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Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Entertaining the idea of surrogate mums


Last week, the health ministry decided not to recommend revisions to current guidelines regarding fertility treatments. This disappointed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has been advocating the legalization of such controversial procedures as the use of surrogate mothers because they say they don't believe the government can restrict people's "right" to reproduce.

News photo
Aki Mukai (right) and Nobuhiko Takada

Coincidentally, Fuji TV aired a two-hour documentary on its Feb. 23 "Friday Entertainment" program about the saga of Aki Mukai, who last November became the mother of twin boys thanks to a surrogate mother in the United States.

More than 100 Japanese couples have so far used surrogate mothers in the States, though almost none have come forward publicly. Mukai would have found it difficult to hide what happened because she is a TV personality. In fact, she has encouraged coverage, with press conferences, a Web diary and three books chronicling her three-year ordeal. And as the Fuji program showed, Mukai has allowed cameras into her home and hospital rooms over the past two years to record the most intimate details of her quest to become a mother.

"Dramatic" is the only word to describe this quest. The program, after all, is called "Friday Entertainment," and while it explained the procedure the show's priorities emphasized heartbreak, suspense and joy.

In 2000, Mukai learned that she was pregnant, but followup tests revealed she also had cancer of the uterus. At first, the doctors removed only part of her uterus, but soon discovered that the cancer had spread.

Mukai asked that the operation to remove the rest of her uterus be postponed until after the baby was born. The doctors said that would be risky and Mukai indicated she was willing to take that risk, but was talked out of it by her husband, the professional wrestler Nobuhiko Takada.

She lost her uterus and the baby, but kept her ovaries. Followup radiation treatment would have made her sterile, but she underwent a 10-hour operation to push her ovaries up into her chest cavity, where they could avoid radiation.

The program was clear about the difficulties of using surrogate mothers. Mukai and Takada had to fly back-and-forth between Tokyo and Reno, Nev., where Mukai went through the painful process of having her ova removed. In one long scene, she is shown downing liters of laxative because her system must be cleaned out prior to the procedure.

She suffers many disappointments: conception fails twice, then succeeds but the fertilized eggs don't take in the uterus of the surrogate mother, an American woman named Sandra Johnson. Meanwhile, Mukai continues to receive cancer treatments that weaken her system.

Last May, Mukai finally announced that a 31-year-old mother of four named Cindy Van Reed would give birth to twins for her and Takada. The babies were delivered by cesarean section in November with the Japanese parents in attendance.

Mukai has been careful to characterize her relations with Johnson and Van Reed as "partnerships," and the program played up how close she was to the two women. However, because of the program's dramatic priorities it glossed over issues that a real documentary would have addressed. In a recent interview with the women's weekly Josei Seven, Van Reed revealed that only women who had given birth to at least two children are considered as surrogates, since such women are judged less likely to want to keep the child they are carrying for someone else.

She also said that when she learned she was carrying twins, she became worried and asked the doctor if he could abort one of the fetuses. The doctor and Mukai, who said she already felt guilty about "aborting" a child (the fetus that was removed when she had her cancer operation), convinced her not to.

"Friday Entertainment" stressed that the $20,000 Van Reed received was for "expenses" and that all surrogate mothers are essentially "volunteers." The Josei Seven article provided background that placed the money in perspective. Van Reed is a housewife with four kids (the oldest is her auto-mechanic husband's child from a previous marriage), and the money was used to pay off the loan on their $55,000 house.

Last week's issue of another women's weekly, Shukan Josei, carried an article that surveyed some prominent media people about Mukai. Though everyone admires her determination, some tend to question her willingness to lay her life open. Women's magazines tend to be catty with female celebrities, and Josei implies that Mukai wants too much by demanding satisfaction with her career, her husband, and now her babies.

It's an unfair implication, but one that Mukai inadvertently encourages. One tabloid said she is "commercializing" her ordeal, and considering that her latest book about it was published two days before the TV show, it's obvious that her PR machine is very well-coordinated.

Mukai brushes aside the criticism and says her purpose is to make people understand the use of surrogate mothers, but she never really discusses anything beyond her own wants. Her new book is titled "Aitakatta (I Wanted to See You)," which is addressed to her babies. Apparently, Mukai expects them someday to read it and understand just what she went through to bring them into the world. That's a pretty heavy burden to lay on anyone.



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