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<Media HealthKapittel 8 av 12

7. The Baby-Dream Discourse: Individual Exposure Promoting Liberal Reproduction Laws

Hilde Kristin Dahlstrøm is Associate Professor of journalism at NLA University College. Dahlstrøm has a background in journalism, and her research field of special interest is journalism and worldview, values, ethics, and journalism education.

This chapter presents a discourse analysis of how the two largest newspapers in Norway, VG and Aftenposten, report on egg donation in their news reports with feature elements. The typical source is a hopeful mother or father. Typically the news reports depict the daily struggle of the prospective parents, with particular emphasis on their efforts to have a baby. The journalist primarily asks questions about their experiences and feelings. Consequently, attention is brought to the personal experience rather than to the principled aspect of egg donation. When critical questions are raised, the journalist tends to sympathize with the source and asks how they think, respond, and feel about ‘the others’, referring to people who are critical of egg donation. The stories analyzed serve to normalize alternative ways of having a baby. Instead of providing tools to discuss difficult ethical dilemmas, these personal media stories contribute towards converting principled issues to subjective feelings of right and wrong.

Keywords: Health journalism, Ethics, Egg donation, Case journalism, Personal narratives

1 Introduction

I have always thought that life without a child is meaningless. The point of being an adult is to have a child (mother, Aftenposten 08.01.17).

In a series of articles in January 2017 with the main heading “The baby dream”, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten focuses on people struggling to become parents. The timing of these stories corresponds with the political discussion on altering the law on egg donation and assisted reproduction for singles in Norway. Norway has for long had a conservative biotechnology law and was until May 2020 one of only three European countries that still did not allow egg donation or assisted reproduction for singles. Melhuus and Howell (2009) and Melhuus (2012) argue that conservative reproduction laws must be understood as a consequence of the attitudes of the church and traditional Christian values in Norway. The majority of the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board advised that egg donation should become legal in 2011 (Bioteknologinemnda, 2011). After an intense political debate, a majority vote pleaded for new legislation in 2017. Despite this, Norway until recently did not allow egg donation due to the fact that the Christian Democrats (KrF) became part of the Norwegian government in January 2019. With the new government platform, this proposal for new legislation did not have majority support. When the Progress Party (FrP) left the ruling coalition in January 2020 it was no longer committed to the government’s coalition platform. The consequence was that the majority in parliament became in favour of the legalization of egg donation.

The fertility rate in Norway is decreasing (Syse, Hart & Aase, 2016) and a growing number of people are experiencing involuntary childlessness. However, strict laws do not prevent wealthy and resourceful Norwegians from entering the global in-vitro fertilization (IVF) market. Experts estimate that well above 200 Norwegian women travel abroad to receive donated eggs every year (Estensen, 2016). Assisted parenthood is a large and growing global industry, and the individual’s desire for a child might pose a challenge to national laws.

The discussion on changing the biotechnology legislation was naturally covered by the news media. The Norwegian news media focused on the political debate in their coverage on egg donation, with politicians as their main source (Dahlstrøm, 2019). But they also introduced personal stories about parents’ struggles for their dream baby. These stories present a small, framed part of reality, adapted to certain news criteria and dramaturgical principles reflected in the article. This makes it interesting to cast a critical light on the articles in order to find out what kind of reality is presented in these texts (Hågvar, 2007). Prior research on media coverage of the health sector has found that:

By impacting public opinion, they also change the alternative actions of the politicians, and thereby the political priorities of the health sector … On one hand, the media attention provides an opportunity for the politicians’ initiative. On the other, the media publications provide an incentive for the politicians. To put it another way: The media provides both premises and publicity (Eide & Hernes, 1987, p. 168, my translation).

The news media is an important source of information, knowledge, and beliefs about the world (Fairclough, 1992; Van Dijk, 1991). It helps us to select and organize information, influence what issues will be considered important and worthy of attention, and “plays a crucial role in the emergence and development of public debates” (Birenbaum-Carmeli, Banerjee & Taylor, 2006, p. 2154). The choice of genre obviously affects the way reality is presented. News reports with feature elements highlight personal stories, no matter what subject they focus on. This chapter may therefore be of relevance for a wider range of subjects than egg donation. When personal stories are highlighted it is of great interest to look closer at which sources the journalist gives increased symbolic capital and tells us are worth listening to (Allern, 2001, p. 273). Why should we listen to these sources? Because they make the best headlines – or because they are the most important and relevant?

The purpose of this article is to explore what characterizes the mediated news reports on egg donation that focus on sources with personal experience of the matter. It also discusses if these personal media stories may contribute to a more liberal understanding and attitude towards assisted reproduction.

2 The personal source and the journalist

A recent study of Norwegian news media sources found that 74 percent represent a professional role, while only 23 percent are sources in the role of private person (Dahlstrøm, Nesheim & Nyjordet, 2017). The number of private sources was significantly lower in other research projects, and as low as 7 percent according to a PhD from 2016 (Allern, 2001; Hågvar, 2016; Mathisen, 2013). More females than male sources occur in a private role, and most of them contribute to health and stories about adolescence (Dahlstrøm, Nesheim & Nyjordet, 2017).

Even though private persons appear in general news reporting infrequently, they are more common in certain subjects and genres. According to Norwegian health journalists, patients constitute the source used most often (Aarebrot, 2015). According to the editors of the collection Putting a Face on It, subjectivity and the exposure of individuals are again on the rise in journalism (Fonn, Hornmoen, Hyde-Clarke & Hågvar, 2017). This tendency is found in opinion pieces, in articles based on real-life experiences of a first-person narrator, articles addressing readers in a direct way, and in confessional columns describing intimate life experiences. According to Coward (2013), the personal voice and narrative are everywhere in contemporary journalism, both among sources and journalists. The tendency towards more personal journalism can be seen both from the perspective of the influence of social media and in the long-standing debate about what journalism is and should be (Fonn et al., 2017). It should also be understood in the social context of a confessional society. According to Coward (2013), the readers are attracted to and engaged by journalism that is more subjective and personal in its approach. Wahl-Jorgensen argues that such stories are widely valued by both news professionals and audiences because of “the powerful emotional resonance of stories that are constructed as authentic and capable of generating bonds based on compassion” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019, p. 66). The non-elite sources, sometimes called consequence experts (Meilby, 1989), give voice to ordinary people and make it possible to identify and relate to their stories. These personified stories also give the journalist a pedagogical tool to explain complicated phenomena, and might be seen as something valuable, not necessarily something that opposes and threatens balanced news stories. At the same time, presenting individual experiences is also a way of saying something about the nature of reality (Steensen, 2017).

A characteristic of the twentieth century was an increase in telling, witnessing and recording personal life-stories. Plummer describes it as an “auto/biographical society” with life stories everywhere (Plummer, 2001, p. 78). Defining and refining identities reflexively is a key characteristic of late modernity, according to well-known sociologists (Giddens, 1991; Baumann, 2001; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2001). People search, create and explore their identities, which are dynamic and up for grabs. “The new selves are ‘constructed’ through shifts and changes in the modern world, and partly create a new sense of permanent identity crisis” (Plummer, 2001, p. 83). In the search for identity and emotion, what seems to be important are descriptions, experiences, feelings and meanings shared by people with their own personal experiences. “Into this vacuum comes the scrutiny of other people and their behaviour where great value is placed on having lived through an actual experience …, hence the media’s fascination with real lives and real experiences” (Coward, 2013, pp. 89–90).

As we witness sources revealing themselves and narrating their experiences, we might compare ourselves and find out how we would respond to similar situations or ethical dilemmas. The powerful impact of these personal news stories might be explained by the rhetorical device of pathos and its appeal to emotions (Sørbø, 1991). Coward highlights the breakdown of traditional sources of authority to explain the roots of the strong focus on identity and emotions. “It is as if in a culture which is no longer under strict moral instructions from traditional authorities – the church, parents, the state – we are asking not how should we react, but how would we react?” (Coward, 2013, p. 10). Coward argues that subjective journalism can be both more transparent and extraordinarily powerful.

The tendency towards more subjective, personal, confessional and intimate journalism affects both the relationship between the journalist and the source and the media discourses presented. Interviews with health reporters reveal that journalists “share a concern that the case narrative has become too dominant” (Figenschou, 2017, p. 246) and identify several professional dilemmas related to case-driven journalism. The journalists see the use of patient organizations to recruit and facilitate interviews as a potential risk for pressed reporters becoming more dependent on powerful interest groups. The powerful emotional resonance of personal stories is also a well-known strategic tool used by activists and non-governmental organizations. “Personalized storytelling operates as a political strategy which is explicit about its use of emotionality to bring about change” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019, p. 88–89).

Steensen argues that the subjectivity of the reporters and their sources are often intertwined. Not all individual experiences are regarded as newsworthy; the chosen subjects are often bearers of cultural resemblance to the audience and have experienced something that will be perceived as morally unjust (Steensen, 2017, p. 43). The journalist chooses her own sources and will thereby often shed light on the stories she finds newsworthy. In this sense, the journalist becomes a moral gatekeeper. Kleiven (2010) found that the journalist either consciously or unconsciously becomes a team player with the patient and doctor. This also illustrates how the personal and subjective journalism is built on conventions and carries values, and that the selection of sources has an impact on the discourse on egg donation.

3 Public discourse and political decision-making

While it used to be more common to see the news as a mirror of reality, news stories today are more often described as presenting a selected and mediated part of reality. ‘Media logic’, ‘mediatization’, and ‘media dramaturgy’ are terms that identify how journalists and sources influence the mediated news stories presented. This influence goes both ways. Society influences the journalist and her sources, and the news stories influence society. The news production process is shaped by numerous factors such as markets, investors, owners, resources available, sources, audience and more idealistic factors such as ideals, norms, and values (McManus, 1994). News production might be both intuitive and well reflected. However, the “structured sets of text and the practices of their production, dissemination, and reception together constitute the social” (Philips & Hardy, 2002).

Several studies have concluded that there is a correlation between the media’s attention to specific issues and the political decisions made as a consequence of media attention, but these mechanisms are complex, indirect and also often informal (Figenschou & Thorbjørnsrud, 2015; Dekker & Scholten, 2017). According to an overview of health research, the media influence both public perception and the use of healthcare services (Grilli, Ramsay & Minozzi, 2002). Media texts on new medical technology – e.g. assisted reproduction – are important partly because these texts might be the readers’ primary source of knowledge about a field that is in constant change due to huge technological developments. The media are therefore important sources of information about what possibilities and limitations this technology holds. Media coverage is particularly important when research and new technology is controversial because the media is often both channel, arena, actor and director of the debate (Eide & Hernes, 1987; Eide, 2001; Kleiven, 2010, p. 8).

A European sample survey of public attitudes towards biotechnology reveals widespread opposition to genetically modified (GM) food among Europeans. A general tendency is that people are unwilling to accept the perceived risks of new biotechnologies if they perceive genuine moral difficulties and/or no real benefits. In contrast, public opinion about using it in medical and environmental areas is positive (Gaskell et al., 2000). Even if these attitudes might have changed during recent years, the research might indicate a possible correlation between positive media coverage of health news and positive attitude towards new medical technology such as assisted reproduction. An example of media coverage’s impact on the opinion and the political processes from a Norwegian context is the so-called Mehmet case from 2004. A young boy, Mehmet, was diagnosed with a rare blood disease for which there was no treatment available in Norway. The story was given a great deal of media coverage and triggered a public debate. As a consequence of the debate the socialist party, SV, changed its policy, and a political majority gave the family the option to design a brother or sister with specific genes in the United States. The brother or sister could then become the donor that was needed to cure Mehmet’s disease. This technology and procedure, PGD, was not legal in Norway. Kleiven argues that in retrospect the coverage of Mehmet can be seen as a clear example of “how the media can be seen as strong actors that set the decisive premises for how we ought to interpret a highly complex field” (Kleiven 2009a, p. 464, my translation). This highlights the importance of exploring the discourses that dominate personal news stories on other topics too.

4 Media coverage of assisted reproduction

Health news in general is often criticized for being too optimistic about technology, source-driven, and focused on sensations (Nelkin, 1996; Entwistle & Hanocock-Béaulieu, 1992, p. 368; Dunwoody, 1999; Kleiven, 2009). The patient has become more prominent in news stories about IVF (Kleiven, 2010). Research on media coverage of assisted reproduction in New Zealand found a concordance of interest between journalists, medical specialists, and consumers (Michelle, 2007). Two out of three stories were characterized as “Personal stories from real life”, with a majority of couples speaking about their struggle in their attempt to conceive their dream baby. The focus was on success and happiness, but the stories also revealed a need for new laws and a demand that society should pay for the treatment. There is also a positive and optimistic attitude towards medical technology in the Norwegian media coverage of assisted reproduction. The most common media frame in Norwegian newspapers from 1978 to 2007 was “New hope for the childless” (Kleiven, 2009b). An analysis of Israeli newspaper coverage on the same issues concluded that the public debate on assisted reproduction “is largely characterized by personal narratives that accentuate, on the surface, a discourse of individualism” (Shalev & Lemish, 2012). The researchers highlighted that the news coverage promoted a process called “dynamic infertility” in which women are encouraged to undergo as many fertility treatments as necessary in order to bring their children into the world. The positive media attention towards new technologies on assisted reproduction might have contributed to a new attitude towards infertility. While infertility has traditionally been perceived as one’s destiny, it is currently regarded as a medical issue (Spilker, 2008), a state often called medicalization. A medical expert in the field says the media coverage is imbalanced and gives an incorrect picture of reality by focusing only on success stories. Personal stories about failing to achieve the dream, and subsequent desperation and grief, are not part of the mediated reality (Sundby, 1997).

5 The subjective perspective’s lack of ethical dilemmas

As the subjective stories are given more attention, there is always a risk that the principled discussions might be seen as less important. A consequence of this kind of mediatization is that society increasingly understands structural and complicated questions as personal acts and wishes (Hjarvard, 1995). Sørbø (2005) criticizes the news media for always preferring personal experiences over principled discussions, and relationships over an argument. He argues that the interest in intimacy, life stories, and identification overshadows important principles and arguments. When facing subjective experiences, ethical questions might not be asked for fear of being perceived as disrespectful if one does. However, ethical dilemmas that are difficult and unpleasant to discuss do not disappear even if left unspoken, and self-censorship may even threaten freedom of speech. Criticizing the doxa, understood as public opinions, might lead to exclusion. Sørbø challenges the media’s role in establishing and representing doxa. He asks if the media represents a naïve progress optimism, saying that new claims always represent greater knowledge than old claims (Sørbø 2005). We have seen that the news media are the arena, the actors, and the mediators of values. Regardless of the journalist being aware of this or not, it matters which stories news media tell about egg donation and motherhood.

6 Method

This study aims to focus on the use of individual sources with personal experience in news reports on egg donation, hence the reports chosen for this study have at least one source with personal experience of egg donation. The news reports in this project are lengthy accounts that often run over several pages and include descriptions, observations, and pictures that indicate that the journalist has met with the source and aligned with typical genre conventions for these reports (Steensen 2016). The study presents a qualitative text analysis of all nine news reports that put a face on egg donation in the two largest newspapers in Norway between 1 October 2016 and 15 May 2018, the period of the highest frequency of published stories on egg donation according to searches conducted via the Norwegian media archive Atekst. These two newspapers were chosen because among the big Norwegian newspapers, they had the broadest coverage on egg donation. However, the smaller, Christian faith-based newspapers Vårt Land and Dagen had broader coverage on this topic. It is also of particular interest to study VG and Aftenposten because their editorials have taken opposing stances on the legalization of egg donation. In 2015, the political news editors in these newspapers participated in heated debates on this topic.

Combined, the two newspapers published 119 news articles from a range of journalistic genres, including letters from the readers and editorials. Aftenposten has almost three times the number of articles than VG (87 vs. 32 articles) (Dahlstrøm, 2019). The aim of this research is not to give a general overview of the media coverage on egg donation, but to gain deep insight into news reports that focus on the subjective and personal experiences of egg donation. This can provide valuable knowledge about which stories journalists give attention to when they personalize stories about an ethical question such as egg donation.

The qualitative text analysis in this chapter is inspired by the tradition of critical discourse analysis, aiming to explore the imbrications between the texts and the social and political thoughts behind them, after Fairclough (1992). “Our language creates representations of reality that are never just mirrors of reality. The representations also create reality” (Jørgensen & Philips, 1999, p. 17, my translation). The words, terminology, signs, and perspectives used by the journalist are therefore likely to affect our understanding of and opinions on egg donation. Among the aims of critical discourse analysis is to determine the sociopolitical thinking that influences the texts. Detailed “recipes” for how to analyze the texts are difficult to provide because they “undermine[s] the very basis of discourse analysis” (Philips & Hardy, 2002, p. 74). To find out how these news reports represent and create our understanding of egg donation, I approached the texts with questions such as: Who are the sources? What characterizes the focus in the headline and leads? How does the journalist contextualize their stories? How are the stories illustrated? Which questions does the journalist ask, and what type of observations are included in the text? Which arguments are found in the texts? Such kinds of questions have been helpful tools in analyzing the news reports, serving as entry points to further discourse analysis, which emphasizes the contextual and interpretive aspects of the texts.

Cross-language qualitative text studies represent a methodological challenge because the researcher needs to translate the news articles cited. In doing so I have had a colleague check my translations to minimize possible misunderstandings. I am also aware that I encounter the texts with my own eyes and prejudices, and I have tried to stick to the texts as closely as possible.

7 Putting a face on egg donation

The personal news reports constitute a little more than 15 percent of the general news stories on egg donation. The four personal news reports in VG make up 24 percent and the five in Aftenposten 9 percent of the general news reports. Four out of five news reports in Aftenposten occur on the front page, whereas none of the VG stories do. Seven of the nine news reports are presented over several pages, and all of the articles are illustrated with large pictures of smiling parents and kids at home, at the hospital, and/or of the process of achieving their baby dream. The process is illustrated with pictures of people traveling and being at the hospital together alongside the help of medical personnel. The pictures taken at home typically illustrate common situations such as playing, changing diapers, or embracing each other within the family. Out of the nine news reports, an interview with a Norwegian donor differs slightly from the others (Aftenposten, 11.01.17); it has only one source, and is the only time a Norwegian donor is interviewed. The same two female journalists have written four of the five articles in Aftenposten. All the VG stories have been written by different journalists.

In addition to these news reports, Aftenposten, in particular, may use case elements to put a face on the ordinary news stories (09.01.17, 17.06.17 and 16.02.18). This might be a picture of a smiling mother and child, and perhaps a brief, positively angled comment from the mother. The sources state that they are sorry on behalf of those who are denied egg donation in Norway, or that “I would have gone through a hormone treatment and helped another woman to become a mother” (17.06.17). Interestingly enough, at the end of one of the stories one of the smiling mothers arguing for the legalization of egg donation says that she would never consider donating her own eggs (09.01.17).

The news reports fulfil many of the traditional news values. They bring proximity, personification, identification and polarized conflict to the news stories. Common for most of them is that the face of the story is a happy parent telling his or her own story. We often meet the parents at home, and descriptions of everyday life spice the stories up. The reports focus on how new technology and methods of reproduction can help people in their desire to become parents. Many of the sources express frustration with the Norwegian reproduction laws, which they describe as strict. Some of the stories’ headlines illustrate this (see Table 1).

Table 1

The news reports in the analysis

Aftenposten

Translated headlines

04.01.17

Front: Became pregnant with an egg from a donor

Article: Women travel abroad to fulfil their dream of a baby with others’ eggs

08.01.17

Article: - A life without a child is meaningless

11.01.17

Front: Runa Trones has donated 36 eggs

Article: Runa Trones has donated several eggs to British women

13.02.17

Front: Every second week a new surrogate baby comes from the USA

Article: Expensive and popular with surrogate babies from the USA

Article: “When someone asks who is Sverre’s father is, we answer ‘both of us’”

04.03.17

Front: “If I want a holiday, I donate eggs”

Article: Spanish eggs became the salvation

VG

09.10.16

Article: Life as involuntarily childless

19.11.16

Article: The egg battle

11.03.17

Article: Nina has given birth to two daughters via egg donation

16.05.17

Article: Disrespectful to call our children a product, say the surrogate parents of Tord and Knut (4)

8 Campaigning Sources

The typical source in these personal news reports is a mother or father (in total 15 sources), cf. Table 2. They are men and women dreaming of a having a baby, couples traveling abroad for donated eggs, single mothers and gay parents who have received donated eggs and surrogacy abroad. VG gives voice to two donor children (4 and 7 years old) who support their parents, and Aftenposten presents two children conceived with donated eggs alongside their parents. There is an equal ratio of female and male sources, but in the stories where heterosexual couples are interviewed, the majority of quotations are from the woman. Many of these typical family sources have gone a long way to achieve their biggest dream. They speak about possibilities, hope, expensive solutions, travel, disappointment and joy: “It is about the smartest decision I have ever made. I have got the best son in the world!” (mother, VG, 19.11.16). Some of the family sources are still dreaming and suffering since they long for brothers or sisters. Only one couple portrayed still has not become parents (VG, 09.10.16). They speak about their tough life as an involuntarily childless couple. Their everyday life spent trying to conceive a child is exhausting, painful and expensive.

It is extremely exhausting. There are side effects, routines, medical treatment five times a day, and it is expensive. You need to have an alarm on your phone to remember your medicines. Life is all about this… planning and facilitating. Everyday life is tough (involuntarily childless couple, VG, 09.10.16).

Table 2

News sources in the general coverage of egg donation – and in the personal stories

General media coverage Total: 148 sources

Personal news reports Total: 56 sources

Politicians

63%

30%

Mother, father, child, donor

18%

43%

Medical experts/researchers

16%

22%

Other

3%

5%

The family sources give voice to “the problem” of the strict Norwegian reproduction law. While the politicians dominate as sources in the general Norwegian coverage of egg donation (Dahlstrøm, 2019), the family sources (mother, father, donor, child) are the most common and dominant sources in the personalized news reports (24 sources). According to Kleiven’s research on general media coverage of IVF (2007), the doctor or researcher used to be the most important source; this has now been replaced by the patient. The present study finds that sources play different roles in different news stories and genres. The donors only occur in Aftenposten. The second biggest group of sources in the news reports are the politicians (17 sources); most of them are representatives of the ruling parties. They are not the primary sources in these texts, and often their role is to explain whether they will vote to change the law and why (not). The third-largest group of sources are medical experts (12 sources). They are often supportive of the parents and are portrayed both as helpers and as businesspersons. VG has more parents/family sources than Aftenposten, while Aftenposten has more medical experts and donor sources than VG. The present study cannot explain this difference but does find that the voices of experts often give authority to the opinions of the parents.

Several of the female sources in both newspapers’ news reports share in common that they are actively engaged in questions on laws regulating assisted parenthood. We get to know that two of them are active on Instagram or blogs, where they share their stories about being involuntarily childless. A third source is engaged in the interest organization Ønskebarn that also lobbies the government on changing the law. The initial impression that the sources are “normal” people, like you and me, might therefore be nuanced somewhat. The sources have an agenda. For them this is not just about speaking about their life, experience, and feelings. They want something to happen. They want laws to change. In that sense, the stories that cultivate compassion work as a strategic tool.

9 Saved by eggs from Spain

“The baby-dream discourse” is characterized by descriptions of the strong desire to have a baby. Typically, these descriptions focus on the pain of being involuntarily childless and thoughts about what a child can add to life. “They say it is not a human right to have a baby, but it is at least a need. One of the strongest” (involuntarily childless, VG, 09.10.16). The “need” the woman describes is explained more thoroughly by what the child can give back to her as a mother. “I have always known that I wanted to be a mother, and I have loved children as long as I can remember. The reason for that is the special love, the thought of someone loving you unconditionally” (VG, 09.10.16). A father also focuses on how the child may contribute to what is missing in life. “I want a feelgood project. The two of us have travelled a lot, eaten good food, but something is still missing” (father-to-be, Aftenposten, 04.03.17). The headline “Spanish eggs became the salvation” (Aftenposten, 04.03.17) feeds the baby-dream discourse. The idea is that when someone has a strong desire for a baby, they can be helped by utilizing new technology and egg donation. The lead text in the same article emphasizes that these women require help to become mothers. This contributes towards framing the involuntarily childless individual as a person in a vulnerable situation. When encountering these vulnerable sources, there is a possibility of the “helping-hand effect” (Hestvik, 2007) occurring. The relationship of trust required between the journalist and the source might lead to the journalist wanting to help the source, and thus leaving out the critical questions. It is easier to be critical towards a professional rather than a personal source. If the journalist takes a critical stance and keeps a distance, she might lose her source.

A possible consequence of the helping-hand effect is that the questions raised by the journalist primarily invite the sources to speak about their process, experiences, and feelings. Consequently, attention is focused on personal experiences rather than the principled aspect of egg donation. When slightly more critical questions are to be raised, the journalist typically sympathizes with the source and asks how they think, respond, and feel about “the others”, referring to people who are critical towards egg donation. When critical questions are asked, it is often done in a gentle way, giving sources the possibility to reflect on the issues as illustrated in Aftenposten: “What do you think about those who have the opposite opinion?” “Do you understand politicians that want to ban surrogacy and do not want to open up for egg donation?” “Do you feel you took the baby away from the surrogate?” (Aftenposten, 16.02.17). These kinds of questions give an opportunity to talk about the difficult issues and defend their subjective choice without the journalist having to criticize them.

What do you say to those who think you buy and sell children?

– That is completely wrong. You do not buy a child, but you get an egg cell that needs to be fertilized and to develop in the womb of the woman who will become the child’s mother. I recommend the woman to view it as an adopted egg (fertility helper, VG, 19.11.16).

By posing the questions this way, the stories can contribute to creating a distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In creating this distance, the journalist might be understood to be on the sources’ side. One of the couples we meet state they are prepared to meet those who disagree with them because they are convinced that what they have done is right:

We will probably meet people who are less tolerant and bigoted, with ugly opinions about our choice. We are ready to stand up to these people because no arguments or moral aspects might make us doubt that what we have done is right (couple, Aftenposten, 04.03.17).

It could be argued that “these people” are represented as conservative, old-fashioned and tradition-bound, who do not want to help vulnerable people in need. Those who pose arguments against egg donation in the news reports are all politicians. However, critical opponents seem to be a minor threat. A father says that his family has “never had a single negative comment about them being a different family” (VG, 16.05.18). This quote emphasizes the impression that there are very few critical voices and thus contributes to normalizing the new family’s situation. One consequence might be that possible critical voices are silenced.

10 Words creating reality

An interview with two fathers illustrates how words describe and construct reality. The two fathers had used an egg donor and a surrogate to have their children and explain that they dislike the expression “surrogate mother”. They say they prefer calling the woman that gave birth to their children a surrogate, not a surrogate mother. It could seem that by removing “mother”, they create a greater distance to the woman who bore the baby. This illustrates how words and descriptions are not neutral but have an impact on our understanding of reality. “I do not want to think about the donor as a person. It is just something we need to become pregnant. I really just want to forget her, so I am glad that she is anonymous and always will be” (father, Aftenposten, 04.03.17). When the father says that he does not want to think about the donor, the journalist asks if that is because he does not want to think that he has a child with another woman. “I have thought about it. The thought crosses my mind but soon disappears. What really matters is who is taking care of the child when that time hopefully comes” (ibid).

The news reports contain many everyday descriptions that may contribute to normalizing the experiences of the sources: “There is still a baby atmosphere in the apartment in Oslo. Milk substitute is being warmed up, bottles are being cleaned and diapers are changed” (Aftenposten, 13.02.17). The descriptions might also create an impression that technology makes it easy to fulfil the baby dream. “At the clinic she had two fertilized eggs inserted. Eggs donated from a Latvian woman, semen from a friend in Finland. – After the fifth day, I kept feeling ill. I was pregnant, she says” (VG, 19.11.16). The article continues to describe how the autumn sun greets the mother and her seven-year-old son as they are about to prepare dinner and leaves the impression of a natural and easy process towards becoming a mother. In another story, we meet two fathers and their children at home: “In the hallway, there are four jackets, two large and two small. In the children’s bedroom, two boxes full of toys are lined up. A normal life with small children, with the ingredients of logistics, sorrow, and pleasure” (VG, 16.05.17).

Another example is as follows:

The psychologist had expected a classic nuclear family. Having a child alone? The thought had never struck her. But when she was approaching 40 and still did not have a man she wanted to have kids with, she had to think differently … The desire to have a baby was so strong that she was forced abroad because Norway is one of few European countries that does not allow assisted reproduction for single parents. (Aftenposten, 04.01.17)

In the excerpt above, words like “had to” and “forced” contribute towards framing the text in a specific way, emphasizing the vulnerable situation of the source. The headline “Spanish eggs became the salvation” is not a neutral statement, since it indicates that somebody needed to be saved. Aftenposten, more often than VG, uses these kinds of value-charged words to lend sympathy to the sources and illuminate their difficult situation.

The donors whose eggs will save the Norwegian women are portrayed as poor women donating eggs so that they can afford a new tattoo or a vacation. They are beautiful, but they smoke and drink, donate anonymously, and do so more often than they are allowed to. They say that those claiming to donate eggs for kind and altruistic reasons are obviously lying. They do not think about the potential children at all and claim that the prettiest girls are paid the most. “We know two girls, both healthy, who were refused permission to donate eggs. One of them had rings under her eyes and a narrow face, the other was fat. So, yes, it is all about how you look” (Aftenposten, 04.03.17). Unlike the Spanish donors, however, the Norwegian donor in England is portrayed with more noble intentions and as more empathic, as she even writes letters to children that might be born with her genes. We get to know her family background and her thoughts on family. “It is a little bit strange, but what is a family? How important are genes? No doubt the child will feel that it belongs to the family it grows up with” (Aftenposten, 11.01.17). The donors’ quotations contribute to a social constructivist approach to family in which love and the desire to have a baby play the most important role. Further, the contrary donor presentations favour the noble Norwegian donor and might acknowledge the need for Norwegian control and systems, which can best be taken care of if we allow egg donations at home.

11 Experiences trump arguments

I understand those being sceptical. I used to be sceptical myself, but now I think it is a fantastic opportunity … After going through this myself, it feels natural for me that Norway says yes to egg donation (mother, VG, 11.03.17).

As we have seen, the focus in the personal news reports is not on the arguments, but the experiences and subjective feelings. Still, there are some arguments borne by the parent sources to be found. Their main argument is their own experience and success. Their baby is the best thing that has ever happened to them. They also focus on parenthood as something relational, not genetic: “What matters is who takes care of the child in everyday life” (Aftenposten 04.03.17). “What is most important is not whether you are man or woman. It is whether you are a decent human being” (VG, 16.05.17). The donor sources also use this kind of argument: “What is a family? How important are genes? I have no doubt the child will feel it belongs to the family it grows up with” (Norwegian donor, Aftenposten, 11.01.17). They also say that donating eggs is no big deal and compare it to giving blood or being an organ donor. The politicians that support the parents in their fight to change the law also focus on the social and relational part of being a parent. However, their primary argument is about equality of egg and semen donation. One of them argues that the discussion is “more than mature” (VG, 19.11.16).

On the other hand, we find critical voices arguing against allowing egg donation in Norway. These voices usually belong to politicians. They see it as important for the child to know who their genetic parents are and argue that we should not neglect the natural bond of the birth-giver as mother. “We need to make sure that children who are the result of assisted reproduction methods will have a father and a mother, and are able to find their biological roots” (politician, Aftenposten, 08.01.17). They also fear that allowing egg donation will be a step towards accepting surrogacy. Lastly, they argue that the egg donor needs to go through demanding medical treatment, and they fear the commercialization of human genes.

The donors do not share concerns about commercialization. One of them says she does not care if somebody earns money selling their eggs. “Everybody gets what they want. I get money, the hospital gets money, and the parents get their child” (donor, Aftenposten, 04.03.17). The health sources argue that it is safer for the women if we allow egg donation in Norway, where we can more easily control the process and have a greater influence on the use of new technology. One of them criticizes the politicians for not relating to the world outside: “The politicians act like ostriches, not relating to the reality that already exists just beyond our own front door” (VG, 19.11.16). She thereby gives voice to the wish of the parents whose experiences are the most important focus in the news reports. Critical arguments are more rarely included, such as when the head of the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board rejects the argument about other countries allowing egg donation:

We cannot use the number of women traveling abroad for help as an argument for changing the law in Norway … This is an argument we encounter all the time, and we cannot have other countries’ practices as our guideline for ethical decision-making (Aftenposten, 04.01.17).

12 Conclusion

The moral commandments have fallen, one by one, in Norway … Right now there is a heated discussion around egg donation (Aftenposten, 04.03.17).

The news reports that put a face on egg donation focus mainly on the authentic experiences, stories, and opinions of the individual. Mothers and fathers are the most common sources, and the news reports are full of descriptions from their everyday lives and struggles to achieve their dream baby. The news reports present these adults as vulnerable and in need of help to become a parent, and thereby facilitate the discourse of compassion. It is obvious that the helping-hand effect occurs, making it difficult for the journalist to be critical and raise principled ethical questions.

At the same time, many of the descriptions of everyday life might contribute to normalizing these parents’ experiences and the alternative ways of becoming a family. The stories also emphasize that it is possible to help them if we embrace new technological possibilities. In this sense, the news reports present a positive progress discourse that highlights the endless possibilities. The positive experience of having a baby with alternative methods is presented as the main argument for changing the law on assisted reproduction in Norway. The arguments are often implicit and based on the feeling that having the baby is the best thing that ever happened in life, and the feeling that what they did was right.

A positive attitude towards egg donation is reflected in the news reports in this chapter. The individually focused news report genre seems to facilitate compassion for the childless, and their desires and experiences of the process of having a baby. The news reports are not representative stories – and the stories represent discourses and values. As we have seen, the news reports that put a face on egg donation contribute to normalizing alternative ways of having a baby. In that sense, the media stories might be a useful tool for the sources speaking about their private struggles. However, instead of giving us tools to discuss difficult ethical dilemmas properly, personal media stories contribute towards reducing principled discussions and ethical questions to subjective feelings of right and wrong.

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