By Princess Chukwuneke

Transnational surrogacy hardly fits the win-win narrative that is perpetuated by the media over time.  In this article, the author describes her interviews with different parties involved in the surrogacy process – egg donors, surrogates, surrogacy agents, and physicians – in Ulhasnagar, India, a breeding ground for women bearing the children of foreigners until the transnational surrogacy ban in October 2015.

The article raises important issues. Does the ban of transnational surrogacy do more good than harm? Some surrogates and the surrogate agent mentioned, Padma, are more concerned about why surrogacy was never regulated since its legalization in 2002. Why have all attempts since 2005 to draft and pass surrogacy legislation failed?

Arguably, the Indian government banned paid surrogacy for foreigners to protect poor Indian women who were thought to be exploited by foreigners, and change the “unappealing narrative foreign surrogacy told about India—stories about stateless babies caught between countries and about women who had died during labor.” But was a ban necessary?

Sociologists like Amrita Pande suggest that reforming the practice through better regulation may fix problems of exploitation and negative narrative. For Pande, if paid surrogacy is viewed as a form of work that can be exploitative rather than a practice that is inherently exploitative, progress could be made.

Unfortunately, Pande does not account for the years of exploitation surrogates have faced. Surrogates lacked agency in the decision-making process. Because of their limited voice in the deals made, surrogates were often paid far less than what they believed they deserve. In Kalpita’s case, for instance, she was paid 2.75 lakhs (~$5700) in 2009 for carrying two twin boys. According to her, this was hardly enough money for such a dangerous task. The money did not solve her most basic needs, as people seemed to think it would. Because of how little they made, some surrogates could not pay off their one-room house. Moreover, surrogacy payments did not last because the money was not all owned independently; the women had obligations to a network of family and friends.

What is more pressing is the divide in the supply and demand chain. In most cases, customers and workers did not meet. And in Kalpita’s example where the customer did visit, the language barrier and illiteracy often made it impossible for the surrogates to express themselves. The clients worked with the physician in charge and secured the deals. With their limited power over the deals made, surrogates ended up losing not just money but their agency, as well. Even though Sonali chose to donate her eggs and perform surrogacy surgeries despite the disapproval of her husband, it was unclear whether she could protest medical procedures she considered unfair or if she could request medical information or have the procedures explained to her.

The author notes that while speaking to intended parents, she was often struck by how little they knew of the woman about to bear their children or the details of her payment and care. As Kalpita notes, the customers “did not ask us how much we have been given, or what happened.” Many intended parents seemed to believe that the women were earning a “life-changing” sum and were more involved in the process than they actually were. Perhaps it is this lack of communication and interest in the welfare of the surrogate mothers that make it easy for the media to represent Indian women as baby-making machines.

Fair-trade surrogacy is raised in this article as a solution to the Indian surrogacy problem. The idea is to make supply chains transparent, thus removing the need for middlemen and creating a way through cooperatives for surrogates to deal directly with clients. Despite the tempting idea, there is still a lot of distrust in the system that must be worked out first even if the ban were lifted and a reform made possible. For women like Sonali, something as simple as visiting the intended parents once a month could help bridge the gap between customer and client, giving the surrogacy process a humane touch and ensuring that clients know exactly what is happening with their unborn child and the woman bearing it.

Read the full article here.

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