**This essay was originally submitted for ‘SOC356: Cultures In Dispossession’ in June 2015 at The University of Wollongong**
Commercial surrogacy is a relatively new industry that has quickly become a billion-dollar transnational industry and a global phenomenon. It is an industry that is underregulated and exploitative of women in poverty, and thrives on the ideology that having a child is a right.
The right to have a child
Technological advancements have fostered a link between technology and the capitalist ideology that women should use technologies to have babies. The expectation that women should have children because technology makes it accessible is paralleled with the idea that having children is a right, not a privilege.
Emphasis on the ‘right’ to have a child is a discourse in the Global North that stems from privilege and societal expectations to construct a family. “The problem is that entitlement, like normativity, sits upon unspoken cultural commitments.” (Caddick, Subjectivity, surrogacy and entitlement, 2014, pg3) We form a narrative of those in the Global North using commercial surrogacy as a ‘journey’, defying the odds, while in turn ignoring their agency and entitlement which allows them to be in a position to use surrogacy in the first place. The ‘right’ to have a child goes unquestioned, unchallenged. It is an assumed right, not a privilege. Part of this ‘right’ is having a child that is genetically yours and in the process of this journey, it is ignored that in order to achieve this ‘right’, one must use a woman’s body.
The result of this is the outsourcing of labour, which exploits and dehumanises the women involved in the Global South. Technological advancements have given us more opportunities to have a broader understanding of what constitutes a family. However, what is left out of this narrative is the role of commodities in this diversification of family life.
Commercial surrogacy: The billion-dollar industry
Surrogacy occurs in two different forms: there is traditional surrogacy, which involves the fertilisation of the surrogate mother’s egg with the intended father’s sperm through artificial insemination. There is also gestational IVF surrogacy, whereby the surrogate mother conceives the intended parent’s genetic child through IVF. The latter form of surrogacy is the prominent use of commercial surrogacy in the Global South. This is one area where it becomes problematic, due to the genetic association of the child with the birth mother and the implications this has on the surrogate involved.
While technologically and medically assisted reproductive practices have been around since the 1970s in the Global North, the outsourcing of surrogacy is a relatively new market. This is because of three main reasons: first, the financial and legal restrictions placed alongside the development of these technological advancements in the Global North. Outsourcing means being free from expensive procedures and restrictive regulation. Second, the alternative option to surrogacy, adoption, was also placed under rigorous regulation to protect the birth mother and child in both the Global North and South. And the third reason is the exclusion of certain groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, single women and older women, from accessing surrogacy and adoption in the Global North. With technological advancements constantly outpacing regulation in the Global South, the commercial surrogacy industry has become one of the leading industries in medical tourism, making it a billion-dollar transnational industry.
India has been the leading commercial surrogacy capital since it was first established there in 2003. With it’s offerings of low medical costs, a far larger number of women willing to be surrogates and most importantly, a commercial surrogacy hub, free from government regulationr, India provided a reproductive haven for those in the Global North. The combination of technological advancements for reproduction and neo liberal ideologies around outsourcing of labour has allowed the commercial surrogacy market to expand at a rapid rate, with regulation and laws unable to compete with the ever expanding trade. This phenomenon of technological advancements outpacing laws is evident in India, whereby the first steps towards regulation started in 2005, two years after the commercial surrogacy practice started. The first lawful regulation did not take place until 2006, well after surrogacy had been established in India and the country was benefitting from the medical tourism they were receiving from the practice.
The dehumanisation of commercial surrogates
The commercial surrogacy industry relies on the commodification of women in poverty. This industry made them suddenly revered as a ‘rich resource’ through their reproductive abilities; their bodies being at the centre of their value. Their value is also determined by race, class and education level, opening up a floodgate of problematic practices. Becoming a commercial surrogate does mean acquiring certain levels of economic legitimacy and independence, though it does not match the the physical, emotional and social toll placed on these women. The women are expected to take on surrogacy through the ‘selfless’ rhetoric that they are providing an infertile couple with a child, which feeds into the discourse that privileged groups have the ‘right’ to a child and that human value is not equal.
While there are some in the Global North who see the practice of commercial surrogacy as prostitution, this notion is discourse within India, where surrogates face isolation and dehumanisation within their own communities. This dispossession from their community is amplified by the women being physically isolated from their communities throughout their pregnancies, often having to lie to their families about their absence. Once the surrogates are pregnant, they are then placed on a controlled diet and their health is closely monitored. This control is solely for the benefit of the unborn child and not the surrogate; once the child is born and handed to the intended parents, the women are then expendable. The client and clinic are under no legal responsibility for the aftercare of the birth mothers, nor is there a support system in place for if the pregnancy goes wrong. There is an expectation enforced on commercial surrogates in India that women have to split their mind from the reality of what their bodies are going through. After all, it is understood that they are not selling their identities, they are selling their bodies so they must dissociate this commodification of themselves. This dissociation ultimately leads to psychological problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
One female surrogate, Diksha, in an Indian clinic shown in Google Baby (2009) spoke of the psychological toll of having a miscarriage. Her main focus was on the financial cost she had burdened her family with, as a commercial surrogate is paid in total once they have handed a baby over to the intended parents. The majority of commercial surrogates in India are either below the poverty line or of working class, as was the case with Diksha where her body was her only means to providing for her family. The financial revenue generated through commercial surrogacy provides these women with value, however the value does not exceed the use of their bodies. This was evident in Diksha’s case, as only months after her miscarriage without psychological or physical support; she was to be used as a surrogate once again. This dependency on using one’s body as a means to remove oneself from poverty is part of the discourse of surrogacy and a deeply dehumanising practice.
Shifts in the industry
There have been recent shifts in the commercial surrogacy industry following reports exposing the lack of regulation, an example being the case of Baby Gammy. Gammy was born to Pattaramon Janbua, a Thai commercial surrogate and unaccepted by the biological parents due to the baby having Down Syndrome. The publicised spectacle of this story lead to Thailand enforcing strict regulation on commercial surrogacy, the end result being that foreign clients are now banned from using the practice in Thailand. However, while this law enforcement may have changed the market in Thailand, it has had very little effect on the surrogacy industry. As regulation is enforced in one location, the industry doesn’t cease, but simply shifts to countries where there is less regulation.
This shift also accounts for regulations that exclude certain groups from accessing commercial surrogacy. For example, India was the leading commercial surrogacy capital when it was first established in 2003. Once regulation was set in place in 2006, which excluded LGBTQ+ couples and unmarried heterosexual couples, they looked towards other countries, such as Thailand and Nepal, where these exclusions were not in place.
To this day the commercial surrogacy industry continues to be a billion-dollar industry and an area of ethical ambiguity. This industry is embedded with discourses that dehumanise commercial surrogates in the Global South through the medicalisation of reproductive practices, the expectations and values placed on surrogate mothers through their bodies and the neo liberal capitalist market that allows for this market to thrive free from regulation. The discourse around using technological advancements and the right to have a child are directly linked to the expansion of the surrogacy industry. This industry is highly problematic, exploitative and dehumanising for commercial surrogates in the Global South and needs regulation to be set in place on a global scale to ensure these women have agency and protection.
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