Lisa Switzer peruses a travel guide as she prepares for an unforgettable journey to India.
(2010) Documentary (Self-Released) Lisa Switzer, Brian Switzer, Aasia Khan, Rudy Rupak. Directed by Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha
As medical technology advances, ethical and legal issues are beginning to arise as procedures begin to allow things that were previously impossible to occur. This is particularly true when it comes to human procreation.
Brian and Lisa Switzer have been trying to make a baby for years, but nothing worked. They had tried nearly everything possible to get Lisa pregnant but eventually it was discovered that Lisa had medical issues that had left her infertile. Having Lisa carry a baby to term was no longer an option.
The couple was basically left with two choices; adoption and surrogacy (Lisa has viable eggs – her ovaries are intact – but her uterus had to be surgically removed). Lisa was adamant; she wanted a baby of her own genetic make-up and Brian supported her in trying to make her dream happen. Yes, Lisa is one determined Texan. However, finding a surrogate mother in the United States is prohibitively expensive – the entire process can run, depending on where you live, anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000, much of which has to do with the fees paid to the surrogate (usually in the neighborhood of $35,000) and legal fees.
Their options limited, they turned to medical tourism – the act of going out of the country for lower cost medical procedures – and the website Planet Hospital. From there they were hooked up with a clinic in India and a young mother named Aasia Khan. Aasia is a Muslim woman living in Mumbai with her husband and three children in abject poverty. Her sister-in-law had discovered that certain clinics paid Indian women what in India is a goodly amount of cash. Indian law requires that only married women are eligible to act as surrogates, so the unmarried sister-in-law was ineligible but Aasia certainly was. She knew her husband would object but the money was too tempting so she signed up for it.
She and Lisa were matched up and Lisa and Brian flew to India to have Lisa’s eggs harvested and Brian’s sperm collected. The egg was fertilized in the lab and implanted in Aasia. Per the clinic’s policy, neither parents nor surrogate were allowed to meet. The Switzers returned to San Antonio to wait while Aasia returned home to explain to her husband what was going on. He was understandably unhappy but asked his wife to limit her surrogacy career to this one baby.
However it turned out it wouldn’t be just one baby – Aasia was pregnant with twins. The Switzers were overjoyed, Lisa completely beside herself. They had mortgaged their house, sold everything and put every penny they could get their hands on into their dream and now it all appeared to be worth it.
As time went by, the Switzers received constant updates from Mumbai and Aasia was moved into an apartment that the clinic used for surrogate mothers where they could be monitored more thoroughly and the environment made cleaner and more conducive to a pregnant mother’s needs.
Then things took a turn for the worse. Nearly two months early, Aasia began to bleed and the doctors at the clinic determined that she needed to go to the hospital. Rather than transport her to the hospital the clinic had an agreement with, they sent her to the hospital nearest the apartment, one the clinic hadn’t worked with previously. An emergency Cesarean was performed.
Lisa was summoned hastily from Texas and went to the hospital to visit her babies in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit. Except, as far as the hospital was concerned, they weren’t her babies – they belonged to the birth mother – and refused to issue a birth certificate listing Lisa and Brian as parents, without which the twins wouldn’t be U.S. citizens and thus the parents wouldn’t be able to bring them home to Texas.
The relationship between Lisa (who had travelled alone to India because Brian couldn’t get away from work) and the hospital became increasingly contentious. Heartbroken and frustrated, she turned to the U.S. Embassy for assistance in navigating what was an increasingly difficult and complex legal issue. In the meantime, Aasia discovered she wasn’t getting compensated what she thought she deserved and wanted to re-negotiate with the clinic and get something from the Switzers as well.
To their credit, the filmmakers took no sides on the issues, choosing to present the story as it unfolded and letting the viewers reach their own conclusions. An industry is arising out of surrogacy – it made $350 million two years ago and that number is expected to rise exponentially. The potential for abuse is rampant as countries all over the globe struggle – slowly – to enact legislation that creates guidelines and regulations for parents, medical professionals and surrogates to abide by.
Still, there are discrepancies. The contract the Switzers signed with Planet Hospital itemized that Aasia would be paid the equivalent of $7,000 while the contract she signed with the clinic only gave her about $2,000. What became of the difference is never fully explained (although Aasia was able to negotiate for a greater payment owing to her carrying of twins and medical issues that arose from it).
There are risks involved with surrogacy – and they are amply demonstrated here. Besides the medical and legal ramifications, there are also moral issues – when you think about it, the Switzers essentially were buying a baby. Yes, it was genetically theirs but once that line is crossed, where does it stop?
There are also those who would – and did – argue that the Switzers should have adopted. In their defense, even for parents with a stable household, the process of adoption is a costly and lengthy one and there are no guarantees even then that the Switzers would receive a baby in a reasonable length of time if at all.
Not being a woman, it is hard for me to comment on the urgency of Lisa Switzer’s mission to have a baby of her own. There is certainly a case to be made that she was acting out of selfishness; regardless of how you view her crusade, her determination has to be admired. She becomes the central character of the documentary, but Aasia’s bubbly personality, her quirky sense of humor and her quiet determination to make a better life for her family may stay with you more. I only wish we could have learned more about her, although I suspect the filmmakers were given a narrow bandwidth in which to work in terms of what could be discussed. I got the impression Aasia wanted a good deal of privacy.
This is an issue that is unfolding now, and the outcome has yet to be determined. This documentary presents the issues very logically and rationally without expressing any preferences to one viewpoint or the other. You are left therefore to make your own conclusions. For my viewpoint, it appears as if the business end of the surrogacy question is the one most being served and although I hope otherwise, the rights of the surrogates themselves will most likely take a backseat to the concerns of maximizing the profits for the business interests that become involved. In any case, there are no easy resolutions here and the filmmakers seem to respect the intelligence of their audience enough to not try to provide any. It is no wonder that this won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Florida Film Festival; it is a virtual textbook on how to make a documentary properly.
REASONS TO GO: Raises many thoughtful issues about the legal minefield that is surrogacy, particular in regards to low-cost surrogacy in emerging nations. Filmmakers admirably adopt no viewpoint but tell the story simply.
REASONS TO STAY: Aasia’s backstory could have used some beefing up.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is very adult, but otherwise suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Switzers were referred to the filmmakers by Rudy Rupak of Planet Hospital. After leaving a message for the couple, the filmmakers were contacted within ten minutes by the Switzers and the agreement for the documentary team to film their journey was reached.
HOME OR THEATER: While a DVD release is likely on the horizon, your best bet is to catch this at a local film festival.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
TOMORROW: The Troll Hunter