Commercial surrogacy — the birthing of another woman’s baby in exchange for cash — is an act of benevolence, or of exploitation. It celebrates life. It commodifies life. It’s a moral outrage. A blessing, a gift. It pays women fairly for their hard work and altruism. It reduces women to vessels, turning their bodies, and babies, into merchandise.
So many factors — gender, race, religion, class — may determine where you come down on the surrogacy debate. So may your media diet. Perhaps you’ve heard disturbing tales about “baby factories” in India or Ukraine. Or maybe you’ve read uplifting profiles of women who call surrogacy the most meaningful job they’ve done. Joanne Ramos plays with many of these notions in her debut novel, “The Farm”, which imagines what might happen were surrogacy taken to its high-capitalist extreme.
The titular “farm” is Golden Oaks, a “gestational retreat” in upstate New York that caters to the ultrarich. The concept: Clients pay for Hosts to carry their children; those Hosts, selected via a rigorous vetting process, move into Golden Oaks for the duration of their pregnancies. There, they are surveilled — er, pampered — 24/7, to ensure that the (very expensive) unborn children they’re incubating will reach maximum potential. In exchange for their service, Hosts receive a modest stipend and, upon successful delivery, a big ol’ bonus. It’s a win-win for everyone! What could go wrong?
I’m reminded of the words a wise doula once spoke to me: “Bodies are chaos.” And those bodies, containing as they do human minds with human will, are apt to foil even the most stringently regulated environment, to violate the terms of the most airtight, lawyered-up-the-wazoo birth contract.
At the heart of “The Farm” are four women through whom Ramos creates a group portrait of female striving, for survival, for status, for purpose. Each has her own reasons for chasing the dollar, and each will sacrifice something vital — health, dignity, family, freedom — to obtain it.
Jane, a half-Filipina, half-American single mother to an infant daughter, begins the novel living in a cramped Queens dorm with other Filipinas toiling to send remittances back home. Also sharing space there is Ate, Jane’s industrious 67-year-old cousin, a “brown Mary Poppins” to the children of the 1 per cent, who tips off Jane to the opportunity at Golden Oaks: “The work is easy and the money is big!” This is catnip to Jane, who above all yearns to provide a home for her daughter — to properly nest.
Accepted into the Farm, where many Hosts are different shades of brown, Jane rooms with Reagan, the “holy trifecta of Premium Hosts”: white, pretty, educated. Reagan, an artsy idealist with white-saviour tendencies, grew up in Chicago’s posh northern suburbs but needs money to win independence from her overbearing father. Prone to sentimentality and heavy-handed moralising, and not a little naive, she is aggressively recruited by Mae, the Farm’s director, who knows that Reagan — or, more precisely, her womb — could represent “a record-breaking year-end bonus.”
If the book has a villain, it’s the ambitious, covetous Mae, a mercenary wolf in Yves Saint Laurent clothing. Mae, who has staked her future on the Farm, isn’t yet hedge-fund wealthy, but as a high-end service provider to the filthy rich, she has eaten at their tables, flown in their jets and styled herself in their image (with help from the sales racks at Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman). In other words: She has sampled the goods, and most desperately wants in.
Mae positions the Farm as a luxury haven (massages, fitness classes, cashmere loungewear), but the place also boasts rather sinister features. Cameras line the hallways. Hosts must relinquish their cellphones and forgo visits from friends or family. A media centre offers contact with the outside world, but all calls, email and web browsing are monitored. Hosts wear wristbands tracking their every hop, skip and heartbeat, and are mostly forbidden from knowing anything about their employer-clients (in the name of “foetal security”).
Take a human, isolate her, strip her of agency in the guise of “care”: If that sounds like a recipe for abuse, well, it is. Soon Jane, Reagan and other Hosts begin defying the Farm’s rigid system. Their insubordination threatens to sabotage Mae’s ambitions, and to imperil their own bids for security and liberty.
“The Farm” may be an “issue” book, but it wears the mantle lightly. It’s a breezy novel full of types (the Shark, the Dreamer, the Rebel, the Saint), and veers, not always successfully, from earnestness into satire. That shift in voice can obscure the novel’s intent — though to be fair, ambiguity may be the point.
Ramos’s characters articulate both sides of the surrogacy argument: “You’re letting a rich stranger use you,” one objects; it’s “an incredible thing to give someone life,” says another. Where “The Farm” stands on the wealth gap is also fuzzy. Some of its sharpest scenes are those skewering the rich: imperious Upper East Siders who utter racist, cringe-inducing microaggressions, or Mae’s globe-trotting, surfer-bro boss, who in a single brainstorm evokes everything odious about a would-be pregnancy-commodification industry: “What if we began sourcing more of our Hosts from lower-middle-class Caucasians?” he suggests. “They’ve been hammered for decades — no wage growth, unions emasculated. I bet we don’t have to pay them much more than we pay our immigrant-sourced Hosts, but — and here’s the nub of it — we could charge a premium.” The modern worker: Never mind laying her off from the factory; turn her into the factory.
Yet Ramos also lingers indulgently over the trappings of the wealthy, to the point where reading this novel felt a bit like watching several hours of reality-TV. So “The Farm” isn’t not a critique, but it’s also not an indictment. Is commercial surrogacy profiteering or opportunity? Is it inherently racist? Does it honour or degrade women? The novel’s too-neat ending won’t provide satisfying answers. But the stage is set for lively book chat.