Knox and I have been watching Big Love. We just finished the second season. That right there tells you what kind of Mormons we are. Most LDS people hate the show with the passion of 10,000 burning suns. It’s about a fundamentalist family, the Henricksons, who live in the suburbs in Utah and sneakily practice polygamy. Mainstream Mormons get all riled up at any suggestion of a link between The Church and polygamy; we’d all rather forget that our ancestors had a lot in common with modern-day residents of the Yearning for Zion Ranch. And apparently in later seasons of the show there are depictions of temple services that Mormons hold sacred, so that’s another point in the “The Liberal Media Hates and Persecutes Us” category. Plus it’s HBO and that’s a dirty, worldly station that has sex and swears and other yucky stuff.
I would never tell any of my Mormon friends that I watch this show. In fact, I hid the DVD case when we had an LDS babysitter, and I felt like we were taking a thrilling risk when we watched it in our bedroom while we were visiting Knox’s parents over Thanksgiving. It’s ridiculous.
But anyway, imagine my surprise when surrogacy became a (minor) plot point in the show! My own two worlds, Mormonism and Surrogacy, collided on HBO! Back in 2007! I like the show, and I generally think it’s very well-researched and accurate. But I wasn’t crazy about the way the writers dealt with surrogacy. I think a little backstory is in order here.
Margene, the sweet young thing of the family, is Bill Henrickson’s third and newest wife. She’s the one standing behind the chair in the photo above. She’s cute, naive, a little silly and shallow. She’s also pregnant with her third baby. Margie befriends an LDS neighbor, Pam, and the two really hit it off. But their friendship is strained by the lies Margie has to tell to keep her plural marriage a secret. Because Bill is officially married to Barb, Margie appears to be unmarried and she worries that Pam will judge her when she finds out about the pregnancy. Are you following? Margie doesn’t like looking like the neighborhood harlot. So she tells Pam that yes, she’s pregnant, but actually she’s a surrogate for a really great infertile couple! (Yeah, there are so many holes in this story. Margie isn’t very bright.) Margie expects Pam, who is infertile herself, to be enthusiastic about the idea. Instead Pam turns cold and says “You’re having a stranger’s baby? Well, who am I to judge.” This response seemed unrealistically negative to me. Because Mormons believe so strongly in family, I have a hard time believing that there are many Mormon women who would immediately act like surrogacy in itself is wrong. But then, the issue is more complicated from the point of view of a woman who has had fertility issues (like Pam) and I haven’t talked to anyone who fits that bill. So perhaps it’s not so far off the mark.
Later, Pam asks Barb (first wife, remember, but Pam doesn’t know that) what she thinks of surrogacy, and specifically what she thinks of Margie being a surrogate. This is the first Barb has heard of the story, and she’s surprised. But she answers with the party line: something like “I think surrogacy is a great option for a worthy heterosexual couple who can’t have children of their own.” This sounds more like it. Most Mormons (including the women in my family) are on board right away if we all agree that the parents of the baby will be a man and a woman. Pam reveals to Barb that she wants to ask Margie to carry a baby for her, and that she’s prepared to offer her $50,000.
Then things get messy. Pam asks Margie to be her surrogate, and when Margie hesitates Pam breaks down sobbing, revealing that she’s worried her husband will leave her if they don’t have a family to share in the celestial kingdom. Confronted with Pam’s emotional display, Margie panics and agrees to be Pam’s surrogate. Once she’s said yes, she realizes that hey! She would like to have a calling, and this is something nice she can do: being a surrogate. Bill and the other wives answer with a firm NO WAY. They end up “coming out” to Pam and revealing that they are polygamists, and that’s how Margie gets out of the surrogacy deal.
My first issue is that it’s implied that Margie will be a Traditional Surrogate: Pam mentions a “pre-insemination” party and talks about the baby being her husband’s but not Pam’s. Traditional Surrogacy is when the surrogate’s own egg is used, making her the biological mother of the child. This is almost never done now that IVF is so successful and egg donors abound. Another problem is the money. $50,000 is WAY more than most surrogates’ compensation; it’s almost twice as much as what’s in my contract. Once again, that would have been an easy thing to fix if the writers had been more careful, but it also bothers me that they felt the need to mention it. It’s kind of sticking all surrogates with a price tag, and an inaccurate one at that. And because they imply that the baby would be Margie’s biological child, it brings up the whole uncomfortable baby-buying idea. Messy.
From a Mormon Doctrine standpoint, Pam’s hysteria doesn’t make sense. I mean, it makes perfect sense if she really wants a baby to save her rocky marriage, or if she’s afraid her husband will leave her because he’s desperate for children. But bringing the afterlife into it doesn’t work. Mormons believe that the power of procreation continues after this life. The idea of the celestial kingdom would bring Pam comfort; she would know that even if she can never have her own children in this life, she’ll have that opportunity in the next. Her husband would know that, too, so nothing about heaven would make him want to leave her.
In some ways Margie fits the surrogate mold: she’s young, healthy, married with a couple of kids. She’s kind and generous. But she’s also silly and impulsive, and I got the impression that she liked the idea of surrogacy because she didn’t have much else to offer the world. Associating surrogacy with Margie, of all characters, makes it seem frivolous; I thought the writers took a serious issue and treated it flippantly. And then they didn’t even do a tiny bit of research to get all their facts straight. And what a shame. It could have been so beautiful.