Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Whose baby is it anyway? On rural Indian women and surrogacy arrangements

Medical tourism is the new upper-class endeavor du jour. There is even a blog detailing medical tourism, and it boldly asserts the following:
India has become the top international surrogacy destination for couples and even single men and women who have not been able to have children through natural means. The success of the procedure in India, is greatly attributed to the cutting edge technology adopted by the fertility clinics in India, highly qualified fertility specialists, social acceptance of surrogacy, and low cost of surrogacy, all leading to India’s high success rate in gestational surrogacy.

Well, that's good to know, but what hides behind the shining surface of this phenomenon? Read this article in Marie Claire for a good primer on the issues.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Sinclair, Marie Claire
As Professor Seema M. Mohapatra explained at the 2011 Feminist Legal Theory Conference at the University of Baltimore School of Law's Center on Applied Feminism, there are several dangers in the phenomenon of international gestational surrogacy. We know that surrogacy is a complicated medical procedure, which is is highly dangerous for the surrogate. But Prof. Mohapatra was talking about the dangers of women's subjugation, oppression, and objectification that is attendant to international surrogacy. Due Indian public mores, the women who participate in the surrogacy business there are segregated in closed facilities for the duration of their pregnancies, monitoried closely, receiving only the nutrition provided by the center. Women who participate in surrogacy programs must be mothers (they must have had at least one live birth) --- and this means that the surrogate mothers are removed from their families for over 9 months.

Even more problematically, these women receive payments that allows them to buy a  house and provide for the education for their children in exchange of their services --- an amount so large it would easily cloud any reasonable person's judgment.  Prof. Mohapatra argues that the disparities in global living standards allow for the oppression of poor women in the Global South, because getting $2000 for a woman who is making $20 a month is a coercive amount of money. That is an offer that cannot be refused.

As Prof. Mohapatra states:

[T]hose who serve as surrogates are often those in the poorest, least educated, and lowest classes of Indian society.
Needless to say, rural women of India are the primary participants of this scheme, and thus, the uneven economic development and spatial inequality hits rural Indian women once more. Not only do they suffer from lower per-capita income, higher rates of illiteracy, more distance from health services, than their urban counterparts, but their bodies are increasingly viewed as merely a vessel for a white woman's future child. To add insult to injury, the surrogacy providers in India charge a premium for having a "Caucasian" egg fertilized and implanted in the Indian women's womb -- as if Indian women were not "Caucasian" already.  This systematic devaluation of women's bodies and even their ova is incensing to this feminist blogger.

The abstract of Prof. Mohapatra's paper can be accessed by clicking here.


Caitlin said...

This news is quite disturbing and the first time I have heard of such international surrogacy arrangements. To think that women with so little means are almost coerced into going through such an ordeal should alarm policy makers and human rights activists alike. This reminds me of the many egg donor advertisements in my student newspaper at Brown. They often made me think that racism was alive and well. For example, almost all of the ads applied to me: Over 5'7, blue eyes, light brown or blond hair, and fairly high standardized test scores. The idea of solutions to either infertility or the distaste of carrying one's own child--and then using non-white, poor women as a solution is laden with racism and class-based issues. I wonder how many of the babies these women carry look anything at all like them, or if they more closely resemble the ads I observed in undergrad.

Sarah J said...

Yes, very disturbing-- and how sickening that the advertisements cite surrogacy as being "socially acceptable" in order to attract/dupe the more socially conscious potential customers. There are so many "economic opportunities" more or less forced upon rural residents, women in particular, through situations of desperation and duress. Normally I am quite attuned to those on a larger-scale, such as, in my opinion, NAFTA, CAFTA and the like, but to see it happening on such a small, individual level really brings it home.

N.P. said...

I remember hearing about this last year, after a friend send me an article about it appalled at the notion. As an Indian, it is impossible to consider such a notion without considering the racist and "orientalist" notions in this practice. Furthermore, consider the notion of outsourcing your fertility needs - that seems even more absurd. Forget about perpetuating racial stereotypes, this further isolates the women within their own society and a sense of compassion and solidarity between women - especially if we are only considering them as vessels.

RH said...

Great post. I agree with your arguments, but I wonder if it leads to the conclusion that surrogacy is simply too objectifying everywhere, and should not be done at all. You could imagine the same scenario happening in the U.S., with payments too large to refuse (although probably without the forced isolation). I think if you're going to allow surrogacy at all, it is probably better to be well compensated rather than poorly compensated, so if the process is simply too coercive to be justified even with significant remuneration, it shouldn't be justified with lower payments either.

Chez Marta said...

RH, I agree with you that lower payments to the surrogate mothers are not going to be the solution... and am not positing that as a solution in my blog. My role here was more to point out the phenomenon, even without finding a solution right away. But if we are talking about possible solutions, we can safely say that some sort of oversight by the state or by an international agency dedicated to this purpose would be appropriate, especially considering the amount of payments and the large percentage of those payments going to the service provider and not to the woman carrying the child.

lauren said...

Wow, I am just getting to read this post and am also quite disturbed by what, in my opinion, is the objectification of poor women in India. Studying surrogacy in Family Law this semester, I know that while it is legal in some states, there are many restrictions to the process and, as with many forms of alternative reproduction treatments, it is costly. Assuming that at least some (if not most) of the people using these clinics are American, by going overseas, to potentially circumvent American laws and costs, we are exploiting poverty. I am not sure what the solution is, but after reading this post, it is clear that there needs to be some strict regulation of this practice.

Yang Brand said...

Great information from this post thank you

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