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Surrogacity: Just like James Franco

In the first three months of 2016, the number of wealthy Chinese couples hiring fertility and surrogacy gestation services at US-based clinics grew by 260%. Many fertility clinics based in the United States admit that Chinese nationals already constituted 40% of their clientele. This surge was in part a rapid reaction to the end of China’s one-child reproductive policy. Due to the effects of long-term exposure to environmental pollution, many surrogacies requires couples to receive pre-conception fertility treatment, and with cases in which either one or both members of the couple are infertile, egg and/or sperm donation. According to Jennifer Garcia, case coordinator at the Californian fertility clinic Extraordinary Conceptions, couples prefer donors to have Ivy League degrees, and “lots of Chinese clients” select cells from tall blond donors, which can double the cost. “You can basically make a designer baby nowadays.” California Cryo Bank, an online bank trading semen for use in IVF (in vitro fertilization), has even developed a trademarked “Look-A-Likes” service that sorts donors according to their resemblance to male celebrities such as James Franco or Ji Jin-hee, actors whose beauty is generally appreciated by both Asian and Western tastes. As a complement to basic fertility treatment, clinics offer genetic selection services. Embryos are screened before they are placed in the surrogate uterus in order to eliminate those that might carry conditions such as sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, or muscular dystrophy. Screening also makes it possible to select the gender of the embryos being implanted.

In Chinese society, male descendants are expected to take responsibility for their parents’ welfare when they get older. Screening for genetic diseases and gender selection are thus often part of strategies intended to reduce the financial and affective risks for the future of the couples hoping to become parents. Furthermore, while newborns conceived with genetic material from Chinese nationals can be easily registered as Chinese citizens, children born in US territory from a surrogate uterus (and thus with US citizenship under the fourteenth amendment of the US Constitution) can sponsor their parents for green cards upon reaching the age of twenty-one. At an average cost of $150,000 USD, forty times the annual salary of a school teacher in Beijing, gender selection combined with in vitro fertilization and overseas surrogacy has become part of an increasingly popular scheme among affluent Chinese couples to reduce future uncertainty, gain transnational citizenship, and style their children as transnationally seductive—all with the intention of positioning these newly produced humans as privileged actors between the world’s biggest zones of production and consumption.

As much as these practices have grown in affluent social circles, the public image of surrogacies is still in the making. In 2009, the TV and movie star couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick released a photograph—a carefully-composed version of generic celebrity-mother in-hospital birth scene—that was intended to render public the arrival of their just-born twin daughters, but this image was not unanimously accepted as a representation of the social constituency of this nativity event. At the same time that Parker and Broderick were composing the bed scene, their lawyers were in a legal fight to avoid having the image of their surrogate mother, Michelle Ross, from being spread in gossip blogs as “the tattooed, bisexual rocker who was pregnant with Sarah Jessica Parker’s twins.”

In the case of Chinese-American surrogates, traditional ways of relating the identities of newborns with geographical demarcations are being challenged. For instance, the transnational dislocation of conception and birth makes it impossible for these Chinese parents to use bazi, an astrology-based method to select the names of newborns. Humans engendered in this transnational way challenge birth as a source of bodily ascription to unitary geographies and destabilize the way that this fact is registered by popular cultural practices.

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