Monday, April 28, 2008

Surrogacy in the Movies- Baby Mama!

Baby Mama (2008)
New York Times Reviewed-

In the new comedy “Baby Mama” Tina Fey plays a 37-year-old single career woman who, desperate for a baby, hires a womb of her own in the dizzy, slap-happy form of Amy Poehler. The film never comes fully to term, as it were: the visual style is sitcom functional, and even the zippiest jokes fall flat because of poor timing. But, much like the prickly, talented Ms. Fey, it pulls you in with a provocative and, at least in current American movies, unusual mix of female intelligence, awkwardness and chilled-to-the-bone mean.

Ms. Fey is of course best known for working in television, on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock.” Until now her biggest movie role was the uncomfortable but earnest high school math teacher Ms. Norbury in the comedy “Mean Girls,” which she also wrote. (“You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores,” Ms. Norbury warns the mean girls and their female prey. “It just makes it O.K. for guys to call you sluts and whores.”) Like a lot of comedies “Mean Girls” has its devilish cake and eats it too, wagging an unpersuasive finger at the very cruelty it skillfully deploys. Ms. Fey may not want girls to call one another sluts, but she’s all too happy to call them that herself.

There’s often a degree of sadism in this kind of comic one-two punch, and while some performers appear to direct the cruelty inward — think of Jerry Lewis and Ben Stiller wringing squirmy, uneasy laughs out of the humiliations rained down on their characters — that doesn’t seem to be Ms. Fey’s style. Certainly it isn’t what she’s called on to do in “Baby Mama,” in which she plays a snappy, sardonic individualist who, much like Ms. Fey herself, works in a male-dominated industry (here, as an executive in an organic grocery chain similar to Whole Foods) and favors the kind of sexy librarian look (high-heeled shoes, low-cut blouses and dark-frame glasses) that signals there’s a hot body to go along with that feverishly smart brain.

“Baby Mama,” which was written and directed by the newcomer Michael McCullers, yet another “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, opens with Ms. Fey’s character, Kate Holbrook, eyeballing babies like a hungry wolf. Everyone has a pitter-pattering Tater Tot but Kate, who lives alone in her generically appointed Philadelphia apartment (the film was also shot in New York) and has few contacts outside her job, extended family and wisecracking doorman, Oscar (Romany Malco). Basically she’s Rhoda with thinner thighs, which I guess means that she’s Mary Richards. But this being 2008 and not the women’s-liberated 1970s, it isn’t enough for Kate to be a swinging single: she wants a baby and she wants it now. Enter Angie Ostrowiski (Ms. Poehler).

At 36 Ms. Poehler is at least 10 years too old for the role, as the softly focused close-ups suggest, but she’s a pip. She’s the ball that bounces against Ms. Fey’s formidable wall, a nonstop, joyfully watchable whirligig. Drawn in broad, often crude strokes, Angie is dumber than the usual dumb blonde so beloved of the movies largely because she’s also coded as white trash, a kind of urban Daisy Mae, complete with short shorts, wads of chewing gum and a tag-along buffoon, Carl (Dax Shepard). If Angie works at all, it’s because Ms. Poehler puts a sweet spin on her character’s gaffes, whether she’s yelping in horror at the unfamiliar taste of water or squatting in a sink when nature makes an untimely call.

There’s more, though not much, mostly some amusing nonsense from Steve Martin as Kate’s boss, a belligerently New Agey entrepreneur with an unkind ponytail. Greg Kinnear also shows up now and again as Kate’s inevitable love interest, perhaps so things don’t overheat when Angie moves in. Not that anyone need worry about this female odd couple, given that Ms. Fey, who doesn’t have the acting chops that might invest her character with some personality, has been forced to play it straight and narrow. The close-up medium of television is more forgiving of those comics who tend to stand in the middle of the frame as if they had just been planted. But unlike Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Ms. Fey doesn’t even have a funny voice.

That’s too bad, because she is genuinely funny. And if there’s anything the movies could use it is funny women, especially those who earn laughs by keeping their clothes on and their dignity (more or less) intact. Under the old Hollywood system, the studio boss might have ordered up a dance coach for Ms. Fey, maybe a few lessons on how to walk across a set or move her upper body once in a while. She might not have been able to rip loose as a writer-performer, which makes the idea of her developing a simultaneous on-and-off-screen presence all the more tantalizing. Real funny women — Mae West, Elaine May — come along every few decades, so the timing seems right. But the clock is ticking.

“Baby Mama” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Some gentle raunch.

The Life of Surrogates

The Curious Lives of Surrogates
Thousands of largely invisible American women have given birth to other people's babies. Many are married to men in the military.

Jennifer Cantor, a 34-year-old surgical nurse from Huntsville, Ala., loves being pregnant. Not having children, necessarily—she has one, an 8-year-old daughter named Dahlia, and has no plans for another—but just the experience of growing a human being beneath her heart. She was fascinated with the idea of it when she was a child, spending an entire two-week vacation, at the age of 11, with a pillow stuffed under her shirt. She's built perfectly for it: six feet tall, fit and slender but broad-hipped. Which is why she found herself two weeks ago in a birthing room in a hospital in Huntsville, swollen with two six-pound boys she had been carrying for eight months. Also in the room was Kerry Smith and his wife, Lisa, running her hands over the little lumps beneath the taut skin of Cantor's belly. "That's an elbow," said Cantor, who knew how the babies were lying in her womb. "Here's a foot." Lisa smiled proudly at her husband. She is, after all, the twins' mother.

It is an act of love, but also a financial transaction, that brings people together like this. For Kerry and for Lisa—who had a hysterectomy at the age of 20 and could never bear her own children—the benefits are obvious: Ethan and Jonathan, healthy six-pound, 12-ounce boys born by C-section on March 20. But what about Cantor? She was paid, of course; the Smiths declined to discuss the exact amount, but typically, surrogacy agreements in the United States involve payments of $20,000 to $25,000 to the woman who bears the child. She enjoyed the somewhat naughty pleasure of telling strangers who asked about her pregnancy, "Oh, they aren't mine," which invariably invoked the question, "Did you have sex with the father?" (In case anyone is wondering, Lisa's eggs were fertilized in vitro with Kerry's sperm before they were implanted on about day five.)

But what kind of woman would carry a child to term, only to hand him over moments after birth? Surrogates challenge our most basic ideas about motherhood, and call into question what we've always thought of as an unbreakable bond between mother and child. It's no wonder many conservative Christians decry the practice as tampering with the miracle of life, while far-left feminists liken gestational carriers to prostitutes who degrade themselves by renting out their bodies. Some medical ethicists describe the process of arranging surrogacy as "baby brokering," while rumors circulate that self-obsessed, shallow New Yorkers have their babies by surrogate to avoid stretch marks. Much of Europe bans the practice, and 12 states, including New York, New Jersey and Michigan, refuse to recognize surrogacy contracts. But in the past five years, four states—Texas, Illinois, Utah and Florida—have passed laws legalizing surrogacy, and Minnesota is considering doing the same. More than a dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and, most notably, California, specifically legalize and regulate the practice.

Today, a greater acceptance of the practice, and advances in science, find more women than ever before having babies for those who cannot. In the course of reporting this story, we discovered that many of these women are military wives who have taken on surrogacy to supplement the family income, some while their husbands are serving overseas. Several agencies reported a significant increase in the number of wives of soldiers and naval personnel applying to be surrogates since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the high end, industry experts estimate there were about 1,000 surrogate births in the United States last year, while the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART)—the only organization that makes an effort to track surrogate births—counted about 260 in 2006, a 30 percent increase over three years. But the number is surely much higher than this—in just five of the agencies NEWSWEEK spoke to, there were 400 surrogate births in 2007. The numbers vary because at least 15 percent of clinics—and there are dozens of them across the United States—don't report numbers to SART. Private agreements made outside an agency aren't counted, and the figures do not factor in pregnancies in which one of the intended parents does not provide the egg—for example, where the baby will be raised by a gay male couple. Even though the cost to the intended parents, including medical and legal bills, runs from $40,000 to $120,000, the demand for qualified surrogates is well ahead of supply.

Another reason for the rise in surrogacies is that technology has made them safer and more likely to succeed. Clinics such as Genetics & IVF Institute in Virginia, where Cantor and the Smiths underwent their IVF cycles, now boast a 70 to 90 percent pregnancy success rate—up 40 percent in the past decade. Rather than just putting an egg into a petri dish with thousands of sperm and hoping for a match, embryologists can inject a single sperm directly into the egg. The great majority of clinics can now test embryos for genetic diseases before implantation. It's revolutionizing the way clinics treat patients. Ric Ross, lab director at La Jolla IVF in San Diego, says these advances have helped "drop IVF miscarriage rates by 85 percent."

IVF has been around only since the 1970s, but the idea of one woman bearing a baby for another is as old as civilization. Surrogacy was regulated in the Code of Hammurabi, dating from 1800 B.C., and appears several times in the Hebrew Bible. In the 16th chapter of Genesis, the infertile Sarah gives her servant, Hagar, to her husband, Abraham, to bear a child for them. Later, Jacob fathers children by the maids of his wives Leah and Rachel, who raise them as their own. It is also possible to view the story of Jesus' birth as a case of surrogacy, mediated not by a lawyer but an angel, though in that instance the birth mother did raise the baby.