Law School Hosts “Narratives of Law and Life” Film Series

The law school is hosting a film series, “Narratives of Law and Life: Using Film to Explore the State’s Role in Constructing Identity.” The series is being supported by a Diversity & Inclusion Grant from Washington University’s Provost’s Office. The grant, for 2011–12, was awarded to Associate Dean Laura Rosenbury, Professor Susan Appleton, and third-year law student Elizabeth Chen.

The series kicked off last semester with a screening of the award-winning documentary, Made in India, followed by a panel and roundtable discussions analyzing the film’s portrayal of “reproductive tourism” and related issues. The practice refers to outsourcing surrogacy arrangements to countries in which underprivileged women agree to gestate pregnancies for U.S. parents at a much lower price than that demanded on the domestic market. The series will continue this semester with two additional films.  

Appleton, the Lemma Barkeloo & Phoebe Couzins Professor of Law, explains the purpose of the film series by recalling the grant application that she, Rosenbury, and Chen submitted: “Over the past 50 years, advocates for racial and gender justice have used the legal system to achieve greater equality throughout society. This is just one role that law plays in a diverse world—law also constructs everyday understandings of gender, race, religion, class, sexuality, and other aspects of identity.

“A focus on court battles and legislative struggles often obscures this latter role. Narratives of everyday relationships, including those from the film series, provide the opportunity to examine how law more subtly mediates identities,” she adds.

“We hope the film series will explore the construction and performance of identity in contexts partially regulated by law,” notes Rosenbury, professor of law and associate dean for research and faculty development. “The films and discussions about them are designed to promote cross-campus interdisciplinary dialogues about the complexities of identity, particularly in everyday life.”

In Made in India, an American couple is struggling to conceive a child. As the emotional and financial costs mount, they turn to international surrogacy as an affordable option that will allow them to have a genetically related child. They begin working with a medical tourism company that matches intended parents to surrogate mothers in India. The film examines attitudes about infertility and genetic ties, the rising popularity of assisted reproduction and reproductive tourism, the significant health and legal risks to the surrogate and genetic mothers, and many vexing ethical and moral questions.

Following the screening of Made in India, Appleton moderated a panel of experts featuring Dr. Valerie Ratts, associate professor, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Washington University School of Medicine, and Rebecca Wanzo, associate professor, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in Arts & Sciences. Filmmaker Rebecca Haimowitz provided a prerecorded commentary about the making of the film, including her observations over the course of the filming. Haimowitz explained that she did not seek to either condemn or promote reproductive tourism in her film, but rather wanted to raise awareness about the largely unregulated practice. Haimowitz referred to reproductive tourism as a “legal vacuum” and commented on the lack of laws necessary to protect the rights of both mothers.

The panelists discussed issues concerning bioethics, race, and gender. From a medical perspective, Ratts spoke about the emotional stress of infertility and the medical risks presented to both genetic and surrogate mother. Ratts observed that more fertile eggs were implanted in the surrogate mother in India than would be allowed in the United States, with dangers of medical complications to both child and mother. Dr. Ratts’ comments echoed the filmmaker’s—“it can be done in a good way, but it needs to be regulated.”

Wanzo responded from a feminist perspective, while also addressing the complex circumstances of international surrogacy and related themes of reproductive justice. She noted that surrogacy acknowledges motherhood as labor and raises issues about the privilege of biological motherhood, while “also presenting an excessive number of opportunities for abuse.”

Emphasizing issues of race, class, and gender, Wanzo called attention to advertisements seeking surrogate mothers in India, noting that women with lighter skin are given precedence over those with darker skin. “It often becomes a matter of eugenics because both white affluent couples and white or lighter skinned mothers are privileged,” she noted.

The following day, the law school hosted roundtable student/faculty discussions in which faculty members prompted students to analyze the legal implications of “reproductive tourism” from a range of perspectives, including immigration law, adoption law, labor and employment law, family law, property and contract law, law and economics, and international law. The faculty members raised questions concerning the ethical problems presented by the sale of gestational capabilities, the possible similarities of surrogates to sex workers, the legal function of birth certificates, surrogacy and citizenship issues, and the social and normative values that might guide future regulation.

"The film followed by the panel and roundtables successfully created a lively forum for discussing a whole host of issues,” says Chen. “This is exactly what we hoped for, and we look forward to similar invigorating discussions with the next two films in the series.”

The second film in the series is (A)sexual, a new documentary that explores the rise of activism on behalf of those who identify as asexual. This film will be screened on Tuesday evening, February 7, 2012, during Washington University’s annual “Sex Week.” (A)sexual sparks questions about how the place of sex in society and law shapes personal identity. The panel will include David Jay, a leading activist featured in the film. [read more]

A third film later in the spring semester will complete the series. For more information, visit the series website.

By Lindsay Westbrook