It's difficult to watch the continuing fuss over surrogate motherhood and retain any sympathy for Mary Beth Whitehead. At first the Baby M case had to tug at one's feelings however firmly one holds to the sanctity of contracts. Yes, Whitehead had agreed to bear a child in exchange for a sum of money and then wanted to renege on the arrangement. But people often regret decisions after realizing their true consequences, and whatever should then happen (often, living with the regretted decision) we can empathize with those who now know more and judge more clearly.
But now Whitehead pops up regularly at public events. And much as she objects to having been "used" in the service of another couple, she's letting herself be exploited by political activists who have an agenda as wide as it is long.
In September, Whitehead starred at a press conference held by the National Coalition Against Surrogacy, a group organized by Jeremy Rifkin. Rifkin, who has a radical antiprogress, antiprofits pedigree stretching back to the '60s, is the gadfly who keeps trying to stymie medical and agricultural advances in genetic engineering.
In Mary Beth Whitehead, Rifkin has found a great audiovisual aid. He complains about "mothers victimized through surrogacy" and "exploited by surrogate commercialization." Yet he props Whitehead up in front of audiences, where she invariably gushes tears and speaks in "a voice cracked with emotion." No exploitation here, uh-uh.
Gena Corea, feminist author of The Mother Machine a few years ago, is also getting a lot of mileage out of Whitehead. Corea played a front and center role at the September press conference, and when Whitehead appeared before a House subcommittee a month later, it was with Corea's language. "You can't treat women like baby-making machines." Of course, Whitehead said it tearfully—whereas Corea leans to footnotes and learned references to "the patriarchal urge to self-generate."
It almost makes you feel sorry for Mary Beth, the way they're using her.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Don't Weep for Mary Beth".