Wombs for Rent
“I think it’s time,” Taylor said, putting her coffee mug on the table. Cynthia raised an eyebrow.
“Time for what?”
“I feel I’ve reached that stage in my life, you know?”
“I didn’t think you were so old-fashioned,” said Cynthia, smiling as she blew the steam from her Americano. Taylor smiled broadly, uncrossed her legs and leaned forward toward her friend.
“I’m talking about a baby, Cynthia.”
Now it was Cynthia’s turn to play with her mug. It was a weighty subject for morning coffee. They met nearly every Saturday morning at Monk’s, logging many hours in these padded armchairs over the past three years. The two talked about work, relationships, family and other frustrations. Still, this was a subject that had rarely come up. She looked at her friend, whose shiny dark locks framed a face still unlined, and brightened by lipstick—even on a Saturday morning. “Why now, Taylor? You’re only thirty-two. These days, it’s no rush.”
“I know,” Taylor said. “But I feel like it’s the right time. Besides, you can have a baby late, but then you have to raise one.”
Cynthia shrugged. “Okay.”
“Anyway, I was wondering … I mean, would you come with me?”
“Where?” Cynthia chuckled, “The delivery room?”
“The surrogacy clinic.”
Cynthia sighed and ran her fingers through her cropped blonde hair.
“Well,” she said after a pause, “I’m glad you’re not crazy enough to have it yourself. Remember Jackie?”
Taylor wrinkled her nose and giggled. “How could I forget? Who does that anymore? She was such a blimp!”
“I know. Remember how she kept getting stopped by police? They thought she was an escapee.”
The two women shook their heads ruefully.
“That really would be crazy,” Taylor said. “I definitely have better things to do. It’s so demeaning.”
“Mmmm” said Cynthia, sipping her coffee. “So are you going to the clinic on Fifty-Second?”
“Yeah. How about next week after coffee?”
* * *
Jeannie looked at her alarm clock and rubbed her eyes. 9 a.m. That was the latest she was allowed to sleep, even on a Saturday. If she didn’t hurry, there would be line-ups for the shower. Groaning, she rolled out of bed and slipped her feet into her flip-flops. She grabbed her bathroom bag and towel on the way out of the bedroom. The shower room was already busy when she arrived. Dozens of women stood under clusters of showerheads attached to a central pipe, which ran along the ceiling. Jeannie stowed her bag on a shelf directly across from an open shower, where she could see it as she washed. It was Sita who had warned her about the theft here. But Sita no longer slept in Jeannie’s room, or showered on this floor. She had been promoted to the upper wing a couple of weeks ago. They met in the lunchroom now, but only occasionally. The women in the upper wing had a different kitchen.
Jeannie soaped her hair as she let the warm water run over her shoulders. She had learned to ignore the furtive glances of other women. Among so many bare breasts and thighs she studiously watched the shelf along the wall. Sita had whispered that there were other things that went on after “lights out.” Male visits were not allowed—for obvious reasons—and it was a long time to stay celibate.
She stepped away from the shower and squeezed the water out of her hair before wrapping her towel around her and grabbing her bag. She headed over to the mirror, placing her bag on the counter in front of it and taking her place among the others standing side by side reflected back at her. It was a smooth young face that she saw in the mirror as she dragged a comb through her tangled blonde hair. At nineteen, she was one of the youngest women on the floor. Girlish freckles still dotted her nose, and her pale skin and blue eyes recalled Eastern Europe. She had never known her parents, so her origins were unclear. Fortunately, it didn’t matter. Everything of importance here was measured by the physical exams. She had no allergies, no blood pressure or cholesterol issues, no diabetes or epilepsy, no indication of mental disorder or depressive tendencies. She also had no job, which was why she was staying here. They didn’t pay her, but as long as she stayed in the program she had decent food, a clean place to live and plenty of exercise. If she was successful, she would be paid very well to live in the upper wing. If she had no luck after 12 months, she would be dropped from the program and resume her search for a regular job. There wasn’t much of a downside. Jeannie smoothed lotion into her face and headed back to her room. No yoga this morning. There was an inspection right after breakfast.
* * *
“Have you ever been here before?” Taylor asked, as she parked the car.
“No. I’ve never had a reason to visit,” Cynthia said, as they got out. The women were facing an enormous shiny building, all metal and glass. They had spent several minutes driving across the grounds after entering the main gate. Along the way they passed a group of pregnant women doing tai chi in one of the gardens, and a few others jogging on a track. As they crossed the parking lot Taylor turned to Cynthia and said, “I’m really glad you’re here with me today. It’s a big decision, and I appreciate having another pair of eyes.”
Cynthia nodded, “I know. You hear all those stories about breached contracts. Then you have to start all over. It can be really nasty.”
The two women walked through the main doors and were met by a tall dark-haired woman in a tailored grey suit whose nametag read “Sonia.”
“You must be Ms. Freedman,” she said, looking at Taylor. Sonia ushered them into a large office where they spent the next half hour. There were dozens of forms to sign, and Taylor received a schedule. There were medical procedures and decisions to undertake, and of course, there was money to be paid. “Your deposit is due today,” Sonia pointed out, gesturing at the clause on the form, and we’ll book your egg extraction next week. I understand you have opted for minimal intervention?”
“Yes”, Taylor replied.
Cynthia smiled. “You mean you don’t want a genetically perfected concert pianist with a penchant for languages?” she asked. Sonia’s smile looked a bit strained.
“Call me a traditionalist,” Taylor said, “as long as there are no diseases.” Sonia nodded.
“Removal of the predisposition to mental illness, cancer and congenital diseases is covered by the minimal intervention package,” she said.
“Fine. Where do I sign?” Sonia pointed to a line on the form.
“No gender preference?” Sonia asked. Taylor shook her head.
“Check this box,” Sonia said. “Now for the important part: based on your pre-selection criteria, I’ve prepared a paternity file for you.” She pressed a key on her computer and the sidewall of the office suddenly lit up, covered in male faces. It was an embedded screen. “Here are the top twenty matches.”
“Wow” said Cynthia. “It’s like a candy store.”
“They all rank highly in terms of intelligence and creativity,” Sonia explained. “These are six feet tall or better, and athletic. In fact, they all meet the criteria you sent.”
“So it doesn’t really matter which one I choose?” Taylor asked, staring at the screen.
“At this point, the only advantage is whatever pleases your eye the most” Sonia replied. Taylor looked at Cynthia.
“Second from the end, top right?” she asked, giggling. Sonia pressed another button, and the screen showed the man’s enlarged face above a numerical code and a profile, including a digital physical model.
“Candidate 62581A has excellent physiognomy…”
“As we can see” Cynthia interjected, grinning. “So,” she said, turning to Taylor with a wicked smirk, “would you?”
“Definitely” Taylor said. Sonia raised an eyebrow. “Yes,” said Taylor, “Let’s go with 62581A.”
entered a few more details in the computer and added the man’s profile to
“Very good,” she said. “Now it’s time to select a womb.”
* * *
Jeannie shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she stood in line. This was her twenty-fifth inspection, and she was beginning to get anxious. Brown girls tended to get picked first. They were thought to be more compliant with program rules and therefore a safe bet. Sita was chosen on her fifth showing. There wasn’t a woman over thirty on the floor, and they were all wore identical navy uniforms. For inspection this consisted of a bikini top and a pair of very short shorts. The sight reminded Jeannie of a track team from school. So many toned calves in a row. Obesity was a disqualifier for the program; the risk of complications was too large.
Suddenly the door opened at the end of the hall, and Sonia walked in. She was accompanied by two women. One of them was short, and a bit heavy, with long brown hair. The other was taller and thinner, with cropped blonde curls. They both looked in their thirties. Jeannie took this in through the corners of her eyes. Turning to look directly was not allowed.
The three women made their way slowly down the centre of the room, eyeing the row of women on either side. They stopped in front of a darker woman—one of the older ones on the floor—likely of North African descent. “Sixty-Six has completed two successful contracts,” Sonia said, encouragingly. The blonde woman shook her head and whispered something to the other. Jeannie had learned that one previous pregnancy could be attractive, but some customers were nervous about falsified pregnancy records that concealed a larger number. No one wanted a woman who had already had three. People worried about nutrient depletion.
They walked on, stopping briefly a couple of times. It was the short dark-haired woman who paused in front of Jeannie. “What about her?” she asked.
“102 has excellent health markers,” Sonia replied. Looking at Jeannie, she said, “Please step forward.”
Jeannie stared straight ahead as the short woman and her blonde companion circled her.
“They keep them in very good shape here,” the blonde woman remarked.
“You’ve got nothing to envy, Cynthia,” said the other. Turning to Sonia she asked, “No previous pregnancies?” Sonia shook her head, “She has everything to give.”
“Okay,” the short woman said. Sonia made a quick entry on her clipboard and nodded at Jeannie, who stepped back into line.
“We’ll have the contract ready for you to sign tomorrow,” Sonia said to the woman, as she led the way out of the room.
* * *
Jeannie sat on her bed, in the small blue room that was her own for nine months. She would be moved to the milking floor afterwards, because Taylor had checked the “breastfeeding” portion of her papers. Jeannie had signed a mountain of forms before her treatments commenced. The medical appointments were intrusive and difficult, but she had read about that. There was nothing that prepared her for the vomiting, though … the steely taste in the back of her throat that sent her moaning into the bathroom. Then there was the ache in her joints and the small of her back. Slight at first, it had become worse with the weeks and was now constant. The swelling of her body, her thickening ankles, and increasingly awkward walk, and the regular medical inspections—all of it was miserable, embarrassing and tedious. She reminded herself that this was what she was being paid for. But this morning there was something else. A sudden flutter beneath her diaphragm.
Jeannie rubbed her domed belly with her hand. Again. Definite movement from within. She sat on the bed for a moment, waiting—straining with every nerve to pick up another sensation. Sinking back into the pillows, she lay on her back and stared at the ceiling.
* * *
The next day she found herself staring at the ceiling again, as the technician applied gel and then pressure to her hard, tight belly, inflated like a beach ball. “Look” the woman said, gesturing at the screen. It was the feet Jeannie noticed first, the perfect little toes. The baby was floating, one hand outstretched, like a restless sleeper. She caught her breath, staring. Suddenly, she felt—and saw—the baby move again. She was fascinated by the perfect little body growing inside her. It was a baby girl. “Looks like everything is coming along just fine,” the technician said, making notes in a folder. “Our client will be pleased with the progress report.”
A few days later Jeannie spotted Sita in the lunchroom. Making her way over, she managed to maneuver into the seat across from her. Sita was several weeks ahead and due to deliver in the next couple of days. She smiled across the table, attacking a plate filled with rice, eggs and vegetables. “How are you feeling, Jeannie?” she asked.
“Okay, I guess. Heavy. And she kicks a lot.”
“The baby? Mmm… mine too.”
“When are you due?”
“Are you looking forward to it?”
“To what?” Sita asked, raising an eyebrow. “You mean labour? I don’t think so.”
Jeannie shook her head. “No, I meant seeing your baby.”
“But, Jeannie,” she said, leaning forward, “I won’t.”
“What do you mean?” Jeannie asked, incredulously. “You’re going to the milking floor too.”
“Don’t you know what’s up there?” Sita asked, inclining her head. “Breast pumps. You will be milked like a cow several times a day. The client gets to feed the child through a bottle. They take the baby out of you, and that’s the last you know about it.” Jeannie felt as though she had been slapped. Of course Sita was right. She had never heard babies on the upper floor. She had simply assumed that she would have the chance to see and hold the tiny child she had been carrying all these months. Suddenly she was angry. Irrationally, she felt a lump forming in her throat.
“Don’t you find that… hard, Sita?” she asked, trying to control her voice. Sita looked at her plate.
“Better not to think about it” she muttered.
* * *
Several weeks later Taylor was sitting across from Sonia, looking at the screen embedded in the office wall. The image of the baby, magnified several times, glowed in front of them.
“Any thoughts about a name yet?” Sonia asked. Taylor smiled. “It looks like you’ve already given her one,” she said, nodding toward the alphanumeric code at the top of the screen. Sonia returned her smile politely, and waited.
“I’ve had a name in mind for a while. I guess I’ll know for sure when I see her.”
“That day is coming soon,” Sonia said, flipping a page in front of her. “Your delivery is scheduled for next week. Monday morning.”
“When will I be notified?” Taylor asked, leaning forward eagerly.
“We’ll let you know as soon as the delivery is complete,” Sonia said. “We can’t tell you exactly how long it will be, but you’ve given us your twenty-four hour contact details, so we should have no trouble reaching you. There will be one or two release forms for you to sign when you come to pick her up. And of course, the remaining payment will be due before you leave.” Taylor nodded.
“You’re going to be a mother,” Sonia said, smiling encouragingly.
“I guess so,” said Taylor, glancing back at the screen. She wasn’t sure what else to say.
Leaving Sonia’s office, Taylor felt buoyant.
As she crossed the parking lot to her shiny new car she felt expectant, like
a child before Christmas. She suddenly wondered what she would wish for after
the baby arrived. She had a place of her own, a career she enjoyed and this
fabulous vehicle. Turning the key in the ignition she heard the engine’s
waking hum and smiled. Soon she would have a child, the last thing on her
checklist. It was a bright autumn afternoon, and she pulled out of the parking
lot, turning sharply and feeling her wheels grip the road. The red and orange
leaves were drifting down in the breeze as she picked up speed on the narrow
road leading out of the compound. Her momentum sent the leaves that touched
the car spinning off to either side. As she approached the final turn before
the gate she was tempted to brake slightly, but the car was handling so well
that she barely touched the pedal. Taylor saw the branches of the maple to
her left as she rounded the curve, and then the figure in front of her. Her
mouth opened as she stamped on the brakes and swerved, but she felt the thud
on the passenger side. Moments later, she could smell her smoking tires as
she shakily opened the door and got out of the car.
The woman lay on the side of the road: a heap of cloth and limbs. As Taylor approached she saw straw-coloured hair scattered across the woman’s pale cheeks. Her belly was full and round. With a shudder of horror Taylor realised that she was pregnant . . . heavily pregnant. With trembling hands she reached for her phone and dialed emergency services.
Hours later Taylor was sitting in Sonia’s office again. There were no smiles as Sonia thumbed through a pile of papers in front of her.
“How is she?” Taylor managed to get out, swallowing hard.
“She’s sustained a concussion, which will require ongoing monitoring, and a fracture to her arm,” Sonia replied. “Otherwise her condition seems stable now. But I have some very bad news for you.”
Taylor waited, gut clenched, for whatever was coming.
“I’m afraid your contract with us has been prematurely terminated.”
“My contract? But….how?” Taylor was utterly bewildered.
“The woman you hit was your surrogate. The baby didn’t survive.”
Taylor felt as though the room was spinning. She sank back into the chair and buried her face in her hands.
“We are still investigating what she was doing outside the clinic. Women are not allowed out of the building in the final weeks before delivery.”
“Why would she be there?” Taylor asked, almost whispering.
Sonia shook her head. “Occasionally we have cases where surrogates decide to violate the terms of their contracts. Typically they try to leave with the babies they are carrying. They don’t get far, of course,” she added, pressing her lips into a thin line of disapproval.
“She wanted to keep the baby?” Taylor asked, incredulously.
“Completely irrational, of course” said Sonia. “The baby did not belong to her in any way.”