Something you have to grant “Inconceivable,” the new NBC medical drama set in a fertility clinic: the show pulls no punches about the more unpleasant aspects connected with this brave new world of rented wombs and petri dishes. At the beginning of the Sept. 23 premiere episode, a (white) couple’s happiness quickly turns to shock as their (white) surrogate gives birth to a black baby.
“What the hell is this?!” yells the father-to-be.
Yes, yes, I know; it probably wouldn’t happen in real life– although it could, and has, even sans technological assistance. The careless surrogate, it turns out, had had a quickie for old times sake with her former boyfriend the same day she was impregnated.
Still, no baby deserves to enter the world so unwelcome. That this is more likely to happen when a surrogate mother is involved (sometimes because the baby is imperfect, sometimes only because the client parents didn’t want twins) is just one reason the thought of the whole enterprise fills many of us with something less than joy.
The series also features many unappealing characters, although I have a feeling the show’s producers find them more lovable than I do. Dr. Malcolm Bowers (played by the handsome English actor Jonathan Cake) is a womanizing egomaniac who often sounds distractingly like Stewie, the evil cartoon baby in “Family Guy.” (Cake’s character may, however, do wonders for the sex appeal of endocrinologists everywhere.)
Lovely Ming-Na is Rachel, Dr. Bowers’ business partner, who despite her compassion for the clinic’s patients strikes me as remarkably selfish: Unmarried Rachel wanted to be a mom so she had herself artificially inseminated. Judging by the age of her son– whom the show makes clear longs for a father– apparently this happened in her 20s, so it’s not even as though the character was driven mad by the sound of her biological clock winding down.
And don’t even get me started on the clinic’s lawyer and his same-sex domestic partner — surely the most annoying gay couple ever to hit primetime TV. In the second episode, the lawyer’s stay-at-home unbetter half has hysterics when he notices the freezer is running low on (borrowed? bought?) breast milk, because formula’s just not good enough for their new surrogate-born baby. I’ve never believed, for the record, that homosexuality is a “choice.” Still, I’d say this guy could convince the entire Queer Eye team that, really, maybe they should give girls a chance.
Probably the show will make you want to keep tuning in, though, because it’s expertly written by creators Oliver Goldstick and Marco Pennette, both of whom are gay and have children through surrogates with their domestic partners (who aren’t each other). Goldstick helped launch “Desperate Housewives” and is a veteran of “Everwood” and “American Dreams,” two excellent shows that have always dealt intelligently with sticky moral questions. So I’m not surprised that the issues raised on “Inconceivable” aren’t glossed over.
I am a little surprised by how much NBC lets the show get away with, but I suppose I shouldn’t be, now that words like “crap” are commonly tossed around during what used to be called family hour. I ran into Goldstick at a party this summer and asked if the network objected at all to the final scene in the pilot, a gruesome close-up of semen samples in cups (a TV first!) Not a bit, Goldstick said; the only thing they’ve nixed so far is a suggested episode about embryo reduction.
Anyway, I’m rather relieved, at least, that the “culture of life” discussion has shifted from Terri Schiavo, where all the disingenuous arguments seemed to be on the right, back to abortion-stem cells-embryos, where it’s more fairly apportioned to both sides. Those embryonic adoption crusaders, also known as Snowflakes, strike me as more than a little weird. But if they want to buy frozen embryos that would otherwise be discarded and implant them in their own team’s uteruses, well, who are they hurting?
I don’t like the idea of embryos created just for stem-cell research, but neither do I like the idea of equally doomed embryos created as extras for fertility treatments. If the latter is legal, however (although maybe it shouldn’t be, despite the attitude of pop-culture reflections like “Inconceivable”), then it’s hard to see why using these spare embryos for possibly lifesaving research instead of simply throwing them away is forbidden.
My sympathy moved to the Snowflakes side, though, when I read a New York Times story about the organization. The Times reported that the American Fertility Association disapproves of embryo adoption, but that “Pamela Madsen, the association’s director, said the group… approved of donating embryos for research and having them ‘thawed without transfer,’ the industry term for discarding them.”
Whenever you come across Orwellian newspeak terms like “thawed without transfer” as euphemisms for discarded or killed, watch out. Why would someone think that discarding embryos or using them for research is OK but letting them come to term in the womb of some woman who wants them is not?
But then I got a CRAZY ALL-CAPS EMAIL, titled CAN SCIENCE MAKE ABORTION OBSOLETE? and realized why not. Because now it seems there is a new crusade, to find a way that embryos to be aborted can be implanted in the uteruses of the Snowflakes crowd. I’ve never been a big fan of privacy arguments for abortion, because these same arguments were once used to allow parents to beat their children or men to rape their wives: it’s a family matter, so the state should stay out of it. But now I see their point. And if you can’t see why the notion of people wanting to swoop in and “rescue” an embryo that some poor woman’s decided to abort– even if that embryo was created by rape or incest, or doomed by genetic mistake to a life of illness or deformity, or the “woman” in question is 12 years old– is deeply revolting, then I’m afraid we’ll just have to agree to disagree.
None of which means, by the way, that the pro-choice side isn’t often infuriatingly dishonest. Take Hillary Clinton’s speech earlier this year, in which she said our goal should be to have zero abortions– or, at least, almost zero. Oh, really?
Even if birth control were 100 percent effective and no one but financially stable couples ever had sex, zero abortions is obviously a utopian fantasy. Does Sen. Clinton mean that women who run a higher risk of problem pregancies (like all those over 35), should therefore not be allowed to have amnio, or shouldn’t be allowed to get pregnant at all? Does she think that completely eliminating life-threatening pregnancies or birth defects is a realistic goal? Now that’s inconceivable.
Catherine Seipp is a writer and visiting fellow with IWF. She also maintains a blog, “Cathy’s World.”