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Sunday, November 22, 2015 - 05:25 PM

(Illustration by Chance Bone)
You know the drill - all it takes is one sperm, one egg, and blammo - you got yourself a baby. Right? Well, in this episode, conception takes on a new form - it’s the sperm and the egg, plus: two wombs, four countries, and money. Lots of money. 

At first, this is the story of an Israeli couple, two guys, who go to another continent to get themselves a baby - three, in fact - by hiring surrogates to carry the children for them. As we follow them on their journey, an earth shaking revelation shifts our focus from them, to the surrogate mothers. Unfolding in real time, as countries around the world consider bans on surrogacy, this episode looks at a relationship that manages to feel deeply affecting, and deeply uncomfortable, all at the same time. 

Birthstory is a collaboration with the brilliant radio show and podcast Israel Story, created to tell stories for, and about, Israel. Go check ‘em out! 

We unfortunately claimed that this is Israel Story's first English-language season. In fact, it is their second. Both seasons were produced in partnership with Tablet Magazine and we highly recommend you listen to all of their work at

This episode was produced and reported by Molly Webster. Special thanks go to: Israel Story, and their producers Maya Kosover, and Yochai Maital; reporters Nilanjana Bhowmick in India and Bhrikuti Rai in Nepal plus the International Reporting Project; Doron Mamet, Dr Nayana Patel, and Vicki Ferrara; with translation help from Aya Keefe, Karthik Ravindra, Turna Ray, Tom Wasserman, Pradeep Thapa, and Adhikaar, an organization in Ridgewood, Queens advocating for the Nepali-speaking community. 

Audio Extra:

Tal and Amir had a chance to meet each surrogate once - just after the deliveries, after all the paperwork was sorted out, and before any one left Nepal. As Amir says, they wanted to say "a big thank you." These meetings between intended parents, surrogate, and new babies are a traditional part of the surrogacy process in India and Nepal, and we heard reports from the surrogates that they also look forward to them. These moments do not stigmatize, reveal the identity of, or endanger the surrogates. Tal and Amir provided the audio for this web extra.


Nilanjana Bhowmick, Maya Kosover, Dana Magdossi, Yochai Maital and Bhrikuti Rai

Produced by:

Molly Webster


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Comments [118]

Kristin from California

I just listened to this story which I found to fall flat of RadioLab's usual high standards.

It was simplistic to end the story on the note that the $5,000US while it fell short of the !2K was still enough to do a lot in these women's lives. Did you actually visit these women who had bought their houses/stores a few years later to see if it did make a difference?(Try reading Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers.) There were many unanswered questions. What happens when the surrogate mother dies in childbirth? Is her family compensated? How much?(and truly, how can one compensate orphaned children?).

Surrogacy is a moral maze, and Radio Lab should have ended on that note as there was not enough time or resources for the show to cover them in the detail demanded.

Apr. 17 2018 12:59 AM
Susan Kibler from New Jersey

I found parts of this article uplifting and parts disturbing.

Most upsetting was the lack of transparency in surrogate compensation, and when it turned out they were receiving next to nothing. When the head of Lotus said she doesn't know or care what the surrogates are being paid, I could not believe it.

Lotus has now moved their operations to Ukraine, and I worry about their business practices there. To any parents considering surrogacy in Ukraine - it is a great and regulated process, but make sure you sign the contract with the surrogate directly, not through an intermediary and check with the surrogate to confirm receipt of money. If your agency does not give you access to the women carrying your child - huge red flag.

Feb. 21 2018 11:22 AM
Beedy Parker from Camden, ME

Only heard this recently, (have not read through all the comments), but wondered if you knew that, at least in India, women whose children were going to be given up for foreign adoption used to be induced early on purpose, the babies often being born prematurely and not always quite well because of not coming to term. don't know if this is still the practice.

Feb. 04 2018 05:27 PM
Michaela from Upstate New York

Radiolab framed this story as a problem with bad ol' government, and used a gay couple to make it seem sympathetic.

By the end, everyone was nodding along to the idea that these women were just making choices, being independent and stuff, and do states really have the right to ban this?

Yes, if you believe in states. That's what a state is ideally supposed to do, make law when it sees a problem: and there was a problem in Nepal, a problem which was framed by the Radiolab team as little more than media hype. Its stance is essentially the same one that Ron Paul makes when he says the state shouldn't have the right to make shop-owners serve all comers--ie, create civil rights laws. And the "...and *then* they had fill out *this* paperwork and go *here*..." narrative strengthens this.

Is NPR libertarian now? Radiolab's editorial voice on this was libertarian.

Jan. 23 2018 08:28 PM
Julianne Jaz from Seattle, WA

Just this past week I testified at the WA State Legislature, before the Health & Justice committee, about a surrogacy bill (SB 6037) being considered here, which provides for compensated surrogacy. As others have expressed, I feel RadioLab did a huge injustice to this story. There was not one word - NOT ONE - about the impact of surrogacy on the children being created, as commodified products in these transactions. You should be ashamed of yourselves for simply buying into the "feel good" story about these poor (gay) men, desperate to become "parents," and the short shrift you gave to the very real exploitation of the birthing mothers. But you couldn't even devote one word to how children are ALWAYS harmed by being deliberately taken from their mothers at birth?

The conversation around surrogacy is almost entirely focused on the DESIRES (NOT NEEDS) of people who believe they have the "right" to become parents. Excuse me, parenthood is not a right. And it most assuredly is not a right to participate in a system that commodifies both women and children for what they can provide to the more affluent among us. I doubt we'll ever hear about Kim Kardashian becoming a surrogate for her housekeeper. There's a reason for that, and it's called PRIVILEGE.

What follows below is a small part of the testimony I presented at the legislature. I sincerely hope you will actually research this story much further and instead tell the real story of what is happening to the women and children who are exploited by surrogacy, all to give the wealthy the "option" of parenthood they'd like us to think they so richly deserve.

"In 1993, Nancy Newton Verrier wrote The Primal Wound, Understanding the Adopted Child, overturning "conventional wisdom" claiming there was no impact to children taken from their mother's at birth. She illuminates why surrogacy should be banned, not legalized. Among her most important points: 1) The wrong mother is labeled “surrogate;” the birthing mother is the mother of that baby, the surrogate is the “substitute” mother. 2) This reversal of truth lends legitimacy to surrogacy; calling the real mother a “surrogate” denies her importance in her child’s life. 3) Whether the mother is carrying her own, or another’s, biological child, severing their connection at birth creates a “primal wound” in the child, because it is the prenatal bonding where their profound connection is forged.

From the child’s perspective, there are no cases in which surrogacy should be allowed. It is profoundly wrong to engineer circumstances in which children are greatly harmed psychologically by intent. I cannot agree with the premise of this bill – that becoming a parent trumps the child’s needs. That is narcissism in its purest form. If this bill is passed, you will have created the framework for state-sanctioned child abuse and trafficking."

Tell the real story, RadioLab. You owe it to the CHILDREN.

Jan. 21 2018 08:56 PM
Rachel from WI

This was an interesting and troubling story. I am glad I stumbled upon RadioLab.

Jan. 21 2018 05:11 PM
QL from US

Bad reporting and thinkng. No mention of what happens in the case of Down Syndrome, for example, Nor other specific health dangers of being in the womb or carrying a fetus in the womb. And, no mention of how unconscious the purchasers are of such risks. Further, they did not pay a lawyer to explain the contract to them, and your reporting made absolutely no mention of this obvious lack of due diligence. Those in the governments you implicitly disparage have thankfully been more conscious of these dangers.

Jan. 21 2018 06:36 AM
Vikki from Pennsylvania, United States

Tal & Amir, I am so glad you got the Family you deserve. It was a long, hard road, yes, but in the end you got the prize. Love those babies with all you have!

Jan. 20 2018 09:04 PM
Anita from America

I see lots of commenters saying adopt.
I think many of the people/couples would NOT be allowed to adopt. Gays, and sometimes single people have a hard time in many countries being approved for adoption.

Jan. 20 2018 03:56 PM
Dennis King from Canada

Do the citizens of this over populated world really have the moral right to do this; when orphanages hold tens of thousands of young; when countless die every day for lack of food, and all the while we degrade the planet ( water & soil) trying to produce and deliver their needs?

Jan. 19 2018 11:08 AM
David Why from Georgia

Great story - "You're doing it wrong", with fractal upon fractal ramifications. There's something to be said about listening when the Universe is leaving big hints for you.

Apr. 23 2017 12:30 PM
JOSH from reality

The bans are about keeping women under the thumb of men, duh. Why do you think prostitution is illegal? You can't let women make a living by using their own bodies and having power to be completely autonomous from a "bread winner" heaven forbid.

Dec. 22 2016 09:54 PM
Sri from San Francisco

Did the surrogate really say she was doing this so she could save up to pay the Dowry when her daughters grow up & get married? I couldn't hear that sound bite as Molly was talking over (translating). But based on what I heard from the surrogate before & after Molly started talking, I didn't get the indication she ever mentioned Dowry. Only seemed like she was talking about the expenses related to organising a wedding. I understand Hindi, the language the surrogate was speaking.
I certainly hope she did mention it, because I want to believe Molly didn't just add that extra bit of information just to make this episode extra dramatic or show Indians, or at least this woman, in a worse light than she actually is.
I have huge respect for this show & their producers. But after hearing this I'm worried a lot of their episodes might just be exaggerations & over-dramatisations.
I hope that is not the case. I don't want something like this to take away the credibility of the reporters & thus the show, no matter how big or small the pieces of information.
Besides, Dowry used to be, & in some parts still is, a huge problem in India. People have lost lives due to this Dowry business. But things have also dramatically improved & are still continuing to improve everyday, with the spread of education & communication. It is a significant story in & of itself. Not something you can take lightly & sort of, mention in passing or to quickly throw in to add a dramatic effect. That's irresponsible & disrespectful to the people who have dealt with or are continuing to deal with the evils of dowry, and makes light of the fact that great efforts went into improving the situation. It is like doing a 2-hour long episode about world war 2 & in the end casually mentioning, "Oh by the way, Hitler killed millions of Jews. Bye."
Anyway, again, I am hoping this was not a case of over-dramatisation. I would actually appreciate some clarity/a response on this. I'm a big fan of this podcast. I hope to finish listening to each & every episode you've put out, but hopefully without the feeling that it's "corrupted".

Oct. 22 2016 04:48 AM
elissar from Netherlands

I think it is really unfair to the surrogate and exploitation of those women, if they were financially free am 100% they wont do that, you guys are presenting it as a kind of business but having a baby is not business it is way more than that, and expressed clearly by the woman who lost the baby in your report when she said " I felt it was my own". if the intent of both parties is good, and I believe it is, they can try adaptation and safe a child life who really need a family, there must be countries out there still allowing adaptation even for gays couples

Aug. 12 2016 02:09 AM
Jennifer Lunden from Portland, Maine

I certainly understand why these and other couples opt for surrogacy. A red flag that was not addressed in the piece was the fact that both surrogate mothers delivered prematurely. I couldn't help but think that labor was induced to increase "productivity" and reduce costs. Did Radiolab look into this aspect? I wonder how often couples have been presented with premature babies, with all their additional health complications.

Mar. 26 2016 04:59 PM
The Problem

Surrogacy is like prostitution. It is the "only" solution for those in extreme poverty to make money.

No woman with economic liberty would sacrifice their body (at the risk of not being paid a cent if the pregnancy didn't succeed, ha!) if they were well enough off.

The problem will fix itself as more people are brought out of abject poverty. Hopefully surrogacy is banned worldwide within the next few generations.

Mar. 23 2016 09:26 AM
Diana C from Ohio

I understand the outrage at the mismatch of costs, but one of the involved calculations was not explored. Are the women transported from India, housed, fed, and their medical care paid for? Is that in addition to the monthly payment package and lump sum at the end for a completed pregnancy? Because it sounds like all of that is true, from the "women are brought from Nepal" passive voice to "they are fed well."

Pregnancy is expensive. So is birth. I would not be surprised that the total payout from Lotus to the surrogate women does total $12,000.

Mar. 07 2016 09:33 AM
kd from Iowa City, IA

I'd really love to hear the story of the women purchasing property, and what that means to their communities as well as the ways it could shape them. There's such a universal story in the emergence into land ownership and what a pivotal moment that could be in the story of a whole family.

Between graduate degrees, I worked on an oral history project out of UNC Chapel Hill exploring the history and impact of land ownership and farming for African Americans in the Deep South (particularly Mississippi). That experience, going out and collecting stories from first and second generation landowners, really made a difference in the way I understood land and community development as a series of events at the family level, and how those stories radiate outward to become the histories of towns and regions.

Feb. 21 2016 07:58 PM
K-sass from Toronto, ON

Is there a link to the video footage with Tal performing the sign language? Seems like it would be something to see.

Feb. 08 2016 03:11 PM
Todd from Canada

"Birthstory is a collaboration with the brilliant radio show and podcast Israel Story, created to tell stories for, and about, Israel. Go check ‘em out!"

I guess if Radiolab is collaborating with and promoting Israeli podcasts, the producers are either somehow unaware of the apartheid system Israel has implemented to the detriment of Palestinians & equally-ignorant of the cultural boycott of Israel until it dismantles apartheid or else they just don't care.

I can't describe how disappointed I am that Radiolab would take a de facto pro-apartheid position by ignoring the cultural boycott of Israel in its collaboration with and promotion of Israeli media. You have lost a long-time fan.

Feb. 04 2016 09:06 AM
Denise from Maryland

Just heard this encore production due to bad weather I'm thinking...but was very disappointed in how desperately Ms. Webster and team struggled to justify surrogacy using third world women because afterall..the women were freely and voluntarily making a business earn some desperately needed money for land or a house or a startup....

Perhaps you did so because the people who unwillingly found themselves in the spotlight for using these women at every point along the assembly line were Israelis...
How to solve this manufactured problem of Israeli gays desperately seeking babies and third world women desperately seeking money you ponder so deeply? How about telling those guys to go back to Israel and work to make surrogacy there for gay parents LEGAL so they can find and pay women there...I'm sure there's some desperately poor Palestinian women who'd like to earn a little extra money as much as those Indian women.

Prostitutes need money too..would you struggle hard to justify their line of work? I'm sure most of them also willing make a decision to enter that line of work to help their families and themselves.

Jan. 24 2016 01:08 PM

Fascinating story, sensitively told. I felt you were showing the state of things at this moment, given so many circumstances that are, yes, open for exploitation. One thing I don't hear about surrogacy, though, is about the affect of taking large amounts of estrogen on surrogate mothers (or women having IVF treatments). My own experience was that the high dosage of estrogen changed my body and health. Menses was much worse permanently; there may have been an acceleration of a disease of the uterus called adenomyosis, a proliferation of glands in the womb walls; and an emotional roller coaster. There are many stories of women succumbing to cancer - like the first woman in England to have a "test tube" baby. I'd appreciate a more rigorous exploration of the health affects of taking massive quantities of estrogen.

Jan. 23 2016 05:31 PM
Aimee C from Plymouth, MA

May I please know where to get the song that's just after the podcast but just befor the credits? The one with intertwined women's voices? I looked up Naaz Jiwa and the Balkan Beat Box, but I can't find it, and I *love* it. Is it published anywhere?

Jan. 23 2016 04:56 PM
Lou Ann from Alameda, CA

Is there a chronological narrative of this story? I found it impossible to follow in this over-produced over-dramatized production.

Jan. 23 2016 04:44 PM

Thank you Radiolab for covering this story.

Jan. 23 2016 02:20 PM

I knew the comments I would find here would be judgemental, negative and closed minded, because the tone of the first half of your story was totally sensationalist and brushed over any discussion of infertility, what it means to be a family (it is NOT simply blood and genetics), and the actual real life experiences of donor conceived adults, adoptees and others brought into the world in unusual ways. When not hidden from the truth, donor conceived children and adoptees feel no 'shame' in their story of origin, and with semi open or open donor and adoption arrangements have full access to their medical history, genetics, origin etc.

It is only when people hide the truth - because of the views of 99% of closed minded people who felt compared to share their small minded view of what motherhood/family means - that children suffer and feel shame. All those people who think they care about the child - all you are doing is judging another human being when you have absolutely no idea of their story, of their existence.

My husband and I tried for over 3 years to have a family, and failed 4 rounds of IVF. We are now moving forward with a donor, who is an absolutely wonderful human being. Yes we are compensating her - I wouldn't have it any other way. But we also carefully chose her to be someone who seems like she would 'fit in our family'. The idea that we are all practicing Eugenics is hurtful and inaccurate. Babies don't come out as carbon copies of their parents - so there is no way to predict what they will look like just because you chose a donor who is 5'10" with blue eyes. Most agencies instruct intended parents to look for more virtuous qualities, including simply feeling like this is someone you'd feel drawn to at a family gathering or picnic.

We have a semi open relationship with our donor, who like me studies economics, like me comes from South Asia, and who in fact bears an uncanny resemblance to my mother when she was in her 20s. We feel this person has a special role in our family, like a fairy godmother. We feel our child will come into the world with so much love already, that even someone outside of their parents helped bring them into the world. This is a beautiful thing, and I am proud of myself and my husband that we are open with everyone about what we are doing - this is what is best for our child, despite all the negative sensationalist and judgemental attitudes I see from the comments above people may be saying about us behind closed doors. I am already a good parent, doing what is best for my child - better than any of the small minded people above.

We are a modern family, and I wish Radiolab would have looked at the items I listed above (what it means to be a family, what makes donor conceived children happiest, the reality that many gifts given throughout the ages are not meant to be repaid or exactly accounted for - they are gifts and the transaction may be lopsided and that is OK). Educate these people, please.

Jan. 23 2016 10:33 AM
Tamara Sanders from michigan

I wish the world would get together and ban surrogacy. You never spoke much about the children who will never know their blood heritage. It is more lost than that of the descendants of slaves whose names were not recorded. On par with the selling of human organs. Unnatural and unethical.

Jan. 22 2016 02:05 PM
MKmom from Los Angeles

Wonderful job covering a complex and sensitive topic. I was upset by the comments because it seems like people want to twist the story to their own political agenda. Radiolab and their partners did agreat job, humanizing all the elements. The story brings out many issues. So first, dont shoot the messengers. Second, no one in any part of the so called transactions under estimates the complexity. If anything, it seemed that every person except the agency woman, had great compassion and a desire to do the best they can. So, as the producers said in the end-- it is about the tremendous energy and crestivity to meet and match needs in a troubled and unfair world economy. Key words there-- compassion.

Jan. 21 2016 01:54 AM
Aaron from Wilmington, NC

This episode has made me stop listening. I listened to this episode just before Thanksgiving and have pondered if writing you was worth my time or just brush it off. I am floored by the lack of clarification and misdirection of information. I am a supporter of all lifestyles and thoroughly believe that people should live they way they want to.

In the story the producer says that it was "illegal" for them to adopt. Not true. there are at least 21 countries in the developed world that allow adoption to same sex couples. I think this should be more, but to say its not an option in order to vet the subect's story is horrible.

So this started off pretty bad. I waited for a redemption, but it never came. The guys searched for surrogates they found one that was half price. Great, so usually when you go with a cut rate service they're going to have some less than savory practices. Its the way business is, you get what you pay for. Rather than questioning the company they decided to have two children. Because why not?! Its half price!

Seriously, was anyone shocked that the company wasn't paying the woman as much as they said they were? I'm a supporter of this too. I think it should be legal if its what you want to do. But, don't lie and say you had no other choice because its "illegal" to adopt. Its not. Don't go with a cut rate service because 60k is better than 120k then decide to have two half price babies.

Why were none of these discrepancies addressed? Because they're friends of the producer? They were trying to save a buck, and didn't want to adopt. One of them was jealous that he wasn't going to have a child from his sperm too. So they have two children through a company that is half the price because they couldn't afford the original 120K? This is closer to a story on human trafficking than it is of a helpless couple.

Jan. 19 2016 09:14 AM

PLEASE, I beg, I cry, I urge you to bring more science stories! I am a Radiolab fanatic of the first degree - a living Radiolab jukebox, I have a Robert Krulwich picture on my wall, my friends painted me a Radiolab t shirt for my birthday which I glamorously flaunt in all my social media profile pictures because there is nothing that I identify more with than Radiolab, I force friends, family and strangers I meet on the train to listen to Radiolab, in fact at some point I even blackmailed my mother to listen to an episode or I won't talk to her, I send people emails with list of episodes to listen to.. BUT with a fair warning that the latest episodes are TOTALLY not in keeping with the quality of the old stories. Please guys, don't take my fix away from me..

Jan. 16 2016 06:01 AM
Smith Jones from San Diego

I would be interested in a follow up or companion story on this issue. Some topics that come to mind are, what post birth medical care is provided? What happens if the child is born with medical issues or a disability? How does foreign surrogacy differ from the American surrogacy system? An interview with a child born through this system would be interesting too.

Jan. 14 2016 03:13 PM
D from Florida

Is it possible to find the woman that miscarried and didn't get paid?

Jan. 11 2016 09:47 AM
Dominic from California

There is a huge hole in this reporting. Why can't the gay couple adopt any of the hundreds of thousands of orphaned babies in countries all around the world? Why do they have to go through this insane process?

it is all because of bigotry, principally derived from religion. Yet again, to quote the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens' book, religion ruins everything.

Without religious bigotry this couple could have got over their wish to spread their DNA (thereby saving $120,000) and changed the lives of a couple of unwanted babies.

Jan. 04 2016 12:45 PM
Moses jones from NM

Come on now people, getting your drawers twisted. This fantisy land you want to live in does not exist and will never exist. It is changing in different ways. The situation that this woman is in, is poor. She has an opportunity to make an exchange, and better her and her family's existence. Remember we live in a capitalist world. Who has the money has the power. She saw a way to empower her family and she took it. How else is she going to get that amount of capital? She's not.
Ya, let's tear the f$&king system down and start a utopian one! BS. We are hardly better than wild beasts in the big picture. We screw, fight , and kill to get to a higher standing. Those women had an opportunity, and they took it. Good for them, seriously I hope they got land and/or a house. You condem this action from your seat of comfort. Stand in the filth a while and see, what would you do given the opertunity to stand out.
Does it suck that we as a world have this massive economicly impoverished areas. Largely do to the white race. Ya, that is kind of sh17y. But that is where we stand. And in what ways can we help these lady's in poverty, and yet keep as many options open to them to find ways to better there and there family's existence. Of corse be god damn decent about it.

Jan. 04 2016 03:59 AM
Marty from North Carolina

There is nothing beautiful about this story, in my opinion. It's yet another example of how the rich exploit the poor to get what they want. Another example of how women's bodies are commodities. Another example of pronatalism. Your reporters rationalize it by saying that the women made a choice to be surrogates freely and that they were paid - and you had the audacity to equate that choice with women's empowerment. So long as women are seen primarily as a means of reproduction and until we achieve equality around the world, this type of surrogacy cannot be an empowering transaction. It is a choice made because there aren’t better choices for these women. It’s a choice born from poverty and inequality. While I have compassion for Tal and Amir and all of the other lesbian and gay couples who are prevented from becoming parents because of stigma and persecution, why are they not spending their time and financial resources advocating for policy change instead of continuing to support a system that exploits poor women? It doesn’t create positive change for women, nor for the LGBTQ community. It feels self-serving to me. I don’t believe that humans have a right to be parents by any means necessary, just because they want to and just because they have the money.

Dec. 31 2015 11:16 AM
Kristin Jones from Alpharetta, GA

A while back you guys did a story about how the cells and DNA of a fetus can live in it's mother's body for the rest of her life, sometimes with surprising and damaging effects like autoimmune diseases and cancer. After listening to this story, I couldn't help but wonder what the long term effects of surrogacy are on a birthmother, when neither the egg nor the sperm are indigenous to her internal ecosystem. Can you help me with this curiosity?

Dec. 30 2015 08:38 PM
Sky from CO, USA

Still looking for that music at the end. Searching the credited music (naz jiwa and Balkan beat bop) isn't getting what I'm looking for.

Dec. 27 2015 03:58 AM

I'm disgusted by the attitude of western privileged people that will never experience nor have to live under circumstances . The way these women are seen by neo-colonialists in infantilizing way is totally out of line. Especially given how we in the west benefit from other people's poverty - from everything from iphones to very resources we use up. We are the LAST people that should talk about fairness, human rights - in self righteous way.

Just wishing this all to be like USA isn't going to help anyone. Nor should anyone have to confirm to false democratic ideals of the west. Perhaps some humility will do the west some good.

I dont care about how people in WEST - especially people who will never be in the culture and circumstances these women will be. I care about the opinions, needs, and wants of the women themselves and we should all help to make that possible. - NOT insist that we should assert our opinions on people and cultures we know NOTHING about.

Dec. 23 2015 10:51 PM
Bonnie from Cincinnati, OH

I'm not sure what the drive is, aside from creating balanced journalism, to not label this New Colonialism. I would say that anyone who does not consider this exploitation has not read a lot of the research on the status of women in developing nations. The woman who says 'you can't make the world a happy place' has a cynical view of what we are able to do in terms of advocating for women and creating communities where they are empowered. I would guess that this business has been a good one for her and her views are less a realistic and practical view of the world, than a pragmatic one for her to maintain her lifestyle.

Instead of stating that these women are 'making a business decision' why not look at the whole perspective? The fact that these organizations are taking advantage of low regulation. That they make no effort to track their funds, and that if there was a strong interest and a will to truly help impoverished women in these countries, wouldn't we create organizations that train them to have skills? Create a space for them to advocate for policies in those countries that would benefit their economic growth? And in general find ways to empower them to have economic opportunities that reflect the morals and values of a democratic nation (assuming some of these organizations are run by US or other democratic states)?

Simply accepting an option that we would find immoral and unfair in our own culture and stating that it is "okay" for someone who is poor in another culture is unacceptable, and fails to acknowledge the heart of the issues that women face in these countries.

Dec. 21 2015 12:37 PM
Taya from Bainbridge Island, WA

1. There is a moral dilemma here between the importance of women to be respected and empowered so they can make their own choices about their bodies, and the fact that those choices may not be empowering or respectful when women are living in poverty and have few options for improving their lives. Pregnancy is not risk-free - these women are certainly putting their health and lives on the line in order to help themselves and their families. The fact that they feel it's the best choice does not change the bigger picture of why they must make this choice. This is not to say that surrogacy is necessarily exploitative or that banning it is the best choice. But to ignore or downplay the true dilemma here is a mistake.

2. As an adoptive parent in an open adoption, my first thought when hearing these stories is to think about how the children will feel when they learn about their origins. When stories like this focus on the adults involved and their wants and needs, they miss a vital issue, which is who will the children become, what will they understand, and how will that impact their feelings about themselves and their families? I think there is a bigger story here about the secrecy and anonymity involved in sperm, egg, and embryo donation (and in some cases surrogacy). When we were deciding how to create a family after learning about our infertility, we explored most of those options, but rejected them because of the secrecy involved. A child conceived and carried through these methods has a genetic tie to people they aren't being raised by. I believe that they have a right to know as much as they can about their genetic family, or at the very least to know something about them. While the adoption community in the U.S. has begun to appreciate the importance of this, the ART and surrogacy community (and the laws regulating them), continue to ignore this need. I think it would be great if you could do a story about this issue (openness, children's perspectives and needs, adoption, ART, and surrogacy). There's bound to be some interesting stories and history behind this "industry!"

Dec. 17 2015 06:59 PM
Chris from SoCal

I found the first half of this story annoying, especially the Israeli gay couple who were so naive to actually think that the surrogates were going to get well compensated. I imagine they were in some sort of denial about this fact in order to temper their guilt over having money and privilege while everyone else they were dealing with was poor. I don't mean to sound mean, but seriously, it was like 5% they cared about what negative impact they had on the women involved, and 95% they cared only about themselves (future babies, gene pool stuff, and their reputation as socially conscious people). If I were in that position I would just acknowledge that yeah, they're probably getting shit paid, but I'm sure they get shittier paid for other things, like working in a textile factory which 99% of Americans (including those who are complaining about how this surrogacy biz is exploitative of poor women) support whenever they buy any name brand or non-name brand piece of clothing. Basically if you're getting upset about this, it's because you've fallen for Radiolab's sensationalist tactic to make a bigger issue out of a small size issue. Let me be clear, it's not that there isn't unfairness, injustice, and exploitation of women in the world, and this may even be a very good example of it, but don't cherry pick your issues, if you really give a real shit, stop shopping at Gap.

The 2nd half, when the surrogates got a chance to speak for themselves, this was more interesting. Short lived however when it was followed up by commentary from the "journalists". Seriously, I think the listener can draw their own conclusions without having you to interpret it for us. This is a diatribe I know, and Radiolab folks, I do appreciate your efforts and successes at bringing obscure and interesting stories and issues to us all; just sometimes I'm a bit disappointed about the way it's packaged.

Dec. 15 2015 11:37 PM
Steve from Toronto, Canada

Wow, this episode was a tough one - there are so many angles and different ways of looking at the issues here that I don't think ANYONE could have done the complexity justice, but thanks for trying. A topic as fraught with emotional baggage as this is will always generate as many negative reactions as positive ones, but I'm glad that Radiolab continues to demonstrate the intestinal fortitude to tackle unwieldy stories like this.

I would also really like to know the song that is played right at the very end, including under the phoned-in credits.

Dec. 15 2015 08:04 PM
Dominique Haller from Madison, WI

I appreciate RadioLab covering this complex story but am very disappointed in their conclusion. This may perhaps also be a story about the amazing resilience and inventiveness of the human being, but this is first and foremost a story about privilege or the lack thereof - in other words, this is a story about WHO GETS TO MAKE WHAT CHOICES IN THEIR LIVES. These women didn't choose to be surrogates out of a position of empowerment. It is one of the few options they have to make money, and may be the least bad out of a range of very bad options. The simple fact that they do not get paid if the pregnancy fails screams EXPLOITATION. The comparison with abortion is also utterly misleading because abortion is not remunerated. The decision of a woman to have an abortion does not play into global dynamics of economic privilege or hardship to the same degree. A comparison to prostitution would be much more appropriate. Yes, there is demand, but does that make it right to ship women across border for that demand to be met? Sure these women are glad for the money, because if a mother really is forced to choose between not providing her kids with what they need - food, a future - and renting out her body, she will choose the latter. But what she really needs are other, better options.
RadioLab, up your game. This isn't good enough.

Dec. 15 2015 01:24 PM
Monica from Geneva, Switzerland

I am so incredibly disappointed in RadioLab. This is a really fascinating story but I think they should have dug deeper to address the real issue; all over the world, women are disproportionately affected by poverty. They often resort to options like this, not out of empowerment, but out of desperation. It’s really disgusting that RadioLab’s counter argument was “these women actually need this money and they do benefit from it.” That’s a very poor argument that would come from someone uneducated on poverty and global health issues; one that often comes from people justifying exploitation.

RadioLab needs to up their game.

Dec. 15 2015 08:19 AM
Kate from Detroit

This story is so complicated. It had my head spinning. There's just so much grey area.

Pregnancy is NOT easy. It's very, very, hard. You give 100% of yourself and it's extremely taxing mentally and emotionally. These women ARE desperate due to the circumstances of their social status. They offer their bodies in hopes to leave their family a legacy. They are not being compensated enough, but they are making the decision for themselves. So it's one part exploitation and one part empowering. Ugh.....

Then there's the whole issue of gay couple deserving the right to have a family. They are desperate too. And what about the gay couples that are like me, lower middle class, and simply could never afford an arrangement like this?

Oh, how much I take for granted. It makes me reflect on my 6 month old. The light of my life. For me, I just made a decision that I wanted to start a family, and it was that simple. (Although I did lose my first pregnancy to miscarriage. That sent me into full blown baby craziness. I desperately wanted to have a child.)

I sympathize with the desperation on both sides.

Dec. 12 2015 10:27 PM
WH526 from NY NY

Once again men decide for women what they can and can not do. Abolishing this opportunity for women to do by their own choice in an environment where their options are already limited to none, is a shame. Hopefully with proper oversight and health care this process can be helpful and in place again. Fascinating information, thank you for presenting it.

Dec. 12 2015 05:25 PM
Camille from US

I'm curious that the episode doesn't follow up on all those donors of "cheap white eggs." Who are they? How many donors are there? What's their compensation. Moreover, with all those children being raised in Isreal, is there no concern that as they come of age half siblings may be living in close proximity without that knowledge? Sperm donor-ship is regulated in the states because of problems with multiple families buying sperm from one man.

Dec. 09 2015 02:56 AM
Bill Lidgate

This is not a Radiolab production, they have simply procured this story from some Israelis. Given that its an Israeli production it is obviously much less interested in the plight or experiences on the non-Israeli's in the story. This is obviously a wonderful option for gay (and wealthy) Israeli's but the others involved (poor 3rd world women) are necessarily less important. Their fellow Israeli's have no problem dehumanizing these gay citizens, and sadly crap flows downhill. Religions do that, necessarily.

Dec. 08 2015 02:55 PM
Bruce from California

Count me among those less than satisfied with the objectivity of reporting on this story. It seemed like the bias toward an avenue (or specifically THIS avenue) of homosexual parenting colored the thinking of the reporters to the point where they felt like they were exploring all angles of a topic that to me (and apparently many others) seemed like giving a detailed description of the pond sitting atop the tip of the iceberg. So very many ethical considerations didn't even get mentioned, let alone taken into account for the small moral back-and-forth that took place toward the end, and it really felt like the producers were trying to leave listeners feeling okay with the practice by just not going into the stickiest parts of the situation. If every country other than the US is banning the practice, doesn't that prompt you as journalists to at least ask "Why?" Certainly there are many countries (such as Canada, as mentioned in the program) where it's not related to trying to exclude gay parentage. How folks could listen to this episode and feel like all sides were well represented is beyond me. One obvious parallel to this surrogacy (abortion) was raised, but another one where the audience might have different natural reactions (prostitution/human trafficking) was never even mentioned. You can't tell me that no one on the story thought of that connection. If they did, and it was intentionally quashed as to not muddy the narrative, then this goes beyond a simple case of not asking enough questions to verging on propaganda.

Dec. 07 2015 05:28 PM
Kate Cremer-Vogel MS, LCPC, Attachment Specialist from Montana

To all taking part in this discussion about surrogacy:
Being attached, that is, the human infant establishing an unquestioning, trusting dependency upon the primary caregiver, is essential for not only mere survival, but also for thorough development across all domains (relational, emotional, social, physical, moral, cognitive, and sexual). The birth mother is EVERY child's primary caregiver in that the infant has spent his/her first 9 months intimately connected with her. Therefore, at birth, the infant has established a 9-month long unquestioned, trusting dependency upon his/her birth mother that breaks irrevocably at the moment of his/her permanent transfer to another person.

Although infants can certainly live when cared for by a non-birth mother, they forever carry the trauma of the original abandonment by the birth mother, which is exactly how these children encode their experience of removal from her. Abandonment becomes a core issue for the child, regardless of whether it is recognized by him/her and/or others over his/her lifespan. YES, all children who are permanently taken from their birth mother carry this basic, deeply etched insecurity their entire life, and it can deeply affect them and their relational ability throughout life.

I believe that THIS is the ultimate concern about surrogacy (or adoption, or implanted non-birth mother derived embryos) that we should be considering in this discussion. If you know anyone who was adopted out of the womb, or anytime thereafter, they will be able to tell you their abandonment pain if they have the self-reflective ability to do so. The infant removed permanently from birth mother indeed KNOWS deep within him/herself that he/she does not fully belong to the new permanent caregiver, even if he/she is cared for by his/her sperm donor.

This phenomenon is REAL, and needs to be taken into consideration when embarking on any endeavor that entails permanently removing a child from the birth mother. This relational hole in the human heart needs to be recognized and addressed by anyone serving as the surrogate/adopted child's new primary caregiver. Although this painful abandonment hole can't be fully healed, if understood, acknowledged, and addressed by the new parents across the all of the developmental stages of their child from infancy through adulthood, the child can develop a much deeper trust in the new parent over time.

Each of us craves to be deeply, fully understood by our parents, whether they are birth/adoptive/surrogate parents. Give your adopted/surrogated child and yourself the gift of you fully understanding of his/her abandonment pain, no matter how deep. Your relationship with your child and your child’s trust in you will unequivocally deepen.

Thank you for reading this and for taking this vital aspect of surrogacy into consideration.

Dec. 06 2015 05:17 PM
Koda from Iowa

I enjoy RadioLab, but this story seemed to leave out a lot of ethical considerations. I was especially interested in the egg donors and the surrogates in poor countries. Would it be possible to revisit this subject with a medical ethicist to get a broader perspective? It seems like this could be likened to organ donation for payment in these same countries.

Dec. 04 2015 10:02 AM
Nick from Atlanta

Listening now,

Just a quick note. I like how you all uincluded Danny Devito in the featured image for this podcast :)

(6th from the left)

Dec. 03 2015 02:06 PM
dogboy from Detroit

"I wonder how Tal and Amir feel about the hundreds of babies killed by their government in Gaza a couple of years ago"

It was just a matter of time until the Anti-semites and morons came out of the woodwork on this one.

Dec. 03 2015 10:50 AM
Betsy Rapoport from White Plains NY

Wonderful, provocative podcast. Molly Webster, could you please let us know the name of the song (perhaps Nepali?) sung at 57:30? It's beautiful, and I'd love to listen to it in full. Thanks for all the great work!

Dec. 03 2015 09:42 AM
Maciej from Canada

I'm surprised that you spent so much time debating the ethics of this without taking the children's perspective. These children are human beings essentially being bought and sold like a commodity. They will never know their mothers. This is the real moral question in this story.

Dec. 03 2015 09:41 AM

I wonder how Tal and Amir feel about the hundreds of babies killed by their government in Gaza a couple of years ago?

Dec. 02 2015 08:27 PM

What about the rights of these children? Gay couples or straight couples using combining genetic material that is not their own to create babies are deliberately depriving their children of the right to know their biological mothers or fathers for the rest of their lives. That seems pretty selfish to me.

If anyone is interested I cam across this well written article discussing in depth how surrogacy affects children:

Dec. 02 2015 05:45 PM
dogboy from Detroit

Isn't it fascinating that a production staff that probably would be falling all over itself to defend a woman's right to destroy life somehow gets heartburn over a woman helping to create life? Somehow the first one is a heroine while the second is a victim?

Everyone got what they agreed to in this story, and everyone was a winner, except for poor Molly Webster, who sounded SO DISAPPOINTED that she couldn't find anyone in the shelter who was anything less than satisfied with the arrangement.

This was an obnoxious and sanctimonious witch hunt where no one felt cheated. Why don't you focus your energies on issues where real injustice exists instead of projecting your elitist sensibilities on others who may not share your values?

As for the Israeli guys, if they are so bent out of shape about the economics of the arrangement for the surrogates, maybe they should have just taken the $125,000 they spent indulging their narcissistic procreation dreams and, instead, used it to feed the hungry in India.

Dec. 02 2015 04:56 PM

What has changed over there at Radiolab? These stories are awful and boring with almost no thought plugged into them from the hosts. The production quality is dive bombing. Save Radiolab.

Dec. 02 2015 01:33 PM
Sian from London

I'm afraid I found this episode extremely uncomfortable to listen to - both children and women are commodities in this process. I would agree with previous comments; regardless of the price being paid (and received by the surrogate women) the desperate situations of women in developing and worn-torn countries (Ukraine) are being exploited by individuals in the West who believe that everything should have its price. This is without a doubt linked to international networks of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of vulnerable women. I am a long-standing listener to Radiolab and I was very disappointed that little was done to challenge what is essentially the emerging marketisation of human beings.

Dec. 02 2015 08:11 AM

Sue, and others who keep asking "where are the children's voices"...

What impact does that have on the story? On one hand, I see it having no impact on this story. After all, no children get input on the situation they're born into.

But am I missing something else?

Dec. 01 2015 10:10 PM
Sue from Australia

Where was the voice of the children in this story? Also, how often does this happen? Which is consistent with cases such as this Children should not be a commodity.

Dec. 01 2015 09:38 PM
Dario Ringach

Some iffy moral reasoning in this episode. How can an act, may be considered immoral if you offer $1, turn into a morally justified one if you offer $1000? What if these women were selling their kidneys instead? Would it still be ethical if you offer sufficient $$$ in return?

Dec. 01 2015 08:45 PM
Bethany from mississippi

Did they get the babies?

Nov. 30 2015 03:27 PM
David from Pennsylvania

Wow - interesting perspective on surrogacy. I am an attorney in Pennsylvania and my practice focuses solely on surrogacy - additionally my wife carried as a gestational surrogate for a same-sex couple from Spain. While this episode did an amazing job of detailing the financial and moral issues surrounding international surrogacy it did miss the mark on some very important points in regards to surrogacy in the USA.

First, while surrogates here in PA generally are compensated much more than in other countries ($25-$30k) rarely do I have a client who is carrying as a surrogate "for the money". For example, my wife truly enjoyed being pregnant yet we had decided not to have any more children of our own. This experience gave her the opportunity to carry a child one last time, while giving another family this amazing gift. Second, the surrogates detailed in this piece did not have legal representation and did not have anywhere near the experience that is available in the USA. Surrogacy contracts are incredibly important in the process and every party needs to be 100% involved and aware of the full situation up front. While surrogacy in the USA may be more expensive it is also safer (legally speaking and medically speaking) and ensures that the surrogate is properly compensated. Its also worth pointing out that the agencies generally charge an absurd amount of money for the process - when having a child through surrogacy in the USA it is very doable to go through an attorney as opposed to the agencies. Surrogacy, in and of itself, is an amazing process that very frequently allows couples (gay and straight) to realize the dream of having children - too often the media attention on surrogacy focuses on the negative stories without mentioning the hundreds and hundreds of positive experiences.

I would be happy to provide more info on the status of surrogacy in the USA to Radiolab and my wife would be happy to provide a surrogates perspective if interested. Keep up the great work - we love Radiolab!

Nov. 30 2015 02:33 PM
EvelynU from California

You guys seemed to be struggling to figure out where the ethical uneasiness comes from, if you have two parties (the ones who want the baby and the woman who makes a life-changing amount of money by bearing it) are satisfied with their transaction. I think the answer is simple: the global economic inequality that puts people into such situations in the first place.

It is obvious even through a translator that the women doing this are intelligent and ambitious and willing to work hard and take risks. In this country, such women might become CEOs or entrepreneurs of a successful company. But because of the fact that they are born in a poor country (and why is that country so poor?) the only outlet for their drive and intelligence is to rent out their bodies in the most intimate of ways, in ways that extract an emotional cost from them.

If a person's only way to help her family gain an economic footing was to sell a kidney, or to sell herself into slavery, the point would be the same. It is economic injustice in the first place that underlies all the choices that person makes. People would indeed be willing to sell their kidney, but simple justice means that we can't allow such a transaction, because it is predicated on a base of such injustice and inequality in the first place.

Try to imagine playing this whole podcast to these children when they are 14 or 16 or 18. How's that going to feel? Not so good. Because just like most adoptions, it is a story about how unequal and unjust the world really is, that some people's desires are met only because other people have so many fewer choices and privileges in life.

Nov. 30 2015 12:54 PM
CB from Cleveland

How are the babies doing?

Nov. 30 2015 11:14 AM
PGW from California

The same sympathetic tone and soft women's voices explaining how they were content with the choices they made so that they could afford to feed their families can be used to justify prostitution. The point is not that this is like the sex trade. It is the sex trade. Sexual reproduction involves a few minutes of intercourse, about nine months of pregnancy and a generally painful process of childbirth (that as a guy I'm glad I don't have to go through). Prostitution and surrogacy both involve men with money and a strong desire paying women to perform some part of that cycle for them. Surrogacy looks like a pretty bad deal by those standards. Thirty johns a month for $100 each would make these women $6000 in two months with no pregnancy, no childbirth, no Caesarian, no post-partum depression and an extra seven months back home with the children they want to raise... Yes it's a messy business and you have to suffer some indignity but so do I at my job and the money makes it worth it. I raise this point because I'm pretty sure that many of the same sympathetic voices would come out in righteous indignation if a very similar program were produced by men justifying a sex tourism program they'd set up, which happens to fund schools in some deprived part of the world. But why have any less sympathy for a straight guy's "right" to sex than a gay couple's "right" to children?

As for trafficking, this is the other word that was crying out to be uttered in this piece. If that's not what is going on here, I'm not sure what is.

Then there's the egg donor. This has been well covered in other comments but from what I gather there's a lot more impact on an egg donor than there is on a sperm donor.

So how do gay men get to father children? The same way straight guys do. Have sex with a woman. Make her pregnant. Agree on custody. Can't get a woman to have sex with you? Ah. Plenty of straight guys have that problem too. Back to prostitution...

Nov. 30 2015 01:32 AM
Pamela from Florida

So...surrogacy is exploitation but pornigraohy isn't? That is ridiculous. And $3000 is so low but put in perspective that's the equivalent of 15 years wages in Nepal based on national average. Would anyone think that paying me 15 years of the US average wage for carrying a baby as a surrogate is exploiting me? Assuming the US national average wage for a woman is $40,000 that would be $600,000. Would that be considered exploitative?

Nov. 29 2015 10:48 PM
Samantha from USA

Adoptees and children of surrogacy are simply products with no identity rights, heritage or family histories. When will their rights ever be acknowledged?

Nov. 29 2015 10:39 AM

I am the biggest fan of Radiolab, and being open minded, and really engaging moral complexity, leaving the listeners to judge.
That said, this episode failed to even ask some of the most thorny questions, many of which have been raised by other commenters already.

I add a few more:

- What is the legal status and protection of the surrogate mothers? (They are in a foreign country, working for a foreign-owned operation – what happens if there is a legal dispute?)
- What are the medical risks to the surrogate mothers? What happens if they get sick or die?
- What happens if the baby has a disability?
- What happens if the receiving couple decides not to have the baby for some reason (say, they separate), and NO ONE wants the baby?
- tbc...

I am very dissatisfied with this episode as a work of journalism.

This seems to me to be one of the cases where "balance" was taken to mean that sense should, and will be balanced with nonsense.
Take the final thought, for example (that this is kind of a miraculous trade between continents and peoples): what kind of crypto-Hayekian apology was that?!

I also want to take up an argument that was referred to over and over again in the episode, and also mentioned in these comments ("the best being the enemy of the good"): Namely, that this (surrogacy) would be the ONLY way for these women to improve themselves and their families.
Well, really, is that so?
Are there no other policies that could improve their situation? Do we really want to naturalize the inequalities of a globalized economy like that?

I'm really hoping that Radiolab will take some of this (and other's) criticism to heart and follow up with another episode.

This story has yet to be told in the fullest.

Nov. 29 2015 07:27 AM
Jess K from Canada

The parallels between this and sex work are uncanny. Societies love to tell women what to do with their bodies, while the women's thoughts are ignored or disregarded.

Whether it's sex work or surrogacy, you'll find mountains of testimony from women who choose this as a way to help their families. No, if they had other viable options they'd likely choose those, but this was the right choice for them. Just because women live in third world countries, or choose options we wouldn't, doesn't make their choice any less valid, and yet of course that's how they're treated. They have a voice, everyone else is just drowning them out.

Every industry has exploitation, and certainly anything involving women's bodies does. The answer is to listen to the women involved, and ask them what would help. Not banning everything simply out of ignorance, which causes more problems than we started out with.

Nov. 28 2015 08:07 PM

does anyone know what the lullaby being sung at 19:44 is?

Nov. 27 2015 05:38 PM
Dr Heintz from Washington DC

There are many places I can go for stories about sexual and gender politics. Disappointed that RL felt that political correctness was more important than journalism. The story was salacious and pandering, won't be listening any time soon as I'm getting tired of this kind of material being produced just for ratings.

Nov. 27 2015 07:52 AM
Jen from Tennessee

I had a problem with how the egg donors were referred to as "cheap White eggs" and then ignored for the rest of the story. Where was their perspective? They are actually genetically related to the child and their investment and worries for this child would likely be lifelong.

Nov. 27 2015 04:56 AM
Theo G from South bend Indiana

Don't forget the perspective of the egg donor. There are some serious ethical/medical problems there. Check out the research and stories at

Nov. 26 2015 05:27 PM
Adrian from York, England

Thanks for making this podcast in such an impartial way. I think when a story is reported with no particular polemic bias, the listener has to resolve any questions or anger they have on their own. There's no closure, and I think this is very healthy... the more people realise that the world is a big grey area and that there is no right or wrong to most questions and situations, the better the world will be.

Nov. 26 2015 11:54 AM

Thanks for this interesting story and the excellent reporting as I know how difficult it is to get good reporting in these kind of places. I do agree with the Human Trafficking/Sex trade industry analogy. It's the first thing that came to my mind hearing this story. A lot of the human trafficking stories sound the same - parents sell their children for money so that the rest of their family can have better lives (very much thought of as a business transaction). The parents know that the child's life couldn't be much worse than their current predicament. In India one is always wary of "agents" and middlemen as they are usually thugs who control the access of information and supply of good with only their personal interest in mind. Capitalism only works when there is competition and they control that as well. (Hence the low payments to the surrogates)

It a sad state of affairs with no easy solution.

Nov. 26 2015 03:46 AM
Alden from Colorado

Radiolab supported by goldman sachs!? Sad to hear of your sellout.

Nov. 26 2015 12:33 AM
Nancy from Michigan

Human Trafficking. No one mentioned this word. This is exactly what this is.

It's human trafficking. You think those surrogate mothers wouldn't spend a year in your house cooking and cleaning for $5,000?

All of the godless who believe that the family of your choice, i.e. children, are some sort of human right is not disturbing. Laws and morals don't often play a role in demand and supply. People sell eggs. People sell drugs.

In the Netherlands, euthanasia of infants is explicitly legal. Kid born with spina bifida? You have a choice! In godlessness, some lives are not worth living or keeping. This can all be rationalized.

Woe to you, all you rational people who think your worship your own mind as though it determines your worth, LOL.

It's nice to see so many people here being so understanding of the autonomy at play in exploitation. Lolita to you.

Nov. 25 2015 05:32 PM
Britt Sipe from So Cal

First, I love the podcast. Always so thought provoking, generally causing my brain to go viral with other thoughts related. For birth story, I found myself once more reminded how things are not right in the world. But, I also found myself wondering if it's really possible that Amir &Tal are so naive? Did they really think that surrogacy in a third world country would be regulated and fair? They come across shocked and dismayed that their surrogates did not receive full payment. Really? Their decision to outsource the job was because they need to save themselves the high cost of doing so in a regulated country, right? Pretty much the same reason many of us will purchase a t-shirt for $6 instead of $15 - but who really believes the company representative who feigns shock upon learning that the 12 year old sewing them for us isn't receiving fair benefits and wages? I'm stoked for Tal & Amir, but find their compassion a little hard to believe, maybe hypocritical.

Nov. 25 2015 04:08 PM
Amy from Georgia

At approximately 13:30, you refer to an egg donor as a "donor mom" this is incorrect and hurtful language. I suspect you have never called a sperm donor a "donor dad". Please change this.

Nov. 25 2015 03:38 PM
Jon from Sherman Oaks, CA

First, what a great story. Fantastic work to all involved.

I genuinely admired your thoughtful look at this story from all its angles. It's so rare to get a story with nuance and gray areas when so much media is divided into just two areas: "it's good" and "It's bad."

At the end of the episode, I'm left with one prevailing thought: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Did the women get as much money as you would have liked? No. But, $5000.00 US is not nothing.
Are people who desperately want families closing their eyes to the inherent issues brought up by their complicated desires and the complications of making those desires a reality? Perhaps. More likely, yes.
That said, the couples who seek surrogates do so because they have been denied the making of a family by despicable people in their government who then put these couples into untenable positions that pray on their very reasonable desperation.
Are the couples seeking surrogates out to take advantage of anyone? Of course not.
Are the people who arrange these surrogates out to dupe people who want babies? Probably not. However, do they close their eyes to some of the less dubious aspects of their work? Seems like it.

Clearly the reporting on this situation has made things worse, as well... Worse for couples who want babies and worse for women willing to carry babies for people who desire families. As more and more countries ban surrogacy the demand for babies will not decrease... Rather, it will force people with quite reasonable desires -- that is, to have a family, to go to further and further lengths to make it a reality. Which I can only assume will ultimately be worse off for women who want to make money... and make someone elses dreams for a family come true.

To repeat: Let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Nov. 25 2015 03:29 PM
Hester from The Hague

Dear makers of Radiolab: I really love your podcasts. However I was surprised to hear nothing about the childrens viewpoint in the 'Birthstory'-episode. How can you forget their point of view? I imagine it can easily lead to psychological problems with the children, when they learn they have in fact been 'bought' from surrogate mums. (This is not implying that I have a specific viewpoint on the matter, which I have not.)
Maybe food for another podcast?
Regards, Hester

Nov. 25 2015 02:41 PM
Marcos Dinnerstein from New York, NY

Hi - this was a truly exceptional program. Thank so much for doing it. Some to comments above point to additional areas that should be given consideration in this vast topic and you could probably do another set of segments filling out those areas. I thought I'd add my 2 cents by pointing out an excellent book that is great background for thinking about the financial / ethical aspects of these transactions - it's titled, "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets" by Michael J. Sandel. Beg, borrow of buy a copy of this and you'll fill your head with an awesome framework for thinking about this issue.

Nov. 25 2015 11:54 AM

I was disappointed in this episode because they completely, totally ignored the stories of donor conceived children. Shouldn't we tell their stories, too? Is it only the adults/parents/surrogates who have something to say? Fortunately, there are forums for donor conceived children to speak out, such as

I just wish that Radiolab had thought the children important enough to include their perspective in the story.

Nov. 25 2015 11:08 AM
Jennifer Chenoweth from Austin, TX

You blew my mind again!

Nov. 25 2015 10:57 AM

Clicking Thumb's Up doesn't do anything on these comments, and I, too, would like to know the info on the song at the end of the episode.

Nov. 25 2015 09:25 AM
Michael from Te-Aviv, Israel

As a huge fan of both RadioLab and Israeli Story, I was so glad to hear this co-production. The show was excellent, the story was intensive and the ethical questions, which remained hanging in the air, are poignant.
As said, there are so many ways to look at this so-complex story, where difficulties and sorrows of remote people juxtapose in a non-trivial manner.
The Israeli let’s-solve-the-problem met the eastern life-is-what-life-is, observed by an American what-is-actually-going-on-here and are-we-hearing-the-true-voices…
I think this was extremely well done. Thank you.

Nov. 25 2015 08:04 AM

I am the mom of an adopted 6-year-old child who has been grieving the loss of her birthmom her entire life. This early-childhood trauma has resulted in emotional and behavioral challenges that have demanded all of our time and resources. While the reporters covered the surrogate sides and the couples sides, one huge voice was missing: the voice of the children.

Nov. 24 2015 11:27 PM
Melissa from Minnesota

I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in 2002 as a surrogate. She is not genetically related to me, and I was in constant contact with her parents. It was an intense, wonderful experience punctuated with some drama, and I used the money for my own two kids. I completely related to the women who described it as a job, because that's how it felt to me. Giving the baby to her parents was not a problem, and I am still happy I did it; no regrets.

There was no exploitation in my case. I felt like I was helping make a family. Pregnancy was always very easy for me, and it seemed like both helping my own family while sharing an ability I had that this other family did not.

For the most part, my family and community were cool with it. I understood the reservations of those who did not. I thought often of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" during this experience.

While I wouldn't say surrogacy is the thing for everyone, it was a very positive experience for me.

Stipulated that I'm a well-educated woman from the US, so my experience is not anything like the surrogates in this story.

Nov. 24 2015 11:03 PM
Harold from NYC

I am surprised Radiolab did not elaborate as to why the judiciary and clergy of every country but the USA have condemned the sale of parental rights as described in this program as an undesirable form of social policy. The mother is OK with it now, but how will she and the baby's siblings and grandparents feel about it in 25 years - not to mention the baby itself? Another puzzle is why does the sexual orientation of the adopting couple need to be concealed from the maternal parent? Can she have truly be said to have given her informed consent if that is the case? Is informed consent really possible? All this was glossed over. Instead, while the reporters repeated over and over that the transaction made them uncomfortable and acknowledged that it "might be exploitative", they attempted the end they tried paint the story in upbeat colors. But I had the impression that they were trying to convince themselves.

Nov. 24 2015 08:38 PM
Julie from Denver, CO

This was EXCELLENT! Really interesting and informative! And I admit being moved to tears by the earth quake recordings. These dads are very compelling as were the surrogates.

One thing not covered and understandably so is the side of the egg donor which is its own ugly can of worms. Having done my own research when I considered hiring and egg donor, I learned that many of these women are paid pennies by US standards. While American women typically something like $500-$700 per donation, are sometimes given to high a dose of stimulation drugs leaving these young women infertile, and are not well informed about the risks.

The entire industry is rather ugly.

Nov. 24 2015 08:33 PM

This is just such a white-opia. The highlight to me was eugenics which was brushed off. Then there is the judging of the child bearing poor women not valuing the child and missing connection. The gay couple seem so content with their regret. This is like eating chicken while just cursorily mentioning the pain chicken has gone through while eating the chicken. This is really messed up. I didn't learn anything new. Just annoyed. The new world indeed. One day normal birth would become abnormal soon. Remember "Giver". People becoming inanimate due to so many reasons. Smartphones is one way and poverty is making poor into objects of rich's pleasure. Insurance companies have already taken humanity out of Healthcare in US. Is lying wrong? Is stealing wrong? Is giving up babies wrong? I guess these are only ethical questions for the rich folk's dinner table. Cultures fertilizing symbiotically to create blue eyed white babies. Wow!

Nov. 24 2015 08:25 PM
PL from MA

I'm a huge fan of this show and I was very impressed by the recent
show Birthstory. Since you're talking about the ethics of the situation I
thought I'd add in another wrinkle. Often, when I'm talking to friends
both gay and straight about family I'm surprised how little the topic of
adoption arises. Of course, it is well known to have its own ethical
complexities and costs, and perhaps it has been overpoliticized as collateral
damage of the abortion wars in this country. I noticed that Radiolab gave an
unspoken nod to this part of the process for the couple at the heart of
the show by explaining how important their genes were to them. I heard a
similar argument from a couple I'm friends with, and one went farther in
saying, "I don't think I could love [an adopted child] the same as I
could love my own."
The right to marry and the right to adopt were both important
victories for the queer community, and they both result in the same
thing: legal and social recognition of a heart truth about who family is
and can be. This episode's story, [while not about these things] touched on the
questions of which concerns take precedence in defining a family by
asking the women how they felt about the children they bore as
surrogates, and what the responsibilities of the Israeli couples ought to
be regarding the surrogates' futures. Also, by specifying whose sperm
produced which children, the story highlighted for me the idea that each
partner will be an adoptive parent of at least one of these children.
As laws about surrogacy continue to change, I am left feeling
concerned about the general conversation being simplified to a dichotomy of
children via surrogacy vs. no children for same-sex male couples.
Especially as we entertain dialogue concerning mutual benefit, it is
important to me to recognize aloud that there are children needing parents as
well as parents needing children.
It is also important to me to give credit to those spaces that make it safe to talk about these issues, our stories and feelings about them, especially as we are struggling to weigh our values as individuals and as a culture. Our honesty will not leave us lookling like heroes, but it may contribute to progress. Thanks, Radiolab.

Nov. 24 2015 04:55 PM
Bill from Nyc

Interesting & dramatic, but finally I thought the story was biased toward surrogacy, and was weakened by the failure to explore why the practice is banned when it is studied.

Nov. 24 2015 04:37 PM
tunie from maui

To think a baby can just be purchased, without fully appreciating or fully contributing to the process and the work involved is FUNDAMENTALLY sexist. Yet so very easily corrected. The depth of this issue just puts my heart in my throat with concern over the abuse of these women. So many points to address:

1. these woman are making a business/personal choice on the FOUNDATION of life and death, based upon THIRD WORLD LEVELS of financial distress!
2. they are being paid too little
3. transaction fees are misleading to buyers
4. transaction fees lack vital transparency, which should be mandatory in moral realms like birth and death to keep everyone clear on what's at stake - anything less is simply irresponsable
5. no compensation for miscarriage - LITERALLY INHUmANE financial abuse! Lawyers are paid a retainer with no guarantee of a court win, for one example! This is definitely biggest ethical red flag.

These women NEED Amnesty International or some other ethics org to look out for them. An impoverished third world woman is never going to have access to the range of options that allow her to interact on an equal playing field with first world business!, or even first world ethics, unless the parents hiring them voluntarily advocate for them deliberately and stick around to see that it is effective. The amounts of money being spent would more than allow for these women to be fairly - and GENEROUSLY - paid in a radical life changing way, if nothing else. A contribution on the level of surrogacy demands life changing support. The type of transaction described here is not only criminal, but sooo very unethical.

Personally I think the only solution is to hire a surrogate in your own country and do whatever is necessary to create that option if necessary, especially with regards to ensuring the surrogate is ABUNDANTLY provided for, whether to full term or miscarried.

The Israeli couple could easily find their surrogate and PAY HER, even now. That should be a rule, not an exceptional practice, imo. It is truely the only fair solution that respects these women because as described here, their financial desperation is most definitely being exploited. That's why we all feel so deeply uneasy about it. It IS sickening, as it stands. But at these levels of cash output and desire to parent, it could be resolved with respect for the process pretty easily by simply taking care of these women in a first class way. They deserve it and so do the children! Anything less is inhumane. Why isn't that clear?

Nov. 24 2015 04:27 PM
Tom from NYC

Hey guys! There seems to be a great deal of "no, the real problem is ____" going on in these comments. I'm not sure that there really is a "most important issue" here (and I definitely don't want to participate in a census of moral outrage), but I do believe that there are some significant narrative/journalistic missteps in this episode.

I think many people are reacting negatively to the episode's final sentiment—that perhaps the most compelling narrative of this episode (if one feels overwhelmed by all of the more fraught ones) is the sort of anecdotal/geopolitical one about morally precarious transactions involving separate states: cultural "cross-fertilization" as a collision of aspirations. I think it is very difficult to connect to that softer, fuzzier narrative after everything we just heard about. Also: is it even interesting? Doesn't it describe, in a broad sense, pretty much every transaction of a global economy? Does this new angle widen our perspective or just redirect it?

I'm worried that you just took a powder on this one.

Perhaps there wasn't enough time, but I do wish the episode had gone into how surrogacy works in the US, especially when it was offered later that the US might be the only country left in the future where surrogacy is legal. I feel that there was a lack of a control group—What is a program like this like when it is legal, and not crossing borders?—What would happen if Israel made surrogacy legal for gays, or other countries did the same?—Is the Nepal industry exploitative simply because it uses desperate women whom they pay poorly, or because a large number middlemen get most of the money?—Basically, is there a way to stabilize and localize this convoluted system so that it at least functions with more transparency and less moral ambiguity? These questions seem absolutely crucial to me, and I'm not sure why this episode fails to address them, and the big "?" offered at the end struck me as a bit disingenuous: a way to avoid the ethical politics maybe? (judging by previous comments, an understandable move)—or just the bog of nuance and complexity—in favor of the more intimate narrative? I don't know! I hope that's fair. I'd love to hear more about this story in the future.

Nov. 24 2015 04:15 PM
Ajay from Dallas, TX

Like every podcast, this was just as interesting and thought provoking. However, I need to point out that at the 39th minute into the show when the Indian journalist (Bakhudi?) asks a surrogate mother if she knows what happens to the baby and/or for whom it is, she doesn't really say "NO" as its been translated from Hindi to English by Molly Webster, but she says "Yes, the baby is taken away by other people, I know that much." Great show as always !

And for people wanting to know more bout the music played at the end of the episode, its a Sanskrit Vedic Hymn just mixed by the music producer. I'm not positive if it can be found by shazaming.

Nov. 24 2015 03:59 PM
Heather from South Bend, IN

I really admire Radiolab. However this episode was missing a serious component. Egg harvesting is extremely dangerous for women and often results in sterility and even ovarian cancer. Egg donors are seldom given proper medical care, thus complicating their plight. Check out the documentary Eggsplotation for more on this topic.

Nov. 24 2015 03:19 PM

I have been a huge Radiolab fan for years, and generally love your show and your approach. This episode was the first time I have ever seen you miss the mark so, so badly. Some rich dudes buying "cheap white eggs" and renting third-world wombs to grow babies for them because they want to have kids? This is not an ethical dilemma, it is clearly abhorrent. Nobody (gay or straight) has the right to have biological children just because they want them.

Nov. 24 2015 03:01 PM
Ben from NoVA


How is that any different with having children without a surrogate? It seems like your argument is blurring together two ideas that don't really make sense to be blurred. One that it isn't right to make adopted children, and two that it isn't right to prioritize one child over the many who are in despair or need aid in Africa. I.E., you are taking a push and a pull to make a doubly strong sounding argument, but those things don't stand on their own, so that argument seems like nothing more than an illusion.

To one, I would say, maybe. That is highly subjective. I would argue that the tradeoff between having a child with an identity crisis vs not having a child at all, it would be morally objectionable to not have a child even if they have an identity crisis the same as it would be objectionable to abort or kill a child that had an identity crisis. This is different from just deciding not to have children, as you are not morally obligated to do so, but to want to but then decide against it because of fear of identity crisis would be equivalent to denying the life of the child.

Two, again, the problem with this is that it takes $150,000-250,000 to raise your own child if you weren't adopting a child. Resource-wise, it would be better for everyone to not have children at all and to sponsor children in Africa instead. The reason why this doesn't jive with moral intuition and why most will disagree with that idea is that there is no moral obligation to help children in Africa. It is a virtuous thing to do, but in this case, the selfish desire to have children is just as if not more virtuous by providing (again, not under obligation) chance of a new life of a child.

Because of that, I reject everything you said. There is no objective obligation to help children in Africa, but if you have decided to have a child then you are obligated to not reverse course only because of a reason like identity crisis.

Nov. 24 2015 02:37 PM
Connie from Chicago, IL, USA

What's the name of the song at the end of the Birthstory piece?

Nov. 24 2015 02:37 PM

The real issue is whether procreation is morally ok. You should do an episode on antinatalism.

Nov. 24 2015 02:31 PM
Jay from USA

The more important issue here is not how much the surrogates are compensated - or the father or the mother who provide the sperm and ovaries - but the child and its future. How would the child feel when he/she grows up and searches for their own identity? It is a well documented fact that even adopted children suffer in their adulthood about their identity and hence think that it is morally selfish to bring a life into this world and subject them to this. Technology and money together can buy and make such things, but should we do it just because we are able to. My choice would be - as someone in this blog points out - to work/feed the 3.5 million children who die each year from hunger or sponsor 300 African children for one year and adopted children who had no one.

Nov. 24 2015 01:17 PM
Marcin from Denver, Colorado

This story fell pretty flat for me. I did enjoy how it changed gears halfway through, and could have gone in a dozen directions, but it felt like the reporters took the easy way out.

Couple examples:

1. The dads claim early on that they engaged in the process because it was “ethically” OK, because the mother would get paid well. Fair enough, and it was portrayed as a noble gesture. But they never bothered to follow up and see if the mother actually got the money? And then they act surprised when they find out it’s a dirty business where anonymous middlemen are skimming off the top? I mean, come on. What did they expect?

I was hoping the reporters would have confronted the dads about this, and called them out, but it seemed like they were being handled with kid gloves.

2. The scene where the dads are in Nepal during the earthquake was also bothersome. All they could think about was their designer baby (who they selected to be tall and white), and didn’t seem to give much thought to the thousands of dead and dying people (and babies) around them.

Considering they were using loopholes in Nepal for their own benefit, I was disappointed that the reporter didn’t confront the dads about this blatant ethical dilemma.

3. Lastly, when the reporter was asking the mothers if they “cared” about their baby, it was such an easy way out of asking the really hard question: “do you know your baby is potentially going to a gay couple in Israel?” I wonder what the mothers would have said then.

Considering that the gay dad/uninformed surrogate mother dynamic was the crux of the whole story - since it’s what motivated the dads to go this route - I was disappointed they chickened out of asking these hard questions.

Sadly, it led me to believe that the dads didn’t *really* try every adoption route possible, and instead were leveraging their sexuality as a moral excuse for exploiting poor Indian women into giving them a designer baby. To me, that was the real story here, but they were too afraid to bring this up.

So in the end I was very disappointed. If you’re going to do a story like this - that deals with sexuality, race, religion, and ethics - then you’ve got to have the guts to dig in and find the real truth, and not fall back on the expected, predictable narrative.

Nov. 24 2015 01:13 PM
Drew from Austin, Texas

I too, must jump on the music bandwagon. The music at the end of the podcast was fascinating. What was it?

Nov. 24 2015 01:02 PM
Zach from British Columbia

Please don't draw attention to international surrogacy. It is super controversial and for some of us its the only option we have to be parents. :( In many circumstances this process is able to survive by flying under the radar.

Nov. 24 2015 11:38 AM
Michael from Los Angeles

I listened to your podcast titled Birthstory until minute forty-two. I’ve learned over time to translate the media’s desired to do the ’ethical thing’, as usually meaning get the story at any cost while charging in atop of a white horse. So when I heard one of you guys make that statement, I knew the women would have their safety challenged. You did not disappoint. First you named the reporter. The reporter gave a pretty good description of the location. Besides if the reporter found the place, the government will find it. There was no attempt to maximize the safety of the women caught up in a bad situation. If you really wanted to the do the ethical thing, why not go investigate to understand why these women are so poor that this was even an option for them. What is the government doing to reduce the level of poverty? Shutting down the surrogacy program means the women will be open to be exploited by some other scheme in order to the get the money they need. Why not investigate the people running the program? If ethics is really the reason, why not investigate the cause and not the results?

Nov. 24 2015 09:20 AM
Janet from Sonoma County, Ca

This story left me unable to sleep. It was amazing and truly unbelievable how so many steps came together in order for this to happen. Tall and Amir definately made this a beautiful story and easily.

Nov. 24 2015 08:05 AM
Petter from Norway

Also getting on the Curious-about-the-song-at-the-end-Train. Tried to shazam it, but it didn't find it.

Nov. 24 2015 03:48 AM

I think they should have established what these guys do for a living that they can afford to pay $120,000 for designer babies plus travel and other expenses. Also, if they met their surrogates, they could have asked them then and there how much they made and offered additional compensation if necessary. I think the truth is that these guys fooled themselves and didn't want to know the truth. Also, there is an even bigger moral issue at stake here that was completely ignored. 3.5 million children die each year from hunger. For the cost of three designer babies, they could have fed and sponsored 300 African children for one year and adopted children who had no one.

Nov. 24 2015 01:20 AM
Ben from SF

Also curious about the song!

Nov. 23 2015 08:51 PM
Rudy from Los Angeles, CA from Los Angeles, California

First I really love your show: The conversations are always stimulating, heated and impassion . The thoughts these surrogate expressed, created an image of hope for their future. Living in American creates a barrier of understanding or lack of understanding of what it is to live without hope. Who has the right to deny these woman from trying to obtain a future. On the other hand, the individuals or organizations which engaged these woman should be placed under public scrutiny to insure that surrogates are treated fairly. The woman who expressed disappointment with the lost of her child, should have been compensated. The subject of identity is very striking in this article. With the mixing of genes will the child be identified by ethnicity? I would like to hear from a one of these children when they become adults and how they identify themselves

Nov. 23 2015 08:02 PM
Jen from Chicago, IL

I thought that this was one of the best podcasts that I've heard in a while. Both sides- the couples and the surrogates are portrayed in this story. It's really easy to have assumptions about seemingly wealthy families "exploiting" low-income women in other countries. However, most people don't understand, or have any idea about the positive impact that these practices can have for the women in these countries.

I lived in Cambodia for a few months, and there was consistent Western backlash around the textile industry, and the working conditions. And while there was definitely room for improvement on the pay, hours and facilities where they worked- this was a job that allowed Cambodian women from the provinces, to be safe and become independent by making their own money. And as they mentioned in this podcast, in some regions there just are not a lot of options for work, let alone relatively safe ones.

Really appreciate the depth of this podcast and look forward to many more like it!

Nov. 23 2015 07:07 PM

I am wondering not exactly how much they got paid and whether I think that is the right amount, but were these women paid what they were told they were getting paid. I understand that the disappointment was in a misreading of the term surrogacy expenses. But don't the recruiter/transporter/etc. deserve to paid fairly too? Though, I agree that more transparency would be better.

I agree with the previous commenter that this situation is analogous to the sex industry. Though potentially morally problematic when legal, if you shove it so far underground then people can't ask for help without implicating themselves in criminal activities.

Nov. 23 2015 04:12 PM
Kay from New York, NY

This episode left me disappointed... I usually walk away thinking differently or wanting to explore the issue more but in this case, I was disappointed. All of the reporters/story-tellers missed on the analogy. This type of market is not analogous to abortion. It is analogous to the black market organ trade or to sex work but not abortion. In entertaining that comparison, the producers missed the important moral question here: do we believe people can consent to do potentially harmful acts when there is monetary compensation? Does the money produce a coercive environment? Do we think people are generally rational and able to make choices that may harm them because their perception of the value of the compensation is subjectively adequate?

These are the questions I wished we had been talking about - the questions that are really at the root of this kind of ethical dilemma.

Nov. 23 2015 03:43 PM

Does anyone know the name of the song that played at the end of the episode?

Nov. 23 2015 03:18 PM

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