by Hannah Ens, CBC Social Media Coordinator

“Nestled in New York’s Hudson Valley is a luxury retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, personal fitness trainers, daily massages—and all of it for free. In fact, you’re paid big money to stay here—more than you’ve ever dreamed of. The catch? For nine months, you cannot leave the grounds, your movements are monitored, and you are cut off from your former life while you dedicate yourself to the task of producing the perfect baby. For someone else.”

Upon reading that first portion of summary text for Joanne Ramos’s debut novel, “The Farm,” the book seems poised to sit at the strategic intersection – the past few years have seen a wave of pop culture interest in surrogacy stories (both real and fictional, think Kim Kardashian and “Fuller House”) and feminist dystopias (“Handmaid’s Tale,” Naomi Alderman’s “The Power,” Christina Dalcher’s “Vox”). What follows is the remainder of the summary:

“Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines, is in desperate search of a better future when she commits to being a “Host” at Golden Oaks—or the Farm, as residents call it. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her family, Jane is determined to reconnect with her life outside. Yet she cannot leave the Farm or she will lose the life-changing fee she’ll receive on the delivery of her child.

Gripping, provocative, heartbreaking, The Farm pushes to the extremes our thinking on motherhood, money, and merit and raises crucial questions about the trade-offs women will make to fortify their futures and the futures of those they love.”

As a CBC staff member, it should come as no surprise that I was particularly interested in the surrogacy aspect of “The Farm.” How realistically did it represent surrogacy and the industry’s potential future? What sort of conclusions might it lead readers to make about surrogacy overall?

Imagine my frustration when it became obvious that “The Farm” is barely about surrogacy at all.

More on that in a minute. This is probably a good place to mention that there are too many things in this book to unpack for me to try dancing around spoilers. If you want to be surprised by “The Farm,” this is where you should stop.

“The Farm” rotates between four narrators; the first two receive the majority of the chapters while the last two appear only occasionally:

  • Jane: a Filipino immigrant and single mother who becomes a Host in the hopes of giving her daughter Amalia (six months old at the start of the book) a better life.
  • Reagan: a young white Host who struggles with her dual motivations of wanting to help a family, yet also yearning financial independence from her wealthy, controlling father.
  • Mae: a highly ambitious Asian-American woman, the head of the Golden Oaks “gestational retreat.”
  • Ate: an older Filipino immigrant woman who is a sought-after baby nurse among New York’s elite families. She is Jane’s cousin, and first tells her about Golden Oaks; it is later revealed that she is a paid Scout for the company.

Also, of note is Lisa, a white Host unabashedly driven by money who is carrying her third child for the same couple. She is the most jaded of the Hosts, and is portrayed as an ungrateful, slightly-crazed alarmist, despite speaking some of the most truthful lines in the book.

“You’ve got to understand what this place is. Okay? It’s a factory, and you’re the commodity.”

“The Farm” opens with an emphasis on the ultra-rich New York families that hire predominantly immigrants like Ate and Jane as baby nurses, nannies and housekeepers, i.e., the target clientele of Golden Oaks. After Jane is fired from a well-paying baby nurse job, Ate tells her about Golden Oaks. Unable to pass up an opportunity where “the work is easy and the money is big,” she applies and interviews with Mae. Along the same time frame, we see Mae heavily recruiting Reagan, intending to offer her as a “Premium Host” to Madame Deng, an extraordinarily wealthy Chinese woman who is nearing 50 years old and has frozen embryos.

Fast forward to Jane checking in at Golden Oaks, recently implanted with an embryo, while Reagan has been there for two weeks. Seriously, “The Farm” makes exactly that leap within exactly two sentences. In one line, Jane is finishing her interview with Mae; in the next, she’s checking in. There is no elaboration on the implantation process, uncomfortable hormone injections or fears of complications, not even a mention of a positive pregnancy test. This was my first major indication that “The Farm” was not really interested in discussing surrogacy or artificial reproductive technology at all.

The remainder of the book largely follows Jane and Reagan, who are assigned as roommates, through their time at Golden Oaks. The driving source of tension becomes Jane’s anxiety over not being able to see Amalia for months on end. She is promised visits several times, but they keep getting revoked for a variety of reasons. Her stress and sadness, combined with Reagan’s savior mentality, Lisa’s tendency to go rogue, plus a miscommunication that makes Jane falsely believe Amalia has been hospitalized, all lead to the climax of Jane escaping Golden Oaks to see her daughter again.

Throughout “The Farm,” its inclusion (or lack thereof) of the technologies, legalese and ethics surrounding surrogacy was at the front of my mind. I was left with a lot of mixed thoughts about nearly every single page, but in the interest of this not becoming a dissertation, I’ve boiled them down into key points where “The Farm” misses the mark, hits the target, and is almost there.

Misses the Mark

Reagan had never been pregnant before Golden Oaks. The faulty logic in this is obvious no matter what side of the surrogacy debate you’re on. Surrogacy agencies categorically seek out women who have proven they can carry a pregnancy to term. A current Craigslist ad for The Surrogacy SOURCE lists the following requirements, among others:

  • “Previous pregnancies without complication”
  • “Raising at least 1 child in your home”

Why why WHY would Golden Oaks target millionaire and billionaire Clients, promising the best of everything except a womb with a proven track record? Mae goes so far as to consider making childlessness a requirement for Hosts, backed by the flimsy logic that when other children are in the picture, “their loyalties, inevitably, lie elsewhere.” This actually counteracts the Big Fertility party line that already having a family of their own allows surrogates to detach from the surrogate child; they’ve had their kids, now they’re just helping someone else do the same. But as you’ll see in the next point, this book has zero interest in examining the mother/child relationship of surrogacy.

The only mother/child relationship “The Farm” cares about is between Jane and Amalia. After that, the biggest focus is on the relationships between the Hosts, and particularly on how race affects their interactions. We get next to nothing about how the women feel about their babies, other than generically viewing the pregnancy as a hurdle to clear in the quest for a better life. There’s a moment of joy when Reagan first hears the baby’s heartbeat during an ultrasound – she feels “the calling” the most of any of the Hosts – but brief incidents like that are few and far between. For all we (don’t) see, these women have about as many feelings, positive or negative, about their babies as you’d have for the contents of your purse. The surrogate children are the least important characters in “The Farm,” and yet they are the very foundation for the story.

The surrogate pregnancies were essentially presented as having the same experience (and risk level) as a natural pregnancy. There was no acknowledgement that “the risk of severe maternal and fetal morbidities (disease and symptoms of disease) are increased for women that utilize IVF, especially those resulting from donor eggs,” a category that all gestational surrogates fall under. We actually see no pregnancy-related complications at all, aside from spontaneous abortions and later miscarriages happening to characters that are barely mentioned once. And while it wouldn’t make sense for Jane’s desperate, less-educated character to be concerned about a surrogate’s increased risk for pre-eclampsia, maternal hypertension and gestational diabetes, it would’ve only been natural for Mae’s analytical mind to consider such things as she meticulously monitors the Hosts. Readers are given the impression that Golden Oaks has a high success rate, and the skilled staff and state-of-the-art facilities allow the author to skip over dealing with any of the actual risks that would drag a real fertility center’s successful birth rate down.

Hits the Target

Surrogacy is eugenic – one of the Hosts has a forced abortion when it’s discovered that her baby has mosaic Down syndrome. Reagan goes on a small rant when she hears about it, finishing with,

“‘It’s a complete violation–’
‘Not of the contract,’ Lisa answers without missing a beat.”

And Lisa is right – loss of medical autonomy, including mandated abortion or selective reduction in cases of multiples, is a standard part of surrogacy contracts. Every feel-good campaign about promoting loving acceptance and opportunities for people with Down syndrome means absolutely nothing to Big Fertility, who will likely encourage parents to leave those embryos unimplanted in a frozen limbo or destroyed. IVF in the U.S. is the Wild West: a doctor in this article believes the target genes will eventually be found for things like height, vocal ability and athletic ability, “and when that happens, he will offer to screen for them. ‘If you do what I do, you can’t have a strong ethical opinion.’”

The big secret that Madame Deng has implanted embryos in multiple Hosts is not a fictional concept. Watch this bonus feature (also below) to the CBC documentary “Big Fertility: It’s All About the Money” to hear about a surrogacy broker who shared that VIP Chinese clients often start with two or three surrogates, and once the pregnancies are confirmed, they decide which babies to keep and which to terminate.

#BigFertility – Reproductive Tourism from CBC Network on Vimeo.

Madame Deng uses nine surrogates (two children are confirmed born in the book, with a possibility for a third), but that doesn’t even reach the level of a Japanese man who won sole custody of 13 children he had using surrogates. And that’s not old news – that was in 2018.

Almost There

“Baby factory” group living for surrogates is not unheard of internationally (read about the horrific conditions in Ukraine), though this typically happens where surrogacy is cheaper than in the U.S. rather than being a luxury experience. The industry’s desire for control seen in “The Farm” is reflective of reality.

“The Farm” is set in New York, which I found…curious. In all likelihood, this May 2019 book was nearing the end of its final edits well before the state’s current fight over legalizing commercial surrogacy erupted. As of now, NY only allows altruistic surrogacy; the Golden Oaks bigwigs dream about a second resort in California, which truthfully would’ve been a more realistic setting to begin with. Also, when Jane escapes Golden Oaks in her grand act of defiance, Mae uses the threat of kidnapping charges to bring her to heel. Can you “kidnap” an implanted fetus that isn’t biologically yours? According to NY law, a birth mother cannot relinquish her rights until after the child is born, and pre-birth parentage orders are not granted. So, either Mae is guessing Jane won’t know it’s an empty threat, or whatever fictional contract the author has imagined is not based in NY legal reality.

The ending is disappointingly quick, convenient, and if anything, too easy on Jane. We jump from Mae getting Jane to agree to come back to Golden Oaks (she’s still pregnant at this point) to…two and a half years later. Another fast forward past incredibly crucial moments. Jane and Reagan both gave birth to babies for Madame Deng (Jane never saw the baby’s face sadly all too accurate), but Jane lost her big final bonus due to her escape, putting her basically back at square one. Mae “asked Jane to be her surrogate. She told her that there was an apartment on their property where Jane and Amalia could live rent free during the pregnancy and, if things worked out, maybe even afterward.” Jane is now baby nursing/nannying Mae’s son. If you were hoping for a dramatic “underdog outwits evil corporation” conclusion, too bad, and in real life Jane could’ve had it far worse.

She could’ve been saddled with paying the remainder of her pregnancy’s exorbitant medical bills or told to repay money since she breached what is likely an iron-clad contract. Challenging any of this would mean a flood of legal fees that surrogates are rarely in a position to pay, and a fight against a company that has money to burn. The trailer for “Big Fertility: It’s All About the Money” gives you a hint of this happening in real life as former surrogate Kelly was lied to, lied about, bullied, used, exploited, and nearly ruined financially. In the end, Kelly barely escaped with her life.

How Did This Book Happen?

I spent a lot of this book continually confused by its narrative choices. The blatant inaccuracies with real surrogacy logistics, the emphasis on interracial friendships and attitudes between the Hosts, the comparative lack of any concrete discussion or inclusion of artificial reproductive technology…and then I read the author’s note. Joanne Ramos is obviously more than the sum of a few paragraphs, but it’s extremely telling that she:

  • Was born in the Phillippines
  • Had her worldview opened to disparities of wealth, class, experience and opportunity while attending Princeton University
  • She “realized one day that the only Filipinos I knew in Manhattan [New York], where I lived with my family, were the ones who worked for my friends–baby nurses, nannies, housekeepers, cleaning ladies…I listened to their stories…I saw the daily sacrifices these women made in the hope of something better.”

The author’s personal perspective encapsulates it all. It explains why “The Farm” essentially felt like “The Nanny Diaries,” except instead of caring for the children of elite families, they’re literally carrying them. This focus on the uber-wealthy unfortunately ultimately leaves the story’s door open to make an argument in favor of altruistic surrogacy via a flood of “if onlys:”

  • If only Golden Oaks hadn’t been so greedy and demanding…
  • If only surrogacy was reserved for people who really need it instead of for vanity (Lisa’s wealthy intended mother lied about suffering from endometriosis when she actually wanted to continue modeling)…
  • If only we could all just get along and let happy surrogates carry happy babies for happy new families!

The besmirching of the uber-rich in “The Farm” is ironic, considering pop culture lauds celebrity surrogacy: Jimmy Fallon, Elton John, Kim Kardashian, Gabrielle Union, Tom Daley, Andy Cohen, take your pick, they all receive adoring headlines for it. On the more normal end of the socioeconomic scale, surrogacy also leaves us wrestling with cases like the Nebraska woman who carried her gay son’s child. Simultaneous mother and grandmother, what on earth are we doing???

Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of ethics/bioethics, surrogacy, or modern “family-building” in any capacity in either the author’s note or acknowledgements. It’s entirely possible she conducted research that was not reflected in these components, but if that’s the case, I personally disagree with how she chose to warp truth for her fiction.

As to her intended purpose, she does write, “The book is meant to explore–for myself, and hopefully for its readers, too–questions of who we are, what we cherish, and how we see those who are different from ourselves.” I suppose “The Farm” does do those things, but that could’ve taken place within many frameworks. To use surrogacy as a mere vehicle, a husk scooped out to make way for her real emphasis, is a disservice to the women whose lives have been ruined by it and the children who have been and continue to be sold through it. Click any, ANY, of the links to real stories I referenced and see for yourself that the truth is so much more harrowing than this fiction.

A free advance digital galley of this book was given to Hannah Ens by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All quotations have been checked against the final, published copy.