Women in India are being paid to serve as surrogate birth mothers for Western couples. This is one of those stories that makes my feminist-meter go all wonky: It’s a reproductive freedom issue, but it’s paying a less-privileged woman to use her body in the service of another; I’m not sure that paying for personal services is in and of itself wrong, but what about when you’re doing so in a highly unequal situation; it sounds like all the people involved are benefiting, but I’m still concerned about the lack of legal protections for the surrogate mothers; $5,000 is a lot of money by Indian standards and I’m happy to see women able to support their families, but does that coerce impoverished women into putting themselves at a substantial physical risk?
This, I think, is one of those things like pornography and prostitution: There isn’t an “easy” feminist answer when we’re talking about exchanging reproductive/sexual services for money.
And the article itself is a little shallow, at least at first. For example, the lead:
As temp jobs go, Saroj Mehli has landed what she feels is a pretty sweet deal. It’s a nine-month gig, no special skills needed, and the only real labor comes at the end — when she gives birth.
I’ve never been pregnant, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that it’s not exactly a walk in the park until birthing day. And I have a feeling that if I told my mom that “the only real labor” came at the end of her pregnancies, she’d be a little peeved.
(After writing this, I scrolled back up in the article to see the author’s name — Henry Chu. Gonna guess he hasn’t ever given birth either.)
Some see the practice as a logical outgrowth of India’s fast-paced economic growth and liberalization of the last 15 years, a perfect meeting of supply and demand in a globalized marketplace.
“It’s win-win,” said S.K. Nanda, a former health secretary here in Gujarat state. “It’s a completely capitalistic enterprise. There is nothing unethical about it. If you launched it somewhere like West Bengal or Assam” — both poverty-stricken states — “you’d have a lot of takers.”
Others aren’t so sure about the moral implications, and are worried about the exploitation of poor women and the risks in a land where 100,000 women die every year as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. Rich couples from the West paying Indian women for the use of their bodies, they say, is distasteful at best, unconscionable at worst.
“You’re subjecting the life of that woman who will be a surrogate to some amount of risk,” said C.P. Puri, director of the National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). “That is where I personally feel it should not become a trade.”
The reason that families are outsourcing surrogate motherhood to India is because it’s a whole lot cheaper than in the United States. Which doesn’t make it necessarily bad, but it does mean that Indian women generally lack access to the kind of medical care and legal resources that U.S. women have. And that, I think we can say, is definitely bad.
If all other things were created equal — if there weren’t all these issues of race, economics and gender — I’m not sure that “renting out” one’s uterus would be all that much more questionable than contracting for other personal services. But then, we don’t allow people to sell organs. And a baby isn’t an organ, but lots of the same ethical issues overlap.
Bottom line: I’m uncomfortable with this situation. Paying poor brown women to carry pregnancies for wealthier Western women strikes me as, at the very least, problematic, especially considering the physical risks and the high potential for coercion. At the same time, my most basic inclination is to argue that women should have every right to do with their bodies what they please. Lucky for me, those two ideas aren’t irreconcilable. Women should certainly have the legal right to do this. That does not mean, though, that we can’t question it and parse through all these issues.
- “Blind Lawyer” jailed in China by Jill August 25, 2006
- CRACK Comes to Kansas by Jill July 24, 2006
- Reproductive Tourism by Jill March 13, 2008
- Global Maternal Health Conference 2010: Empowering the Next Generation by Guest Blogger August 31, 2010
- Goodbye to a wonderful woman by Jill November 11, 2006