Gloria Steinem Prevented Me from Having a Baby in New York

Gloria Steinem prevented me from baby NY state

For most of my life, Gloria Steinem was a powerful icon of feminism. She fought for all women, for many rights, including their right to decide what to do with their own bodies. All of that changed when she fought against gestational surrogacy in New York, essentially denying potential gestational carriers the right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy for intended parents (like me) who aren’t able to deliver their own genetic babies due to medical or anatomical issues. When we address reproductive rights, people with infertility should be included. Because of Gloria Steinem, I wasn’t allowed to pursue gestational surrogacy and have a baby in my state.

I first heard Gloria Steinem’s name in junior high school when we learned about something called “feminism.” I recall some girls in my class saying they weren’t feminists, as they didn’t burn bras and they didn’t believe in “acting radically”. Our teacher corrected my classmates.

She said: “Do you think I should judge your work the same as I evaluate the boys’ work? Do you think women in the workforce should be paid the same as their male counterparts if they’re doing the same job? Do you think females should decide what to do with their own bodies? If the answer is yes—you are a feminist.”

To me, it was a radical thought that feminists weren’t necessarily…radical. 

That night I wrote, “I am a feminist” in my diary. I felt empowered claiming this word, now that I knew a meaningful definition of it. I couldn’t believe that there was a time when people didn’t think that girls could do what boys could do, and I was grateful to Gloria Steinem for advancing women’s rights so my generation could benefit from her voice and social action. 

Steinem was also the voice of reproductive rights. She fought for women to take control over their own bodies. I loved this idea, especially since we were also learning about sexual health and our fertility at this time. I was even part of a Public Health Ontario public service video called “Choices Not Chances.” I looked like the girl-next-door, I guess, so the director gave me the line, “I’m going to wait” to say to the camera as I closed my locker. Other girls in the video, who didn’t “wait” to be sexually active, were educated about pregnancy, STDs and condom-use in this short video.

Junior high was also the first time that the word “infertility” came into my personal vocabulary. I had heard it before, but never with any kind of context that made it resonate. New words are somewhat benign until they’re relevant or applied to your own life.

I was 14 years old and sitting in front of a doctor who said I might experience infertility later, when I was ready to have kids. But now because I was dealing with super painful periods, he could help regulate my menstrual cycle and alleviate some of the discomfort. He said I likely had endometriosis, a condition where the uterine lining is damaged, causing a lot of pain, heavy periods, and a possible chance of infertility, and the pill would help regulate the problem.

While other girls were swapping advice on how to deal with the new reality of menstruation and debating using pads versus tampons, when I got my period I was skipping school and laying in bed in debilitating pain. I was ready for any treatment my doctor could offer, and hardly cared about any fertility issues I may or may not face later if and when I wanted to get pregnant. I was still a kid, so I couldn’t even imagine having a kid!  

Years later, when I married my husband, I told him that we might have issues conceiving. I said, “It’ll probably take us a year or two,” because I recalled what this doctor told me. We weren’t too concerned.  

Never did I imagine it would take us almost 10 years to have our now 13 month baby.

Through 18 fertility treatments and open-stomach surgery over seven years, I learned that I not only still had endometriosis, but also fibroid tumors and other issues in my uterus that likely prevented me from getting and/or staying pregnant. (I did get pregnant through fertility treatments a couple of times, only to miscarry.)

In year five of trying to have a baby, a reproductive doctor told me that I may need to have a hysterectomy and that my best bet for meeting our baby would be to genetically test our embryos and transfer one of the healthy ones into a healthy uterus—a gestational carrier.

A gestational carrier is a type of surrogate who carries a baby for the intended parent(s) but is not genetically related to that baby. My specialist had suspected that my body was dealing with one or more medical conditions that interfered with the healthy development of embryos in my body. He said that the embryos we produced looked “beautiful” but after so many years of trying and treatments, something should’ve worked.

This moment in my reproductive doctor’s office was both comforting and heartbreaking. It was a relief to have a next step because I was exhausted and depleted from years of pregnancy failures and losses. But it also seemed unimaginable that I couldn’t carry my baby to term. (I had been so sure for so long that I even saved a photo of a “Bumps Ahead” construction sign on my phone. I thought it would be cute to post that as my pregnancy announcement.) 

In year five of trying to have a baby, a reproductive doctor told me that I may need to have a hysterectomy and that my best bet for meeting our baby would be to genetically test our embryos and transfer one of the healthy ones into a healthy uterus—a gestational carrier.

When people hear that you are working or will be working with a surrogate, they sometimes remark that you’re “lucky” for not having to be pregnant. What they don’t always realize is the length that so many of us have gone to try to carry a pregnancy to term, and how heartbreaking it is to move on from the way we thought we’d bring our baby into the world. Yes, it’s exciting not to gain extra baby weight or to feel the discomfort that so many healthy pregnant women endure; but I likely would’ve traded that for the seven years and hundreds (thousands?) of shots in my belly and backside during fertility treatments for the chance to carry a pregnancy to term.

This may be a good time to share that I’ve learned that it’s generally not a good idea to tell anyone with a disease that they’re ‘lucky’. That’s for them to decide. Even though people may be well-intentioned when they say things like this, it can undermine the reality of the medical diagnosis. After all, infertility is defined as a disease by the American Medical Association, the CDC and The World Health Organization.

The great news was that after PGS (now called PGT-A) testing, it was shown that we did have healthy embryos; we “just” needed to find a healthy gestational carrier and we’d have a really good (60-80%) chance of meeting our baby.

I was then told that we couldn’t look for a paid gestational surrogate where we lived, in New York City, because it was illegal here.

Full stop.

I couldn’t understand how surrogacy wasn’t allowed in New York. One thing I’ve always appreciated about living here is how progressive it is. But, surrogacy wasn’t regulated or protected by the law here.

I started researching the issue through pregnantish, a site and company I run to help people navigate the process of getting pregnant “with help,” and by educating myself through Resolve, The National Infertility Association, which has advocated for people with infertility for more than 40 years.

New York was one of the few states in the country preventing this arrangement and preventing people like me, with a medical issue, from finding an adult who chose to carry my embryo and be compensated for that.

This past year Resolve and a team of volunteers advocated on behalf of the “Child Parent Security Act” in New York State to reverse the state law. Their opponents presented their case that all forms of surrogacy exploited women. Resolve volunteers tried to counter the many misconceptions about surrogacy that were shared by critics. Bravo TV host Andy Cohen spoke as well, as he was a new father thanks to gestational surrogacy.

I figured that old men, who had no knowledge of infertility or the rights of LGBTQ to build their families, would be behind the ban.

It turned out that the loudest critic of gestational surrogacy was a woman I once admired for representing women’s rights: Gloria Steinem. Steinem, who I had long hailed as a hero for defending women’s reproductive rights.

Steinem argued that all forms of surrogacy threatened underprivileged women, who would be unwillingly led into arrangements where their wombs are “rented out”.  I realized her version of surrogacy was reminiscent of the dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, the book (and TV series) by Canadian iconic author Margaret Atwood, which I had also read in junior high school.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, older rich infertile women forced other women to carry their babies and literally ripped the babies from the surrogate’s arms upon delivery. The women in this fictional story were completely exploited.

When I read Steinem’s criticism, I was confused.  For one thing, she has always talked about body autonomy and the rights of women to consent to what happened to and in their bodies. What did she think was happening in surrogacy arrangements?

Steinem argued that low-income women with no options would be coerced into these arrangements. In a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, she stated, “(Surrogacy) harms and endangers women in the process, especially those who feel that they have few or no economic alternatives. Under this bill, women in economic need become commercialized vessels for rent, and the fetuses they carry become the property of others. The surrogate mother’s rights over the fetus she is carrying are greatly curtailed and she loses all rights to the baby she delivers. The bill ignores the socio-economic and racial inequalities of the reproductive commercial surrogacy industry, and puts disenfranchised women at the financial and emotional mercy of wealthier and more privileged individuals.”

 I wish Steinem had substantiated this claim with evidence and facts.

In fact, in the states that support surrogacy, surrogates have to be financially stable to enter the agreement, and they are screened extensively to ensure they are medically, financially and emotionally stable to consciously choose to carry an embryo for another person or couple.

I knew from experience, working with a surrogacy agency and lawyer, the incredible length that intended parents (IPs) and gestational carriers have to go through to set up the surrogacy arrangement. Everyone has to go through months of legal negotiations and paperwork, psychological counseling, and medical workups. When I say everyone, I mean everyone: the people whose sperm and eggs are being used (in this case, my husband and mine), and the carrier and her partner have to go through extensive workups before entering a contract. This way everyone is protected and has enough time and information to make a well-informed choice.

I figured that old men, who had no knowledge of infertility or the rights of LGBTQ to build their families, would be behind the ban.It turned out that the loudest critic of gestational surrogacy was a woman I once admired for representing women’s rights: Gloria Steinem. Steinem, who I had long hailed as a hero for defending women’s reproductive rights. 

Whether or not the process is ‘altruistic’ (whereby the carrier isn’t charging to carry), the process costs the intended parents tens of thousands of dollars and takes many months to set up. Agencies also told me the number of women who wanted to be surrogates who they couldn’t approve due to low-wage jobs, instability at home or medical issues. It’s not a casual decision for the potential carriers, intended parents or the agencies.

With Gloria Steinem’s support The Child-Parent Act did not pass in New York. 

We exist in a ‘fake news’ era; but I never imagined fake facts would come from the mouth of feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Steinem prevented me, and those I know who need a healthy uterus to carry their babies to term, from having a baby in our state.

While I couldn’t have my baby in New York, I was lucky to live near New Jersey, which has progressive and fair surrogacy laws and protection for gestational carriers and the intended parents who work with them.  I was also incredibly lucky that my Canadian first cousin, Elana, lived in New Jersey and offered to be our gestational carrier after she heard that we were entering year seven of infertility without many prospects. Two surrogates had dropped out on us before embryo transfer (yes, they still had that choice even after we had taken many steps to work together), and we had no idea how we’d meet our baby. We knew that had the healthy embryo been transferred into my body, I would’ve miscarried her.

This past December I met my daughter, who had been frozen in time since 2016 and waiting for a healthy uterus to bring her to life.  I pinch myself every day that I get to be her mother and that my cousin gave me the greatest gift I could ever imagine.

I want every New Yorker who can’t carry a pregnancy to term to know that they are protected by law and that they have the right to use their genetic embryo with a gestational carrier who carefully chooses this arrangement, if they decide to pursue that path to parenthood.

I don’t know that Gloria Steinem will ever believe that women like me with a medical issue deserve to have children.

But as she led the charge on the call for all women to have a right to decide what to do with their bodies, she should include adult women who act as surrogates.

The fact that she has contradicted herself is not only confusing to me, but makes me question her definition of feminism today.


Andrea Syrtash
Contributor

Andrea Syrtash

Andrea Syrtash is the founder and editor-in-chief of pregnantish. She is a relationship expert and coach regularly featured on national TV shows including Good Morning America and The Today Show, and in Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Women's Health magazines. She's the author of five popular books including He's Just Not Your Type (And That's A Good Thing) and Cheat On Your Husband (With Your Husband). She's passionate about helping people live and love authentically. For more, visit andreasyrtash.com


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