This week, a controversy plaguing Seattle City Council candidate Egan Orion was rebirthed on social media, sparking outrage from voters and commentators across the city.
But, like most outrage campaigns, it turned out the story that spread online didn’t capture the entire picture.
It all started when the activist and political consultant Dae Shik Kim Hawkins—who has worked for the campaigns of current City Council candidates Shaun Scott and Tammy Morales—posted a screenshot of a 2018 Facebook post in which Orion said he was seeking an egg donor, specifically, a donor who is a “Latina, Italian, Spanish woman, fine if partially white or black or Asian or Native American or Middle Eastern. Think: United Colors of Benetton.”
On Twitter, Hawkins wrote, “Seattle city council candidate Egan Orion crowdsources embryos from ‘partial’ WOC like a modern day slave owner attempting to force breed at a slave auction.” The story spread out from there, on Twitter and other social media platforms.
This is not the first time that Facebook post has come back to haunt Orion. In July, an anonymous critic wrote a blog post on Medium: “Since there is no land left for the taking,” the author wrote, “Egan Orion decided to focus on colonizing the bodies of women of color.” And it's not hard to see why Orion’s critics were angered by his Facebook post. The tone is flippant, and Orion, who is white, appears to be shopping around from some kind of designer baby—a “United Colors of Benetton” prop. Plus, Orion is running against socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who is herself a woman of color. The whole thing looked highly problematic, and after Hawkins dredged this back up, my colleague Charles Mudede wrote a post comparing Orion to Jeffrey Epstein and his alleged plan to “run a sperm insemination ranch in New Mexico.”
The next day, Orion addressed this controversy on Facebook, writing, “In my journey to become a parent as a gay man, I posted a search for an egg donor. When I wrote it, I wanted a baby that looked like me and my partner (who is Mexican). This is something straight and gay people who can’t conceive or bear children do every day.”
That’s right: His partner was Mexican. (Orion and his partner have since split. But he says they remain close.)
Orion continued: “But words matter. And it’s important that my words and my actions expand the conversation, not contract it. As a white man, I can never know the experience of people of color. I need to acknowledge the privilege I live with and be a better advocate and ally. As a gay man, I often see allies be clumsy in their allyship, but to have advocates that are willing to learn and evolve is key.”
When reached for comment, Orion echoed this. "My wording was clumsy and I totally understand why people might have been offended by it," he said. "We live in an amazing time where gay men can have biological children, but it's still a very privileged process."
Surrogacy and egg donation is becoming increasingly common for gay men, and the desire to have children that look like their parents is perfectly normal, says Julie Shapiro, a professor of family law at Seattle University’s School of Law who has written about surrogacy.
“The idea that people specify particular characteristics they are interested in has been around since the beginning of sperm donation,” Shapiro told me. “Lesbians and single women shop for sperm donors all the time, and obviously one of the things they are paying attention to is what the donor looks like. It can make some people queasy when you specify, like, 'I want a genius child,' but in other cases, I really understand why people would want a kid that looks like them.”
There are, however, some people who think that egg donation and surrogacy is inherently problematic. This is one of those positions, along with sex work and trans rights, that has united certain strains of feminism with the Christian right. Christians oppose it because they think it amounts to the sale of a child (not to mention that many of the people who use surrogates are gay men), and feminists oppose it because they think it amounts to the sale of a woman.
Of course, neither Christians nor feminists are a monolith and there are plenty of both Christians and feminists who are supportive of both surrogacy and egg donation, but there are places in the world where surrogates really are exploited. This includes Ukraine, where laws are set up to protect prospective parents rather than surrogates, and where so-called “baby factories” produce kids for wealthy buyers, often from overseas. It’s concerns over these practices that have led to total bans on surrogacy, both commercial and altruistic, in some places. Sweden banned the practice in 2016, and in 2015, Thailand banned foreigners, as well as same-sex couples and single parents, from using local surrogates after an Australian couple abandoned a child who was born with Downs Syndrome. (The couple did, however, keep his twin sister.)
But in the U.S., the story is different. “As practiced in the U.S, that's not what surrogacy looks like,” Shapiro says. “If you go through a reputable firm, they will almost always insist that the surrogate has already had children of her own, and there is counseling for both the attendant parents and the surrogate to make sure they all understand what they are getting into. The surrogates get paid well and often feel joy at having done this thing for these people who might not have otherwise been able to have a child.”
Laws vary by state but Washington is considered one of the more “surrogacy friendly” places in the U.S. Still, it can still be a slow, difficult, and expensive process to find either a surrogate or an egg donor, who isn’t always the same person. (Shapiro says there are some benefits to using a different donor and surrogate: namely, the birth mother is probably less likely to get attached to the child and change her mind about giving the baby up.) Going through an agency can cost between $100,000 and $200,000, and this is one reason that prospective parents might choose alternate routes—including using Facebook to find a donor who looks like the parents.
Dae Shik Kim Hawkins, however, says he stands by his claim that Orion is “like a modern day slave owner attempting to force breed at a slave auction," even if his partner was Mexican.
“It doesn’t matter and it doesn’t change anything,” Hawkins said. “None of that was mentioned in his original post. And like Egan said in his follow-up, words matter. There’s a racialized history around the type of rhetoric he used in his original post looking for an egg donor. And that’s what I was pointing out, and I stand by those words.”
Orion, however, calls this story a distraction. "This is just taking peoples' attention off the issues that are most important in this campaign, about people living unsheltered on our city streets, about workers being priced out of the city, about the city's plan to fight climate change. That's what people want to talk about and that's exactly what I'm talking to voters about every day."
And regardless of whether or not those voters choose Orion, the candidate says his journey to becoming a parent will continue.