The Cheapest Womb: India’s Surrogate Mothers

The Akanksha Infertility Clinic is a small pastel building inside a walled compound. Located in Anand, India, the clinic is one of hundreds in the country offering the local women as commercial surrogates. For a fraction of what it can cost in the United States, infertile couples or single parents can hire a woman to stay in the hostel for nine months and bear their child.

Potential surrogates recruited by the Akanksha Clinic are healthy married Indian women who have children of their own.  Once a party to the agreement, they can no longer live at home, have sexual contact with their husband and must leave older children behind to live at the hostel. They sleep nine to a room, are administered daily iron shots and follow a closely monitored diet.

The increasing popularity of outsourcing pregnancy to countries like India, Thailand and Cambodia poses urgent questions about the connections between global inequality and the commodification of the female body. Currently, commercial surrogacy is legal in India because no law exists to prohibit the practice. This means that there are also few safeguards protecting the rights of surrogate mothers.

In its next legislative session, the Indian Parliament is set to debate a bill entitled “The Assisted Reproductive Technology Act,” which will regulate the growing industry. One problematic part of the bill says that a surrogate must waive all her rights during the pregnancy. Even the option of “fetal reduction,” abortion, is a decision that can only be made by her doctor or the genetic parents.

Interviews of surrogate mothers living at the Akanksha Clinic done by researcher Arlie Hochschild further demonstrate the moral complexities of the issue. In one interview, a surrogate mother says she entered into the arrangement to earn money to send her own daughters to school, something that she and her street-vendor husband would otherwise never be able to afford. “But some friends ask me why I am putting myself through all this,” she said. “I tell them, ‘It’s my own choice.’”

Another describes how becoming a surrogate allowed her to pay off a substantial part of a debt accrued by an alcoholic husband. Managers of the clinic describe commercial surrogacy as a mutually beneficial arrangement allowing childless couples the opportunity to become parents and women the chance to earn extra income for their families. “A childless couple gains a child. A poor woman earns money. What could be the problem?” Dr. Nayna Patel, Akanksha’s founder and director, told Hochschild.

For feminists in India and the U.S., the increasing popularity of international surrogacy presents disconcerting questions about the relationship between choice and global inequality. Implicated in any surrogate arrangement is the commodification of female reproductive organs. The vast economic gaps between the contracting parties raise questions about the assumption that the women are indeed “choosing” to rent out their wombs. While international feminist and human rights organizations have been questioning  the freedom of women’s choices in the global south when it comes to practices such as clitoridectomy and polygamy, they seem unwilling to do in these instances where economic needs present similar limits to agency. The silence is alarming in light of the significant amount of Americans contracting wombs: At Akansha, half of the parents using a surrogate are Westerners.

In the Indian context, the legalization of commercial surrogacy is presented as an answer to the social devaluation of women who cannot bear children themselves.  A report prepared by the Law Commission of India on the proposed legislation attributes the growth of the practice to the social reality that “a mother is respected as a woman only if she bears a child so that her husband’s masculinity and sexual potency is proved and the lineage continues.”

In its recommendations, the commission asks Indian lawmakers to amend the proposed law to end surrogacy for commercial purposes and limit it only to altruistic arrangements where the exchange of money is not an issue. But with global inequality an inescapable reality, and with millions of Indian wombs available at cheap prices, it is unlikely that such an amendment will be passed, and global competition is likely to ensue on who can provide the cheapest wombs. This alarming scenario, now a near reality, demands that feminists around the world raise their voices not only to the limiting of female choices due to patriarchal tradition, but also due to economic inequalities.

Watch a video tour of the Akansha clinic:

Drawing above by Leonard DaVinci. Public domain.

Comments

  1. infertility is not really a big problem because of advances in health and medicine. ,”-

  2. Bharathi says:

    India is the land of poverty where the rich pass laws over poor most of the laws are for exploitation so it is no wonder if they pass Law for legal exploitation of poor surrogate giving legitimacy to all unethical practices of baby farms .If we go through the draft bill we can see that the bill can be used to exploit both the Intended parents and surrogates. A surrogate for a cupple can have 3 embryo transfers you wont be meeting the surrogate who knows how man transfers they have done,if she has not conceived another set of transfers on a different surrogate and so on.Here the surrogate wont get anything until she conceives but IP s pay the clinic .Ban on post natal contact makes it very fertile ground for embryo transfer from more than one IPs 2 IPs twins in a surrogate separated at birth and given to different parents making a huge profit possible at the cost of both parties etc.

  3. infertility could be a thing of the past with our modern day stem cell technology’”~

  4. We have a son who was born in India with the help of a surrogate women, and currently have twins on the way. India certainly needs regulations in this industry, but because it is so corrupt it is unlikely that regulations would help at all. It would force IP's to most likely have to bribe the regulators as well.

  5. will be difficult to change the people in India even though the Law is strict, most of the poor people will do anything to get money to live where in this case is become surrogate mother.

    The government if were to concern about this, they have to change the people mindset

  6. What happens if something is wrong with the baby? Do they get no pay? What if it comes down between saving the life of the surrogate vs. that of the baby. Some how I see the surrogate getting the short end of the stick. Women are not brood mares.

  7. it’s never exploitation when a western white female does it. When she rents out the womb of an impoverished woman in the global south (or India), she’s just doing it for the love and pleasure of having a child. Now, the question I have is this: if a white woman simply doesn’t want the aggravation of bearing a child for nine months (but is fertile), can she still commodify another woman in this way? I’d be curious to know. We can sugar coat it all we want but, at the end of the day, these poor women are being treated like brood mares – and the jewesses and the white women who support this practice have no problem with it.

    Can’t ask out the wrong woman at work – that’s harassment – but we can pay off desperately poor women half a world away to have the children we don’t want to be bothered carrying around inside of us for the next nine months.

  8. Feminist Metalhead says:

    What if the surrogate mothers have HIV and they pass it on to the infant they birth?

  9. Martha Pierre says:

    India is a Country that practice abortion very frecuently if the babyin the womb is a female baby .Thousands of female babies are killed in abortion.
    Then, For the poorwomen to give a life It is something good. They help
    themselves and the infertile couples that have not children.
    Those People that speaking about splotation do not say nothing about the
    killing of ABORTION. But about something that is a mutual help yes.
    Permit that the poor people in others Countries use the services of poor
    women that reciving a economical help that any of you: Critics” are going
    to give to those women for they can support their families.
    Plese, Close your mouths and critics ABORTION !!!!!!

  10. This is the best of blogs; this is the worst of blogs. How do people even become surrogants and donors as i am so touched with these stories.

  11. I believe that the surrogacy and egg donation agencies working towards creating life are doing a commendable job. They are bringing hope, joy, and a reason to live for people who otherwise would not be able to conceive and bear a child. However, the story shared in this blog is a bit of an extreme. Women in countries such as India where there is a high level of poverty having to rent out their wombs and somewhat victimized in the process calls for some sort of advocacy on their behalf. I think that it is a tight rope walk here and we need to weigh the pros and cons clearly before we arrive at a consensus.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ms. Magazine and Clare Cochrane, Jenny. Jenny said: The Cheapest Womb: India's Surrogate Mothers – http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2010/06/25/the-cheapest-womb-indias-surrogate-mothers/ [...]

  2. [...] Potential surrogates recruited by the Akanksha Clinic are healthy married Indian women who have children of their own. Once a party to the agreement, they can no longer live at home, have sexual contact with their husband and must leave older children behind to live at the hostel. They sleep nine to a room, are administered daily iron shots and follow a closely monitored diet. More: [...]

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