A photo of Republican Trent Franks with drawings of Handmaids in the background.

Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0

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Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0

To Rep. Trent Franks, All Women Are Handmaids

The former congressman voted for laws rendering women as second-class citizens. Which is why he doesn’t understand why his staffers won’t have his baby.

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If I was ever to pick a congressman to resign amid allegations that he propositioned staffers under the guise of promoting “family values,” well, Republican Trent Franks was always going to be near the top of my list. A rabid social conservative who declared marriage equality a “threat to the nation’s survival” and claimed “every study proves same-sex couples make awful parents,” it’s not surprising to learn he may have been just few steps from “I’ll give you $5 million to carry my baby if you know what I mean…<wink>.”

We quickly learned the more sordid details from those employees who accused Franks of sexual harassment—that he pestered them to be his surrogate, not being entirely clear whether he was talking about medical implantation or God’s own natural way, or that he may have even tried to emotionally woo an underling, and that he began avoiding at least one of these women when she rejected him, forcing her to eventually quit. But before that happened we first heard the Arizona congressman’s version of events, and it was peak Franks as he tried to deflect all accusations by throwing on the armor of the Christian pro-life activist.

“Given the nature of numerous allegations and reports across America in recent weeks, I want to first make one thing completely clear. I have absolutely never physically intimidated, coerced, or had, or attempted to have, any sexual contact with any member of my congressional staff,” he wrote in his initial resignation statement, and then described the first successful round of surrogacy as being “a pro-life approach that did not discard or throw away any embryos.” He even did a non-apology apology, stating that “I deeply regret that my discussion of this option and process in the workplace caused distress.” He was only resigning not because he had done anything inappropriate, but because he felt he would be persecuted as a Christian man through a “hyperbolized public excoriation” by the House Ethics Committee and the media.

Yes, poor Congressman Franks just couldn’t bear the thought of being misunderstood.

Then again it’s hard to misconstrue a $5 million surrogacy offer, especially when your boss actually brings you in a written contract to peruse. Or to misconstrue seeing your duties in the office shrink soon after rejecting your boss’s repeated requests of you to review that contract about carrying his baby.

But even without the congressman’s sudden resignation soon after being probed on the accusations, his version of events had some pretty major red flags on its own. Especially around the claims of a “pro-life approach” to surrogacy that “doesn’t discard or throw away embryos.”

IVF (in vitro fertilization) and especially surrogacy are deeply fraught topics among the religious right. Many conservative Christians, especially Catholics and Evangelicals, oppose all forms of assisted reproductive technology (ART) because they feel it “divorces” conception from sex, allowing people to “create” babies outside of intercourse. While some religious conservatives say the problem is the potential for an embryo to be destroyed—something they see as equivalent to loss of life due to abortion or miscarriage—others see it as just as problematic on its own due to its commodification of conception itself.

Still, some do try to thread the needle and advocate a “pro-life” approach to assisted reproductive technology procedures like IVF or artificial insemination. According to some Catholics, it is allowable to have medical intervention to conceive as long as an arduous list of criteria are met: The sperm and eggs must be from the married couple themselves, the eggs must be obtained through laparoscopy and saved, the sperm collected in a special “sheath” after the couple finishes sexual intercourse (no masturbation allowed). Then either sperm is injected into the wife for IUI (intrauterine insemination) or for IVF the two components then transferred into the wife’s fallopian tubes in the hopes that magic will happen.

Unsurprisingly, the success rate is fairly dismal.

Those who aren’t so concerned with the idea of children conceived outside of sexual intercourse have more options, and, for a family like the Congressman’s with far more ample ban accounts than most Americans, IVF could be done without creating extra embryos. The biggest factor for having a multitude of leftovers to be frozen or destroyed is a couple’s financial circumstances. Because implantation often fails, most patients harvest many eggs in one sitting and make multiple embryos, giving them enough for a second, third or fourth round of attempts without needing the financial resources or hormonal rollercoaster of a second round of egg harvesting. If you are truly willing to start the process over again should the first implantation fail, there really is no need to create more embryos than can be used in one pregnancy attempt. And, considering the Franks are the parents of fraternal twins, it seems safe to assume that this was the approach they chose.

But while that may have worked just fine when the Congressman used his first surrogate, there is no doubt that it’s a whole different ball of wax when approaching a workplace subordinate. If Franks and his wife were practitioners of an IVF solution that didn’t create extra embryos then it is pretty likely that he wasn’t just asking his aides to carry his child, but to be the child’s biological mother, too. With 38 years of marriages together we can assume the Congressman’s wife doesn’t have any viable eggs of her own, leaving whomever would be the surrogate to be the most likely donor.

Of course, there is something inherently creepy to begin with when a boss approaches an employee about something this personal, but you can be relatively certain that the congressman wouldn’t dream of asking a male employee to donate sperm to make the Franks a baby, not even with the congressman himself already 60 years old and, if his choice of doctors is any indication, already having some fertility issues of his own. Discussing how babies are made isn’t exactly the sort of office water cooler chitchat that the men of the Christian patriarchy tend to indulge in.

But Franks’s discussion with his female aides—whether or not they were thinly veiled sexual come-ons—reiterates his own view of women, too. Asking them to have a baby for him isn’t just creepy (seriously, have I mentioned it’s creepy?), it’s signifying just how utterly unimportant he takes these women as professionals, too. After all, there is no better indicator that your boss thinks you have no future upward mobility in your job than his suggestion that you go get pregnant and have a baby instead.

Arizona Congressman Trent Franks spent a decade and a half in Congress where he drafted and voted in favor of laws destined to make women second-class citizens coerced into conceiving and raising babies and out of the professional or public eye. Is it any wonder that he literally enforced those same policies in his office, too? The Christian right is all about power over women—in the office, in the home, in politics and in society itself. The only reason a politician like Franks could get away with it for so long was because men like him rely on the silence of women.

And now, at last, that silence is finally breaking.

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