by Daphna Whitmore
At Golden Oaks, a luxurious country retreat in the Hudson Valley, pregnant women have the best care money can buy. From the organic food, personalised exercise programmes, private yoga instruction and daily massages Golden Oaks looks like a country lodge for the upper class. Set some time in the near future this is a surrogacy farm where the wealthy can outsource pregnancy. The pregnant ‘hosts’ are mostly migrant and poor, but there are also a few young middle-class women. The hosts are well paid and get the best medical care and attention. Too much attention in fact, as they have signed over their liberty and they cannot leave. Their job is to produce the perfect baby for their uber-rich clients.
When Joanne Ramos was pitching The Farm to publishers she described the story as “Handmaid’s Tale meets The Help”. The Farm is more contemporary than futuristic, and it is too realistic to feel entirely dystopian. While surrogacy is becoming a hot political topic, Ramos has a deftness to her storytelling and avoids leaden political messaging.
Ramos was born in the Philippines and moved to the US when she was six. At the publisher’s launch of her book she spoke about her life-long love of reading, and how due to life’s practicalities she had put writing on hold. She studied at Princeton University and then went on to become an investment banker, and later a writer for the Economist. It wasn’t until her third child was in kindergarten that she connected again with the desire to write fiction.
As a mother living in New York Ramos saw middle-class parents pursuing with intense zeal the best of everything for their children. She also had the realisation that the Filipino nannies and housekeepers she saw were the only Filipinos she knew in Manhattan. The more she got to know these women, and hear about the children they had left behind in Manila, the more she felt the need to tell their stories. When she read about a surrogacy facility in India where Westerners were hiring Indian women to carry their babies the story of The Farm began to emerge.
The central character is Jane, a Filipina, who is desperate to be able to provide a good future for her own baby daughter. Jane has very few options: she is a new migrant, her husband has just left her and she has lost her nannying job. Her aunty Ate is a sought-after nanny who knows how to care for anxious wealthy mothers and their babies. She is business-savvy and manages to build up her own informal nanny agency, and dabbles in the surrogacy business on the side. She sends money home and is driven by the dream of bringing her son to America. She and Jane, and other Filipinas, live in a dormitory where beds are rented by the half-day to make ends meet.
Mae Yu is the manager of Golden Oaks. She is a Harvard Business School graduate who has struggled to become a businesswoman and is succeeding. She is no one-dimensional villain. She has a coherent philosophical view of surrogacy as a choice and sees it as a purely voluntary situation where the hosts are paid huge sums that will make a real difference to their lives.
Ramos knows her Filipino characters the best and it is through their stories we see their choices are all constrained by circumstances.
Swedish journalist Kajsa Ekman argues for surrogacy – commercial and altruistic – to be banned. “The distinction between altruistic and commercial surrogacy is a dishonest one. There is not actually any difference. What happens is the same in both: the woman is reduced to a container… Pregnancy is made into a function that serves others. Functionalisation always precedes commercialisation, as we have seen in prostitution. In order for something to be sold as separate from the seller, it must first be constituted as a separate function. What happens in the rhetoric of altruistic surrogacy is that it subversively accustoms people to seeing pregnancy as something a woman can lend to others—if she is not selling it.”
Whatever you think of surrogacy, The Farm is intelligent and sensitive storytelling, and it provokes questions. Where does a woman’s control of her own fertility begin and end with surrogacy? The wealthy outsource so much that pregnancy seems like just another job for someone else to do. Are the children of the super-rich another high-end item themselves? What will happen to abnormal fetuses, and who decides? If pregnancy is a job it is biological work with real risks. Are women essentially incubators? Is there anything that cannot be commodified?