The Surrogate “Mother”

Written by Anindita Majumdar Oxford India Short Introductions: Surrogacy explores how surrogacy is practised and understood in India and across the world. It tries to answer questions such as: Why is a surrogate hired? Why does a woman carry a child for an infertile couple? Why is there a need to delver deeper into the motivations for annotions attached with entering a surrogacy arrangement for all involved? The book focuses on surrogacy and issues of reproduction, kinship, women's bodies, assisted reproductive technologies, and transnational reproductive tourism.

The following is an excerpt from the chapter, "The Surrogate 'Mother'", of the book. 

Contractual Labour as Selfless Mothers

Hum uski kouk kiraye pe le lenge.
Aisa kaun aurat karegi?!
Jise paise ka lalach ho. Kyun, jab ek aurat paise ke liye apne aap ko bech sakti hai, woh ek saal ke liye bhi bik sakti hai

[We will rent her womb.
What kind of woman would be ready to do that?!
A woman who has greed for money.Why, if a woman can sell herself for money–, then she will certainly be willing to be bought for a year.]
(Doosri Dulhan, 1982)

This is how the character of Renu sets the tone for hiring a prostitute to become a surrogate mother to her and her husband,Anil’s child in Doosri Dulhan. She profiles the prospective surrogate mother as someone who will be willing to sell herself and her body to carry another’s child for money. Anil zeroes in on the prostitute Chanda in a scene where he sees her haggling with a customer for a small amount. Chanda further proves her suitability by saying that she hates the idea of motherhood and is finally convinced to carry the child, in exchange for a large amount of money.

In the 1980s, with the looming yet unrecognized existence of IVF, the idea of a woman renting out  her womb was close to the idea of renting out her body. In the film Doosri Dulhan, the controversial status of the unacknowledged first  Indian  test-tube  baby is mentioned in a slightly derisive tone. According  to actress Shabana Azmi, who played the role of the prostitute-surrogate Chanda, the film was way ahead of its time. In an interview, Azmi mentioned how she researched for the role of a prostitute rather than that of a surrogate as it was unheard of in India when the film came out in 1982.To carry someone’s child meant having sexual relations with the husband. That this involved a transaction of money and morals meant that only the ‘fallen’ woman could fulfil such an act.

The dramatic media representation of commercial gestational surrogacy in India is obsessed with its commercial side. The multi-layered representation of the surrogacy arrangement juggles with the image of the surrogate, the contract, and the technology that makes it possible. In this chapter, I look at the ways in which the idea of commerce and commodities is intrinsically connected to the notion of labour and motherhood within commercial surrogacy in India.

Surrogacy has been seen as an acute form of the commoditization of reproduction  wherein,  thanks  to the intervention of NRTs, the foetus tends to be distanced from the pregnant woman.This gives rise to notions of separateness and the foetus is given a status that is higher than that of the living woman carrying it. At the same time, the idea of motherhood as an indissoluble status, marked by intense social values and morals, is very much part of the discourse.

Thus, the representation of the surrogate as mother and woman are constantly conflicted within popular representations. In media representations of Indian surrogates, they are still portrayed as women who agree to become pregnant for money because they are impoverished and need support for their own children.

The fascination with which we treat the surrogate means that she continues to be the most important element in the policy, for academics, and in the media discourse on surrogacy. But what is it about the surrogate that fascinates us so much? Is it the combination of her desire to birth and relinquish or our own idealized notions of being and becoming mothers that prejudices us towards her? Over the next few sections we will analyse how and why motherhood comes to be imagined and remanufactured within commercial surrogacy, and what impact it has on the Indian surrogate.

Contracting Motherhood

As per figures gathered in New Delhi during my fieldwork between 2011 and 2013, a surrogacy ‘agree- ment’ would cost anything between INR 4–4.5 lakh (1 lakh = 100,000) for the entire transaction, including the surrogate’s fee of INR 2.5 lakh, and an additional INR 1 lakh for her diet and comfort over the gestation period of nine months. The  remaining INR 50,000 go to the medical practitioner who arranged for the transaction. Contrary to newspaper reportage, couples seeking surrogacy services would pay approximately INR 10–15 lakhs, which is much less when compared to INR 25–35 lakh in the USA for the same services. However, these costs are variable not only inter- nationally, but differ within India as well. Newspaper reports in 2010–11 quoted similar amounts in contracting a surrogacy arrangement.

When the Law Commission identifies ‘wombs on rent’ as potential dollars, we begin to think of the ways in which commercialization is the driving force of the surrogacy arrangement in India. In merely a few words, the womb is separated from the woman and positioned as a potential earner.

The commodification of the arrangement includes different kinds of medical and social expectations from the surrogate. A surrogate should ideally be ‘healthy’, married, and have at least one child of her own. (There are cases where an unmarried woman may become a surrogate. This category excludes widows and divorced  women,  though  they  too  volunteer  to be surrogates.) For a mere INR 1–3.5 lakh,  couples can also choose a surrogate of a particular determination (religious or caste affiliation) and with no ‘vices’ such as smoking or drinking. Post selection the surrogate must undergo extensive medical tests, beginning with endoscopy, the insemination of the eggs, and so on, culminating into a pregnancy. In most cases the eggs are not that of the surrogate—they may have been donated by the  woman  who  has  hired the surrogate and is the intended mother, or may belong to an anonymous donor.As mentioned earlier, gestational surrogacy is the only legally allowed form of surrogacy in India.

One of the reasons why gestational surrogacy is encouraged over genetic surrogacy is because of the belief that there would be no genetic link between the surrogate and the foetus, and also a lack of emotional connect between them. According to studies, Indian surrogates are trained to consider themselves as rooms for rent; this is to reduce their attachment to the child and give in to their representation of being incubators. The compensation given to the surrogates is meant to cover not only the cost of the labour, but also to ensure that the contract is carried through so that, at the end of the deal, the surrogate gives up the baby.

Relinquishment of the child  informs  the  tone  and tenor of the contract. The surrogacy contract is   a document that has within it many of the important elements of the overwhelming commercialization of the surrogacy arrangement in India. But most importantly, it encapsulates the ways in which the surrogate is beholden to the contract and the arrangement. The responsibility of securing the pregnancy and seeing it through rests on the surrogate and her husband, who is a co-signatory—a signal that he controls rights to the surrogate’s  body. The mention of compensation  is fleeting and hurried in the draft contract, as I have discussed in my research (Majumdar 2017). In Sama’s (2012) research study on surrogacy in India, the contract becomes a ‘disciplining tool’, which is used by the clinics and the agents to scare the surrogate into conformity. In its research, Sama finds that varied elements of the contract alienate the surrogate from the arrangement and position her as a subsidiary. The language of the contract (which is mostly English and something the surrogate is not conversant in), the unavailability of legal counsel for the surrogate, and the vague references to her remuneration are elements of the contract that bind the surrogate to the arrangement in an inequitable way. In reality, as I discuss in my ethnography (Majumdar 2017), surrogacy lawyers engaged by the clinics often create an air of distrust with stories that feed into the fear of the surrogate reneging on the contract.This fear is primarily couched in terms of the surrogate’s poverty and ‘resulting greed’ that make her untrustworthy, leading to a contract that is one-sided.

In the context of transnational commercial surrogacy, motherhood is the easiest target in the capitalist marketplace. Constructed within ideologies of altruism, motherhood in times of globalization is an underpaid, undervalued form of labour, meant for the creation and nurturance of the child that sustains patriarchal desires of biological continuity. So, motherhood as a social role is coming to occupy a global space of undervalued, exploited labour. This is, however, not a new process, but part of emerging forms of local–global experiments on the bodies of women from the Global South.

Read more:
“The law is not mathematics, where two and two make four”
The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic
A Radical Biography in Nine Acts