By Monica Krason and Chaney Mullins
In Netflix’s Fuller House, we learned that Stephanie Tanner, the precocious youngster who uttered “How rude!” to our delight in the original ’90s sitcom, is now all grown up, but infertile. When her infertility was revealed, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to spotlight this condition, shared by 1 in 10 American women, and promote discussion about an affliction which is so often suffered in silence. Instead of building solidarity for women, however, Fuller House chose to enter into the ethically complicated area of surrogacy and IVF, nonchalantly supporting both without batting an eye.
When Stephanie first revealed to her boyfriend Jimmi that she was infertile, she said she would have to consider other options like adoption, having just rejoiced in Jesse and Becky’s latest adopted addition to their family. Fuller House had an opportunity to carry that storyline forward and discuss the ethical complexities of third-party conception. Yet, oddly it was Aunt Becky who pushes Stephanie to visit a specialist that gives Stephanie reason to hope for motherhood through surrogacy. The surrogacy process is shown humorously, as you might imagine for a TV sitcom, and yet the sinister undertones of the industry are still present. Soon, the whole family joins Aunt Becky’s enthusiasm and jump on board to help Stephanie afford this process, no matter that she is unmarried and unemployed (which, one would think, should at least be seriously considered before embarking upon premeditated parenthood).
First, Stephanie needs to pick a father. She reviews resumes for the father of her child, trying to pick out the best genetic match. It is not who the man is that matters—he, after all, will remain totally absent from the child’s life—but what he can contribute. This is the very opposite of what we tell ourselves about fatherhood in normal circumstances, and indeed what Full House argued for in its original run. Finally settling upon Jimmi is clearly more meaningful (a subtle acknowledgement that indeed genetics and the presence of the father in a kid’s life do matter), but the two are still not engaged until the very end of the show, when the baby is born. In fact, it becomes a joke: Jimmi thinks that Jackson, Stephanie’s young nephew, must want a relationship with his girlfriend that is reliable. Jackson asks if that’s the kind of reliability Jimmi has with Stephanie. No, Jimmie explains, he was measuring reliability by thinking about his reliable cell phone network, not his own relationship.
Stephanie’s unwillingness to exact a commitment from him before they embark on parenthood is short-sighted at best, and irresponsible at worst. How many women have thought that having a baby would reel her man into marriage, only to be disappointed? Now mainstream television is perpetrating further what could very well be a false hope.
Then there is the matter of the surrogate mother to carry the child. The interviews for those women go just as poorly as the men, making everyone extremely uncomfortable and bringing up the dilemma of surrogate’s behavior during pregnancy being controlled by the biological mother. That doesn’t stop when Kimmi is settled upon as the surrogate; as her pregnancy progresses, Stephanie promises she will become increasingly over-attentive and demanding as time goes on.
You can see a snippet of this in the show’s season 4 trailer, beginning at 0:32.
Watching both the interviews and the interaction with Kimmi causes one to ask at what point is a surrogate just a womb, not a person. Even Kimmi worries that after the baby is born Stephanie won’t care about her anymore.
Kimmi admits that even though the baby is Stephanie’s, she’s attached to it. It’s meant to be sweet, but it’s actually scary, as her attachment to this child – as Aunt, carrier, and ongoing housemate – will likely result in odd parenting dynamics between the two couples (Stephanie and Jimmi and Kimmi and Fernando) for years to come. In fact, it was already uncomfortable at Lamaze Class to figure out who did what, and strange when Kimmi and Fernando lied to Fernando’s mom that the child was theirs.
When looked at closely, the show is raising a lot of hard questions, but of course there’s a lot more to surrogacy that goes entirely unaddressed. The risks to the surrogate. The odd truth that Kimmi is carrying her own brother’s baby. The possibility that some embryos could have been frozen and contested for ownership later. The ethical questions of making and transferring multiple embryos (often done to increase success rates) when only 25% of transferred embryos result in a live birth – lost either by never implanting, by miscarrying after implantation, or by selective reduction.
Fuller House is, through its unconventional living arrangements, hitting on a fundamental tension in every human culture between individual responsibility and community reliance. Surrogacy explores this same tension of what belongs to you vs. what can be given to others. Many of us are drawn to the idea of this mish-mash group of people living together and supporting one another. The challenge is to look past the silliness and try to understand what these character’s experiences would look like if this were reality. There are many factors that would make real life for this group dysfunctional – from DJ’s husband’s death, to Fernando and Kimmi’s bizarre divorced-but-live-next-door coupling. Introducing surrogacy into the mix is going to add a whole other level to that trauma. It may look funny now, but the reality, as faced by so many real life used-and-abused surrogates, would be far less amusing.
Chaney Mullins is a graduate of the University of Virginia with a degree in Sociology. She is currently Development Coordinator at Divine Mercy Care, which supports women’s healthcare, including ethical approaches to infertility treatment.
Monica Krason is pursuing a Master’s in English Literature at Cleveland State University, where she also teaches.
Graphic by Freepik