Shifts in the Global Body Market: Access or Exploitation?

Posted by Jessica Cussins April 1, 2013
Biopolitical Times
India has been considered the “surrogacy capital of the world” for some time, with thousands of couples yearly now having children by hiring Indian women as surrogates.  But new regulations are poised to upend these arrangements. Seizing on the change as a business opportunity, the self-described “medical tourism portal” PlanetHospital declared in a press release last month, “So long Surrogacy in India, Hello Surrogacy in Mexico and Thailand.”

India’s new regulations prohibit surrogacy for gay couples, unmarried couples, and singles, who have made up a sizeable portion of the clientele and who will now have to reconsider their options. Among them are Paul Taylor-Burn and his partner Josh, who are keenly aware of the regulatory about-face. Living in Perth, Australia, where commercial surrogacy is illegal, they turned to a surrogacy agency in India, seeing it as an affordable and reliable way around Australia's rules. They are now anxiously awaiting their baby’s birth, fearing that the new requirements will leave their child stateless and prevent them from bringing him or her home.

Quick to see an opening in the international “medical tourism” marketplace, PlanetHospital announced that it is now offering surrogacy in Mexico and Thailand for straight and gay clients. Founder and CEO Rudy Rupak is neither shy nor modest about what he is doing. He recently boasted,
First I pioneered medical tourism, then Indian surrogacy for western patients, then gay surrogacy in India, surrogacy in Panama, the first HIV surrogacy, kidney transplants with a global donor exchange, micro insurance, and who knows what else.

Now I get to pioneer surrogacy in Mexico and Thailand all while watching surrogacy in India unravel spectacularly.
Many observers of international surrogacy have voiced ethical qualms about exploiting poor women’s bodies to help the wealthier. Europeans, Australians, Canadians and others have chosen to rent Indian women’s wombs despite legal barriers in their own country; many from the US go to India to save money. What made India so enticing was the minimum of “onerous regulations” that intended parents faced. But surrogacy in India has been characterized by a host of problems, with numerous Indian surrogates being subjected to various kinds of mistreatment and at least one tragic death

This is not what Rupak means by the “unraveling” of surrogacy in India.  He is referring instead to the new regulations, which though they unfairly discriminate against gays, single women and unmarried people, are also aimed at minimizing adverse outcomes for surrogates.

What will it mean if Mexico and Thailand become the new surrogacy frontier? Will there be adequate protection for surrogates, as well as for the children they bear and for the parents who will raise these children? Or will these countries be a new Wild West where anything (cheaply) goes?

PlanetHospital’s announcement shows no evidence of concern about these questions. Instead, it focuses on the company’s plans to attract clients from all over the world. Rupak notes,
We think most of our Australian and Asian would-be parents will go to Thailand and our US and Canadian would-be parents will be going to Mexico (“Cancun baby! Woohoo” takes on a whole new meaning now doesn’t it?).
Another advantage to Mexico over India, he assures potential clients, is that “we can tell you the gender of your baby (so you no longer have to paint the baby’s room yellow).” And, Rupak gushes, “Mexican egg donors tend to be a lot more Caucasian and have features that Westerners appreciate.”

Referring to itself as a “non-judgmental” “concierge service,” PlanetHospital is happy to cater to any desire, though extra fees are often involved. Want a boy? That will be “$6,000 for PGD which almost guarantees a male.” How about a very special woman to provide an egg? “Egg donors are usually $5000 but unusual requests are higher.”

PlanetHospital’s marketing literature appears oblivious to controversies about sex and trait selection, and Rupak seems genuinely confused by the negative feedback his crass comments have prompted. Perhaps this is not surprising, though, from the founder of a company whose business model relies on skirting regulations meant to protect people who are, after all, involved with highly sensitive procedures.

Commercial surrogacy is not an innocent and harmless business transaction, though PlanetHospital has described it as comparable to shoe shopping. Providing a concierge-like experience to those seeking a baby via international surrogacy can simply outsource the worries and problems to others, and risks treating women’s bodies as replaceable goods in the global marketplace.

The reason that many countries prohibit commercial surrogacy is its potential to exploit women and commodify their bodies. It often entices women who are in difficult or vulnerable positions to serve as surrogates, while prioritizing the desires and convenience of the parents. Where it is legal, it is crucial that its ethical, social, and political complications not be overlooked.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: