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.


Rafia Zakaria is the first Pakistani American woman to serve as a Director for Amnesty International USA. She is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University. She is currently working on her dissertation entitled "Negotiating Identity: Sharia, multiculturalism and Muslim women." Rafia writes a weekly column for the DAWN newspaper which is the largest and oldest English newspaper in Pakistan. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Arts and Letters Daily, the Nation and the American Prospect. She is the only Pakistani American woman recognized by a joint resolution of the Indiana House and Senate for her work on women's rights.