Radiolab | Podcast Review | November 25, 2015 | By

Radiolab: Birthstory

I’m not sure if it’s wrong or not, but this story really highlights the interconnectivity of human beings—even more than pregnancy usually does.

This week 1Radiolab teamed up with Israel Story to tell an exceedingly complicated and uncomfortable story about conception. Not uncomfortable in the traditional when a man loves a woman very, very much way. Uncomfortable in the when a man loves a man but their country doesn’t think they should be parents so they get an Indian surrogate but then realize they may have exploited her sort of way. But before we dive into that, a quick word about Israel Story.

Israel Story is the This American Life of Israel. That’s not a lazy metaphor; it’s the truth. Creator Mishy Harman heard the public radio-stalwart and—like many of us, I imagine—fell in love. “I can do that,” he thought. And so he did. I first found the show via Snap Judgment’s Eye of the Beholder.” I haven’t listened to anything else they’ve done, but the Snap story was good. I’d recommend it.

Anyway, it’s interesting that Israel Story draws its inspiration from This American Life, because this was definitely a Radiolab story. It’s not the fact that this story aired on Radiolab that makes it a Radiolab story—it’s the way they tell it. On This American Life, we probably would have heard more about how all of the characters felt throughout the ordeal and thought less about the ethical implications of surrogacy; neither approach is better, but these editorial decisions differentiate all our favorite shows from one another.

I’m glad Radiolab went deep with this story, because the opener didn’t draw me in right away. It’s Radiolab, so of course I’m going to listen the whole way through, but I sometimes feel like the show’s love of surprises causes them to bury the lede, which can lead to sluggish starts. “Birthstory” didn’t grab me until the earthquake. With a sudden injection of adrenaline, the story picks up, but the narrative arc quickly resolves itself, leaving a series of ethical questions.

The Israeli couple turned to surrogacy because of Israel’s anti-gay parenthood policies. They chose Lotus, their surrogacy company, because it paid a large sum—a life changing sum—to the Indian women who serve as surrogates. It might sound gauche, but it’s the same impulse that drives people to buy fair trade goods. 2 If they were going to spend a huge sum of money on their pregnancy, they wanted to make sure they were helping, not exploiting. And they thought they had helped, until they heard that the women who serve as surrogates get paid a fraction of what Lotus had claimed.

Radiolab is able to solve the mystery, kind of. They can’t confirm with the surrogate central to the story, but they figure out that yes, these women get paid a lot less than we are led to believe. Still, Radiolab can’t decide whether or not they’re being exploited. Some of you will certainly find the economics of surrogacy icky; others will sleep unperturbed.

Personally, I agree with Jad: I’m not sure if it’s wrong or not, but this story really highlights the interconnectivity of human beings—even more than pregnancy usually does.

As a parting thought, I thought this episode handled the issue of translation really well. When we listen to Radiolab we expect sound-rich stories with an onslaught of different speakers. And yet, tape that requires translation poses a problem to that aesthetic: having an English speak translate each speaker’s thoughts while they speak would sound dull. I loved how they solved it, stitching together the voices of several surrogates so that you could understand them without translation.

  1. Can we really say “this week,” for a semi-regular but definitely not weekly show? ^
  2. Editor’s note: If this is something you like thinking about, you should probably listen to the Planet Money on carbon offsets from Nov. 13 ^

About the Author

Will Warren is a founding editor at Audiologue, and covers Radiolab for the site. You can find him on Twitter @willpwarren or via email at

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