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The Other Side Of Surrogacy: Women Forced To Sell Their Wombs For Money

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By Mousumi Mukherjee:

Yesterday, I saw a deeply disturbing documentary by filmmaker Surabhi Sharma. This documentary “Can we see the baby bump please?” on Indian surrogate mothers takes the perspective of the rights of these poor subaltern third world women, who are making hazardous choices in agreeing to be surrogate mothers driven by poverty and deprivation led by the “ethnic entrepreneurs” (including medical practitioners) of their own country involved in the billion dollars worth fertility industry. These “ethnic entrepreneurs” are in a way “pimping” the cheap labour of their poor women in not just the garment manufacturing companies but also their reproductive labour in the global economy capitalizing on their poverty, doing business and making profit, as feminist cultural critic Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak (1999) would argue.


The stories of some of these women are horrifying, especially those who miscarry the baby and are even deprived of any payment for 5-6 months of pregnancy, they also have to bear the financial burden of follow-up treatment and the burden of guilt within that cultural context imposed by others who judge these women for bearing someone else’s child, even when the women themselves think they are doing something good in helping others. During Q&A, the filmmaker also narrated that the one thing each of the surrogate mothers regretted is that they would not be allowed to even see the baby once after giving birth!

Knowing that cultural context well, I can’t even imagine the emotional pain of these women, where ancient mythological stories of motherly love for even adopted child is so woven in the cultural fabric of the society. One can criticize me for taking a normative stand here, but there is something inherently wrong with this billion dollars transnational industry and marketisation of the womb exploiting these poor women. Though one can argue that these women have agency in making this choice to be surrogate, but even if we would look at this issue through the “social choice” theory, what are the choices of subaltern slum dwelling women in the third world developing countries like India? Do these women really have any real choice in their life driven by their poverty and deprivation?

An upper class Indian woman can choose to fast for dieting to reduce excess fat, but for these women, fasting is probably a ritual to feed their babies and husbands, so is the choice of surrogacy to support their family financially, as some women in the documentary narrated that it was easier for them to bear a child for 9 months rather than working in the garment factory sweatshops. Moreover, India has one of the worst records of childhood malnutrition, women’s and maternal health in the world. The reproductive labour of these already deprived semi-literate, illiterate, and malnourished women (with multiple children and without provision for contraception and any formal sex education within that society) are getting exploited by their own family, their fellow citizens of their country and the world.

But, what about the human ethics and values of those who are utilizing their labour and those who are running this booming business utilizing their labour? What kind of a moral world order we are living in? Its true that lot of these poor women have agency. They are choosing to be surrogates driven by extreme poverty and deprivation and there are powerful people politically behind this booming industry with well thought-out discourse about medical ethics and law within that context. There are also local activists fighting for this issue, especially with a law about it pending in the Indian Parliament as reported by the documentary filmmaker, Surabhi Sharma yesterday. But, maybe raising collective voice, support and advocacy by educated and relatively privileged women like us globally will help to open up better alternatives of education and employment for these women, rather than having to rent their womb for others to do business.

Since yesterday, I have been wondering about those Indians who are running this business and have also built a strong discourse around medical ethics and helping the poor women of their country. Scientific inventions for IVF & surrogacy were made by hard labour of scientists, who sought to solve a human problem for the infertile and the childless who want babies. But, should we as human beings accept quietly this kind of industrialized mass production of babies and marketisation of the womb? Childless parents in developed economies in Canada, US, Europe, Australia and upper-class Indian parents, who have the means to rent the womb of a poor woman from the slums of India or Thailand or some other developing country, are paying as buyers for their babies to be produced as a market transaction. How is this science being used in a country like India for profit-making business? What about their much publicized Indian spirituality and family values? Is this some kind of a cultural schizophrenia?

What are the people associated with this exploitative industry doing in the name of business, helping the poor women of their country and childless parents around the world? The activists fighting about this issue at the grassroots level are framing it within the framework of human rights of these surrogate mothers. But, even this rights-based advocacy framework does not take into consideration the economic, social and cultural impact of this practice for these subaltern women of the third world as revealed through the voices of these women in the documentary. And, what does it do to our basic human values of motherhood? Are we, as a global society (not just American society), turning from a market economy to a market society as Michael Sandel (2012) would argue? What are the moral limits of market and what money cannot buy? Isn’t it time that we, as citizens of the world, collectively ask these questions?

These questions have been haunting me since last evening. The powerful elite of the Indian society is using science to exploit the child-bearing labour of the poor subaltern women of their own country, even when women’s chastity and motherhood is still idealized the most within the mainstream Indian society and there are so many cultural rituals about it. These poor women of the third world are bearing the worst brunt of these cultural prejudices, guilt and transnational business transactions in the global economy. I personally thank the filmmaker Surabhi Sharma through this article for giving voice to these subaltern women to speak about their experiences of surrogacy and their feelings! Her purpose was to give voice to these subaltern women surrogates. Though the filmmaker did not take any normative stand about commercial surrogacy as good or bad in the documentary; I, as an educator and a woman from that region of the world as the surrogates in the documentary, can’t help but take a moral stand about this issue. This social “class apartheid” as Spivak (2002,p.26) would argue, and oppression which perhaps begins with the segregated Indian schooling system that reproduces these insensitive classes of people who exploit others for profit-making needs to change, even if it takes another 100 years!

Sandel, M. J. (2012). What money can’t buy : the moral limits of markets / Michael J. Sandel. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Spivak, G. (1999). A critique of postcolonial reason : toward a history of the vanishing present / Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press
Spivak, G. (2002). “Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching”. Diacritics, (3), 17

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  1. Gaurav

    before I put forward my two cents I would like to point out that when a writer writes an article it should be from a neutral standpoint. what I mean is that if the writer has already decided that something is bad then they will never be able to do present a balanced version and personal convictions or prejudices are bound to show in the article as can be seen from the article above.

    now let us understand the issue of surrogacy. we can divide this issue in two parts, one is surrogacy itself and the second part is exploitation in name of surrogacy.

    – surrogacy is when a woman offers to carry a baby for a heterosexual or lesbian couple .
    – it may be that the eggs are donated by the same women or a different woman.
    – the sperm is donated by a healthy male
    – a proper medico-legal contract is usually made and it gives due consideration to the woman who decides to carry the baby including medical expenses and mutually agreed upon terms and condition for example after giving birth the surrogate does not get to see baby as she might get emotionally attached.

    if done properly this is a good method for those who cannot have a baby for various reasons.

    now let us look at another aspect , that is exploitation of poor women who rent their wombs as they are poor and this is a good way to make money but due to being illiterate they sometimes get cheated and that defeats the very purpose not to mention the fact that it takes a toll on the health of the woman who carries the baby and ideally she should get compensated handsomely. in western states woman rent their womb and their are enough legal safeguards which ensure that they are not cheated. unfortunately in india the safeguards are missing and that is a concern for sure.

    but coming back to the issue of surrogacy itself, the idea is morally sound since it allows someone who cannot become a parent to have a baby.

    1. Mousumi Mukherjee

      Gaurav, the article does not take a moral stand against surrogacy but commercial exploitation of surrogacy where there is a clear power relation involved when comparatively poorer women even in developed economies are making choices to rent their womb to earn money. If someone becomes a surrogate voluntarily one should not make any moral judgement against it. But, making business out of surrogacy where women who are socially underprivileged and poor is exploitative even when it happens with their consent since their choice is made out of compulsion of poverty and deprivation. Its an issue of choice based on options available. You may like to read this blog by a scholar in this area from the developed world:

    2. Gaurav

      the link does not work for some reason. I agree exploitation is bad and something should be done about it. first step is to have safeguards and also sensitize people. I would like to add that surrogacy is bound to become the normal way of having babies since the institution of marriage is under severe pressure and will not last very long now.

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