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Who owns these nine months?

When I started my research on surrogacy in 2005, people wondered if I had my facts right. Women getting pregnant for someone else? In our co...

Written by Amritapande |
June 26, 2008 11:42:15 pm

When I started my research on surrogacy in 2005, people wondered if I had my facts right. Women getting pregnant for someone else? In our country? Why haven’t we heard about it? The queries ran from disbelief to fascination. In the past two years, however, the Indian and international media have published so many “human interest” stories on this subject that now I can have a debate on the topic with almost anyone who reads a newspaper. The international media cover this industry as a new and sensational form of “outsourcing”. Invariably, the articles start with a description of the pigs, the crowded streets and filth in Anand, move on to the swollen tummies of these enterprising-although-illiterate Indian women and to their life stories filled with drunken husbands and poverty. The articles talk about the cost difference between a surrogacy in Anand and one in the United States and the win-win situation for the two parties involved. The Indian media follow a similar path. But is that all that we need to talk about?

Commercial surrogacy in a developing country involves an amalgam of really thorny issues, almost all of which the media ignores. First are the laws. If surrogacy is really a $445 million a year business (hard data remains elusive), why are there still no laws regulating it? Or maybe I should frame it in a different fashion. Are there no laws in India because unregulated surrogacy is such a lucrative business?

The ministry of women and child development said, once again this week, that it was considering the introduction of legislation to govern surrogacy, but this does not seem imminent. And if a law is passed, whose interests would it serve? A woman unable to carry a baby to term would definitely vote yes for surrogacy. A woman who is able to feed her own child by having a child for someone else would also vote yes. A country and doctors who benefit from the industry are unlikely to say no. So one thing is almost a certainty — unlike countries such as China, Canada , Britain, Turkey, Germany — commercial surrogacy is unlikely to get banned in India .

However difficult it might be for some of us to accept the “sale of pregnancy”, proposing a ban solely on ethical grounds is unrealistic and would just push the industry underground. Doctors, it seems, have been pushing for some regulation. Their emphasis, however, is on laws securing the legal status of the couples adopting the baby and not so much the rights of the surrogate mothers.

The ministry has a tricky task at hand. If, as some reports indicate, it plans to emulate the policies of “other” countries, it could go the vague way (like several US states where surrogacy is neither legal nor illegal), make it illegal or follow the Californian model and have strict guidelines regarding the rights of both parties involved. Or it could continue to sit in happy oblivion and insist that the “guidelines” issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research are adequate regulation.

But leave legalities aside. Just think a little bit about the implications of commercial surrogacy. The most obvious and much talked about implication is that it is a physical example of “motherhood” on sale. Sensational as that sounds, it’s hardly anything new. Even in an age driven by technological advances and dominated by market capitalism we want to believe that some things remain beyond both market and science, that there are some things that money cannot buy. And yet, in nearly every country, eggs, sperms, wombs, infants and children are being “sold” whether in adoption agencies or sperm banks or in the form of surrogacy services.

The second less talked about implication is that of race and religion. When a Muslim Gujarati woman delivers a baby for an NRI Patel from New Jersey or when a skinny Maharashtrian woman gives birth to a chubby South Korean baby, does it mean that, in an era of modern technologies, differentiations based on race, caste and religion are losing ground? Or in a less naïve tone, does it simply reify the importance of genes — people are ready to temporarily forget race, class, caste inequalities as long as they can ensure their genetic line continues?

And finally, to the least sensational and, perhaps, most critical debate. In a country where women have hardly any reproductive rights, where there is an extraordinarily high maternal mortality rate, where there is a history of mass sterilisation, where women’s bodies are used to try out new long-term contraception from the West, do we have the luxury of diverting resources towards new reproductive technologies like surrogacy? While poor women are “advised” on sterilisation, richer ones are “advised” on different ways to attain a biological child of their own. Sounds like we have come up with our very own version of (class) eugenics.

The writer, a doctoral student in the sociology department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is working on an ethnography of commercial surrogacy in Gujarat

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