its desire to include the practice in its list of criminal offences. Countries where surrogacy is tolerated may adjust their legislation as a result, as Italy did last year.

And so it is that childless couples converge twice a year on the ‘Wish for a Baby’ fertility fairs held in Berlin and Cologne. At the fairs Greek and Spanish fertility clinics set out their stalls and Eastern European surrogacy agencies pitch their services, often with a »100% baby take-away guarantee«, as the ad-speak puts it. The stories that do the rounds there can be heart-rending. Childlessness can damage a person’s mental health and end relationships, yet does this mean that everyone is entitled to have a child if they so wish? Children ordered and paid for in a market controlled by entrepreneurial reproduction specialists and their assistants?

In the US a surrogate mother will set you back 100,000 euros. No barrier for celebs flush with cash, but people with money to spend but not burn may look to Eastern Europe - more accessible than India, which was once the international hub for surrogacy but is now largely off-limits to foreign couples. In the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia, on the other hand, the industry in babies is flourishing. Ukraine’s best known clinic offers »Standard, Standard Plus and VIP« options for between 39,900 and 69,900 euros. VIP clients can select the baby’s sex and benefit from reduced waiting periods and childcare around the clock. Only a fraction of the money ends up with the surrogates themselves.

The ongoing war has given the baby business a bad press, with reports circulating of client parents unable to collect their newborns, who have been moved to protective bunkers. There have been dramatic tales of surrogate mothers fleeing to Germany and being summoned back to Ukraine by their agency, because in German law the surrogate woman carrying the baby to term is the legal mother. Little is known, too, about the fate of infants that are not taken up by clients because they were born with a physical disability.

So, is it »sisterly« to expect impecunious women wanting to help their families financially to farm their bodies out as surrogates? How much physical and psychological stress are these »birthing mothers« subjected to by dint of their »gestation gift«? Those terms alone are enough to cast a veil over the transactional aspect and suggest that the women are motivated by altruism. The fact is that the wealth gap between clients and surrogates is as big as ever; this is a hard-nosed business involving very unequal degrees of leverage.

The Bible does not reveal how Hagar fared after she was impregnated by Abraham in order to »give« him the son he so wanted and take the pressure off Sara. And we know just as little about the surrogate mothers who continue to give birth in deprived regions of the world for their privileged sisters. At any rate, the »pact«, which features so prominently in THE WOMAN WITHOUT A SHADOW, is not drawn up between peer negotiators. Regardless of how we see the process or if we even think we are doing the surrogates a favour, a shadow is cast that the child will bear forever.


Ulrike Baureithel is a freelance journalist, copy editor, lecturer, co-founder of the weekly newspaper »Freitag« and a researcher into issues relating to ovum donation and surrogate motherhood.

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