This is Rabbit Holes, a semi-regular reaction-style series about the baby-related stories I’ve found interesting and think you’ll find interesting too. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
Baby Eating Witches
Archaeologists in Poland have been excavating the town square of Bochnia, where in 1679, three women accused of being baby-eating witches were burnt at the stake: Regina Wierzbicka and her two teachers, Maryna Mazurkowa and Borucina. They’ve discovered a second human skull, if it is that particular execution then they should find the third skull. It was the custom that anyone executed for being a criminal was buried at the site of their execution. The bones have been found in an anatomical arrangement, so they were intentionally interred there, whatever their identity in life.
Anetta Stachoń who studied the case of the accused witches explains,
“They were accused of infanticide. Burned under torture, Wierzbicka admitted that she had bought a baby from a man in order to fake her motherhood and thus force Bartosz Ogrodnik, with whom she was in love, to marry. (…) Wierzbicka’s further testimony showed that the Gardener, on Borucina’s order, killed the baby, and she had ripped out the veins that served her as an ingredient in the preparation of magic ointments. Mazurkowa, on the other hand, confessed that they burned the child’s body into powder, and then, on Borucina’s order, she and Wierzbicka had to drink its decoction.”
Of course, further testing needs to be done on the finds, such as dating the bones and analyzing the ash, etc. before they can conclusively say the remains are from these victims of the European witch craze.
Stodolny, Tomasz. 16 Dec 2020. “Bochnia. Druga ludzka czaszka na Rynku. Hipoteza o odkryciu miejsca palenia czarownic się umacnia? – WIDEO.” Bochnianin.pl.
Next is an article from the New York Times about surrogacy in China. Recently, a popular Chinese actress, Zheng Shuang, was accused by her boyfriend, Zhang Heng, of abandoning the two babies they had through a surrogate in the United States, leaving him stuck in the US to care for them alone. As the drama unfolded in the public sphere, private audio messages between the couple were leaked, one was allegedly of Shuang complaining to Heng that the surrogate pregnancy was a few months along and couldn’t be terminated. This story was like kicking a wasp nest at the crotch of Chinese politics surrounding women’s reproductive rights… so much so that I wonder if it ain’t a bit of propaganda.
Surrogacy and egg-freezing are prohibited in China, however, wealthy people can travel out of the country to access either and frequently do. One of the reasons given by the Chinese government for banning surrogacy is the concern that with a surrogate pregnancy the parents-to-be will be more likely to change their mind and seek an abortion (which seems to be the case with this actress); that they will abandon babies they aren’t happy with (due to looks, sex, medical problems, disability, etc). The latter happened with an Australian couple who used a Thai surrogate: they abandoned one of their twins due to Down syndrome. The Chinese government claims to have concerns that legalizing surrogacy will lead to the exploitation of poor women who are less likely to be able to care for babies abandoned by would-be parents.
There is also the legacy of the one-child policy which led to the massive sex-ration discrepancy in China today as female babies were killed or left to die in order for families to try again for a male baby. In the 1990s, China had to ban abortions on the basis of fetal sex. Now the government fears that surrogates will be pressured or forced into abortions based on the baby’s sex; with egg fertilization and freezing, sperm can be sexed before fertilization.
Women’s rights groups want the government to get out of controlling women’s bodies, full stop. In other parts of the world, the issue of women’s rights and surrogacy can become a really sticky issue. In my opinion, women should be able to offer their services as a surrogate, however, there needs to be some regulation to prevent exploitation, the kind of thing that has cropped up all over southeast Asia and Central America where corporations are acting as pregnancy pimps. They collect women, keep them in terrible conditions, effectively as breeding stock and pay them, if they are paid at all, a pittance compared to what the owners of the institution are paid by to-be parents.
How can we know someone is being a surrogate because they really want to be and aren’t feeling pressured by their financial situation? And what protections are there for surrogates who experience medical problems during pregnancy, labour, or postpartum?
There is also the issue of accessibility: only the most wealthy can afford a surrogate or egg-/ embryo freezing. What about lower-income earners? Do they not deserve to start or expand their family because they aren’t rich? Does being rich make someone a better parent? Based on my trust-fund-baby neighbours, it’s a resounding no.
What protections are there for babies abandoned by the parents? Or maybe the question is, what consequences are there for parents who abandon infants they commissioned the creation of? I’m uncomfortable with the idea of forcing people to be parents, having personally experienced the abuse and neglect that follows. However, I also don’t think it’s okay for parents who abandon the babies of explicitly intended, commissioned pregnancies to face zero consequences.
What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you have experience as a surrogate? or with a surrogate?
Stevenson, Alexandra and Cao Li. 20 Jan 2021. “A Chinese Celebrity Scandal Puts Surrogate Births on Trial.” The New York Times.
Note: if you want to read the paywall articles on NYTs but cannot afford a subscription, check out your local public library’s online resources. This is how I access NYTs, including their archive, Times Machine for free.
Roache, Madeline. 13 Sep 2018. “Ukraine’s ‘baby factories’: The human cost of surrogacy.” Al Jazeera.
Parents vs Gestational Carrier in Michigan
In the United States, in the state of Michigan, the Meyers are fighting with the courts for their parental rights to their twins who were born via a gestational carrier. The gestational carrier provided the service without payment, as a gift to the couple. Of course, paying for a gestational carrier (this is someone who has an embryo created from other people’s sex cells implanted) in Michigan is a felony, which is why they are dealing with this hassle.
While judges in other counties in the state have granted pre-birth orders allowing the biological parents to have themselves listed on the baby’s birth certificate immediately, the Meyers are being forced to go through a formal adoption of their own biological children. The twins are in the NICU at the moment and the parents need to be listed as the parents on the birth certificate so the twins can get on the family’s health insurance.
So why is paying for a gestational carrier a felony in Michigan? Let’s talk some history.
In the US, laws were put down by many, if not most states against surrogacy in the late 1980s after the publicity around the Baby M case made the news. The Sterns hired May Beth Whitehead as a surrogate (meaning one of Mary Beth’s eggs was fertilized by William Stern’s sperm, making her a biological parent). In their contract, they agreed to the surrogacy terms, and that she would relinquish her parental rights after the birth in exchange for $10k plus her expenses.
On March 27, 1986, Whitehead gave birth to a baby girl she named Sara Elizabeth Whitehead on the birth certificate. She had decided she wanted to keep the baby.
But a few days later the baby was given to the Sterns who named her Melissa Stern.
A few more days later, Whitehead contacted the Sterns to demand the baby back, threatening to kill herself. Not long after this interaction, Whitehead and her husband kidnapped the baby and fled the state with her. The case made international news. As lawsuits about who were the real parents were fought, Baby M was placed in foster care for a time. All the concerns that I’ve mentioned previously– for example, financial inequality: Whitehead and her husband were extremely poor, high school dropouts with older children, and had taken on this surrogacy out of financial distress; while the Sterns were wealthy doctors– were brought to the forefront.
As a result of this case and the media circus surrounding it, many states just wrote blanket bans on surrogacy and gestational carriers with the hope of avoiding similar situations, rather than considering the nuances.
McCrary, Rachel and Annmarie Kent. 25 Jan 2021. “Michigan organization fighting for rights of parents who use gestational carrier.” WNEM.
Retro Report. 24 March 2014. “Baby M and the Question of Surrogacy.” The New York Times. Youtube.
The Guardian published an article about falling birth rates all across the industrialized world and the new form of re-wilding taking place in the resulting ghost-towns. They begin by noting the 1968 book The Population Bomb, by two Stanford biologists, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, and their predictions of mass starvation.
“At the time the Ehrlichs were publishing their dark prophecies, the world was at its peak of population growth, which at that point was increasing at a rate of 2.1% a year. Since then, the global population has ballooned from 3.5 billion to 7.67 billion.”The Population Bomb, 1968
Since then, birth rates have fallen considerably thanks to the increasing access to safe and effective contraception. In fact, many countries are dealing with negative population growth. In the previous Rabbit Holes, I talked about Melissa Kearney’s prediction that we will see a post-pandemic baby bust due to economic concerns.
Population ageing is the result of the median age of the population rising, as fewer people are born in subsequent generations. It has already led to the phenomenon of the “sandwich generation” where adults are having to support and care for both their ageing parents and their young children. Social safety net programs and health care infrastructure becomes strained when there are so many that need help due to age but there are so few younger people to fulfil the coffers and/or the caretaking jobs.
Population ageing can also create concerns for national security, while the military tends to recruit from demographics with high birth rates and low resources, there’s also the issue of relying on other nations for food, for example, if there aren’t enough people to produce enough to feed the population. So some countries are trying to incentivise baby-making,
“In South Korea last year, birthrates fell to 0.84 per woman, a record low despite extensive government efforts to promote childbearing. From next year, cash bonuses of 2m won (£1,320) will be paid to every couple expecting a child, on top of existing child benefit payments.”
This gives me what I am going to call: cringe of concern. If financial benefits are enough to convince someone to have a baby, that ain’t right. What is your life worth? “Oh, 2m won plus existing child benefits.” But if people want to have children but are concerned about the financial responsibilities, and if 2m won is substantial enough to make a dent in the cost of raising a child… maybe that’s okay?
A reduced population is not a wholly negative thing, the younger generations will face less competition for resources, whether food and clean water, housing and education. But we need to balance those potential benefits with ensuring a good quality of life for all generations, including the people being born when the Ehrlichs published their book.
Flyn, Cal. 24 Jan 2021. “As birth rates fall, animals prowl in our abandoned ‘ghost villages’.” The Guardian.
The World Bank. 2018. “Fertility rate, total (births per woman).”
Baby Scoop Era
American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption by Gabrielle Glaser is about the “baby scoop era” between 1950-1975 when adoptions in the United States skyrocketed. She tells the story of Margaret Erle Katz and her son David Rosenberg, as an example of all the hushed-up, sealed adoptions of the era.
Margaret became pregnant at sixteen years old with her teenage boyfriend. They wanted to keep their baby and get married as soon as they were old enough. But like so many young women of the time, she was sent to a maternity home, where for a fee, unmarried pregnant girls and women were effectively imprisoned until they gave birth, and then the baby was disappeared (many babies born into these maternity homes were allowed to die of starvation or neglect, while pretty ones were sold through private adoptions). Margaret, against her will, is restrained and put into “twilight sleep” for the birth and upon waking was told she didn’t get to hold her baby.
“For months the young birth parents insisted they would keep their child, who had been placed immediately in foster care. Finally, when a social worker threatened to have Margaret sent to juvenile hall, she signed the relinquishment forms without reading them.”
“Glaser describes in powerful detail how both David’s first and second mothers were told what they wanted to hear about each other and about the baby they shared.”
“People had always had sex before marriage,” Glaser writes, “but after the war, something in the social calculus shifted.” The mix of soldiers returning with sexual experience, plus larger suburban homes in which teenagers could have more privacy, combined with the rise of automobile culture and the availability of “the back seat of the family Buick” — all at a time when birth control, sex education and abortion were taboo — led out-of-wedlock births to more than triple between 1940 and 1966.”
The article goes on to describe the unethical and at times, amoral acts of the adoption agencies and social services in the US. Jewish children were taken from Jewish families to be raised by Christians; twins and triplets were intentionally divided into different families so nature vs nurture could be studied, and babies were bounced around foster placements until it could be determined if they were mixed race, and one adoption agency allowed researchers to shoot rubber bands at newborns’ feet to see if pain reaction could be linked to intelligence.
“Was all of the above the result of ignorance? Defenders of the system have argued that knowledge of genetics and infant development back then was rudimentary and that these choices were made with the best of intentions. Glaser, however, is persuasive in her argument that the actions at best ignored inconvenient evidence, and at worst acted in spite of it. For instance, as David idled in foster care, there were existing studies proving the importance of attachment and the harm of moving an infant from one foster mother to the next.”
Towards the end of the 1970s access to contraception and abortion prevented or ended a large proportion of unintended pregnancies, while advancements in medicine helped couples struggling with infertility conceive, thereby lowering the rates of adoption. At the same time, adoption rights advocates were getting laws changed all across the nation to allow adopted individuals access their birth certificates (an issue causing contention right now in the aftermath of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission in Ireland).
American Baby is out for sale now, both ebook and hardcover.
Belkin, Lisa. 22 Jan 2021. “Adoption Used to Be Hush-Hush. This Book Amplifies the Human Toll.” The New York Times.
Old West Midwives
Outlawed is a novel about a midwife in the American old west. I discovered it via an article by the author, Anna North, in The Guardian. She writes about how her experience giving birth changed her perspective on her historical research into birth and baby care:
“Much of this information was fascinating to me, and some of it was disturbing, but none of it affected me emotionally. Informed by my research, I wrote about women enduring days-long labours, bloody episiotomies, and even death in childbirth, and while I tried to approach these sections of the book with empathy, I didn’t lose sleep over them. I wrote about them the way I wrote about any experience that hadn’t happened to me: with investment, without identification. Then I had a baby.”
Her article touches on some of the specifics she learned in researching her novel, and then after finishing the book, her anger at problems in reproductive healthcare as it exists today. Noting how many women are treated as vessels during pregnancy, even by their doctors, and her belief that women experiencing infertility are perceived as broken, and women choosing to be child-free are viewed as selfish.
“I covered reproductive health for years as a journalist before I had my son, so I knew about all of these attitudes. But I felt them in a deeper way when I became visibly pregnant and saw how often my identity was erased, or placed second to that of the foetus I was carrying.”
Her ending comments are about imagining a world where everyone is given the reproductive care they deserve, where the caregiver cares just as much about the individual as they do the babies they can or can’t or don’t want to produce.
Her book comes out on Jan 28th which should be… yesterday assuming this video is out on Friday.
North, Anna. 26 Jan 2021. “I enjoyed researching the bloody history of childbirth – then I had a baby.” The Guardian.
The “Mom Internet”
History never ends. We are living history right now, not just the big crazy things that are occurring but also our daily lives are historical, and right now, a lot of us spend a lot of our days involved with social media platforms.
At its heart, social media as we know it is a business model that commodifies behaviour manipulation using data mining to fuel the algorithms to target our attention and our money; for example, if you’ll buy more stuff when you’re depressed, by golly, your experience of social media will be tuned to that end. It’s pretty dodgy stuff.
So… why not throw motherhood into that mix. Yeahhhhh…
That is what Under the Influence with Jo Piazza from the iheartradio network is going to be about. In Vanity Fair they wrote,
“As a journalist and mom of two, Jo Piazza is determined to peel back the crisp, artisanal curtain obscuring the multibillion-dollar industry behind the “Mom Internet”—that perfectly curated corner of social media where wine glasses never spill, diapers never leak, and a barrel curl is never out of place. With Under the Influence, Piazza will delve into the rise of influencer marketing and the commodification of motherhood, an online evolution she views as “driving normal mothers to the brink.”
The podcast is supposed to drop on Feb 4th, I’m looking forward to checking it out.
Goode, Justine. 20 Jan 2021. “21 Podcasts to Look Forward to in 2021.” Vanity Fair.
iHeartRadio. “Under the Influence with Jo Piazza.”