Two years ago, Mother Jones had a great feature on surrogacy in India. It didn’t receive a whole lot of traffic at the time but it’s come back up into the public eye, because this is an issue that has not gone away. In fact, it’s gotten a whole lot worse, and there’s a big pile of racism and colonialism all snarled up with it. To see the media actually starting to confront this is heartening, but it’s unfortunate that most media outlets aren’t directly tackling the deep, deep issues embedded within the growing trend of surrogacy tourism in India.
There are lots of reasons why couples might want or need a gestational surrogate, and they enter contracts with surrogates with the knowledge that this is shaky ground. This is new to all of us and we’re constantly encountering new ethical and legal tangles in the world of surrogacy. That doesn’t mean surrogacy shouldn’t happen, but it does mean that it needs to be closely watched, especially because it involves a very intimate and complex exchange. Surrogates are helping people have children, which is awesome.
But they’re also coming along with some very loaded social, cultural, and political baggage. Incubation metaphors often come up with surrogacy, because people who provide this service are effectively allowing other people to rent their wombs, though the exact specifics of the contract vary. They are agreeing to carry a fetus for someone else, and as part of that contract they agree to potentially invasive medical testing, significant lifestyle changes, and the experience of labour and delivery. At the end, they have to give up the infant, no matter what kinds of emotional attachments they may have developed. Expecting parents have a lot riding on this as do surrogates.
India has particularly lax laws when it comes to surrogacy, and it’s proved to be a big attractant to people from the West who travel there for ‘contract babies,’ as Mother Jones puts it. The conditions inside some clinics leave much to be desired, as women are basically held prisoner for the duration of their pregnancies with little stimulation beyond the company of other surrogates.
In exchange for the inconvenience and physical discomforts, they stand to receive a sum that’s quite substantial by their meager standards, but which the clinic’s customers understand is a steal. The customers are mostly foreigners—three of the city’s boardinghouses are constantly booked with American, British, French, Japanese, and Israeli surrogacy tourists.
I’m deeply, deeply troubled by the idea of women’s bodies being depicted as ‘a steal.’ And yet, that’s exactly what is going on here. Surrogacy costs in the West are much higher than those in the Global South. Since we exploit the Global South for resources, labour, and everything else, why not turn to nations like India for surrogacy? It’s the natural extension of using women of colour as childcare providers, of figuratively or literally owning the women who raise the children of the West and in some cases bear them as well.
There is something deeply creepy about impregnating women in such facilities so they can carry our children, and then swooping those children away as soon as they are born, often by C-section so the deliveries can be controlled and scheduled. These clinics discourage contact between surrogates and parents, very much distancing those parents from the actual process, and the human lives, involved. Residents of fertility clinics are treated as little more than incubators, and yet the clinics as well as their clients talk about the good they’re doing; the amount of money the women make, which they can bring back to their families, is supposed to ‘lift them out of poverty.’ Us and them play big roles here.
Surrogates get a pay cut when they can’t carry a pregnancy to term. Miscarriages are traumatic and upsetting no matter whose baby you’re carrying, but in this case, you get the added pleasure of being told your inability to perform results in less money. Surrogates have died in such programmes and thanks to limited regulation, there’s limited accountability.
Some of Patel’s customers view the residency program as an insurance policy of sorts. “When I was told by my doctor they could get someone in Stockton [California], I don’t know what they’re eating, what they’re doing. Their physical environment would have been a concern for me,” says Sarah, a 40-year-old from Berkeley who runs a catering company with her husband and teaches Jewish ethics lessons to children. “The way they have things set up here is that the surrogate’s sole purpose is to carry a healthy baby for someone.”
Oy vey. A teacher of ethics talks about shopping for surrogates like choosing organic vegetables. That’s not at all disturbing.
“Surrogacy is a form of labor,” lawyer Usha Smerdon, who runs a US-based adoption-reform group called Ethica, told me in an email. “But it’s an exploitative one, similar to child labor and sweatshops driven by Western consumerism…I challenge the notion that within these vastly differential power dynamics that surrogates are truly volunteering their services, that hospitals are operating aboveboard when driven by a profit motive.”
We talk about living in a post-racial and post-colonial society all the time. But we do not. This is colonialism, and it is racism, and it is exploitation. Using women’s bodies as bargain-basement incubators is foul and repugnant, no matter how people attempt to dress it up in pretty talk. Such self-justification is transparent.
India is considering more strict regulation of its booming surrogacy industry, and it’s something I hope passes and isn’t diluted along the way. The immediate result may be a reduction in surrogate pregnancies, but it’s not going to address the underlying problem, which is the tendency of Westerners to flock to wherever labour is cheapest and least regulated in search of the almighty deal. Along the way, Westerners are fond of saying that what they’re doing is for the good of their victims, that they are lifting them up out of poverty and providing them with opportunities, and the voices of people who cry otherwise are firmly stamped out. Because to admit those voices into the discussion would be to pull down the house of cards.