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September 18, 2014
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Cornell professor speaks about surrogacy outsourcing

The ethical dilemma and risk of outsourcing reproductive surrogacy to impoverished regions in the world were topics Debra Castillo, Emerson Hinchliff chair of Hispanic Studies and professor of comparative literature at Cornell University, spoke about during her talk “Googling Baby” on March 4 in Textor Hall.

The discussion was based primarily on the documentary “Google Baby” by filmmaker Zippi Brand Frank, who coined the term “Google Baby” to refer to the process by which some wealthy families can customize their child’s genes and sex. Castillo referenced an Indian publication article, “Why Surrogacy Doesn’t Need a Celebrity Model,” to explain the rising phenomenon of surrogacy in the global north and the inevitable trend of people’s preference for surrogacy over adoption.

The talk was hosted by Ithaca College’s Women’s Studies program together with the Center for Faculty Excellence and the departments of psychology, modern languages and literatures, and politics.

Maria DiFrancesco, associate professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, said she invited Castillo because of her own scholarly interest in Latin America and feminism.

“For so many years, I’ve seen her mentor so many women,” she said. “I asked her to come to help us celebrate the Women’s History Month.”

Castillo’s research project focuses on reproductive outsourcing from the U.S. to India. The 2011 Canadian film “Starbuck” has sparked widespread interest in sperm donation. Castillo said the surrogacy center in the film framed the concept of sperm donation with altruistic values and helping the greater good. However, she said, there are many ethical issues surrounding surrogacy, particularly outsourcing the reproductive process to profit.

“Increasingly, it’s less donation than paid services,” Castillo said.

She went on to explain that the emergence of surrogacy is partly because of the idealized vision of white, heterosexual parents providing loving homes for children they can’t have. However, surrogacy involves health risks and discrimination or disrespect toward some surrogate women.

“A lot of these women are deemed as somewhat shady, and they have to spend pregnancy in the [surrogacy] clinics,” Castillo said.

Not only are the social statuses of surrogate women affected, Castillo said, but compensation also varies significantly for these women compared to surrogate women in the U.S.

“Harvard women get $35,000 for egg donation; Indian women get about $100 for donation,” she said.

Another major ethical issue surrounds the fate of babies born with defects and the subsequent legal actions the sperm and egg donors may take against the surrogates who bear children with defects.

“If the child becomes a commercial product, you want that perfect baby that you pay for,” Castillo said. “What if that baby is born with birth defects?”

Because of burgeoning evidence of child trafficking, she said, India has set up stricter laws regarding surrogacy. As a result, surrogacy clinics are moving out of India and shifting toward Central America, especially Mexico and Guatemala. She cited these locations as “advantageous for surrogacy.”

“This is not a crisis situation,” Castillo said. “It’s not catastrophic in a daily sense. It’s precisely because these conditions are ongoing, long-standing that they do not rise to the level of demanding an ethical response.”

Freshman Luca Cipolla said this talk opened his eyes to different and uncomfortable perspectives on reproductive issues.

“This is terrifying,” Cipolla said. “This is a for-profit abuse of technology that has serious ramifications, ethically, morally.”