"They are just the wombs"

Posted by Gina Maranto, Biopolitical Times guest contributor December 6, 2010
Biopolitical Times
Amrita Pande

Since its legalization in 2002, commercial surrogacy in India has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry, drawing couples from around the world.  IVF procedures in the unregulated Indian clinics generally cost a fraction of what they would in Europe or the U.S., with surrogacy as little as one-tenth the price.  Mainstream press reports in English-language publications occasionally devote a line or two to the ethical implications of using poor women as surrogates, but with few exceptions, these women's voices have not been heard.

Sociologist Amrita Pande of the University of Cape Town set out to speak directly with the “workers” to see how they are affected by such “work.” In her multi-year project, Pande has expanded the cultural perspective on international reproductive tourism, delineated its “structural reality, with real actors and real consequences,” and provided an intimate look at the lot of women serving as commercial surrogates at Hope Maternity Clinic in Anand, a thriving city in India’s westernmost state, Gujarat.

By 2006, Anand was gaining a reputation as a center for reproductive services, and Pande began conducting fieldwork at a clinic there run by Dr. Usha Khanderia. Khanderia was not only performing IVF procedures, but matching infertile couples from larger cities like Mumbai, or from other countries, with surrogates, nearly all from nearby agricultural villages. Pande’s in-depth, open-ended interviews with dozens of surrogates and their family members confirmed that the chief motive was economic: 34 out of 42 had family incomes at or below the national poverty line. Some surrogates said their husbands had persuaded or coerced them into undertaking pregnancy-for-pay.  The fee, for most of these women, was equal to roughly five times their normal annual household income.  

All but one woman in the group had “decided to keep their surrogacy a secret from their communities, villages, and very often, from their parents,” Pande writes in “Not an ‘Angel’, not a ‘Whore,’” published in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies [subscription only]  in 2009. Surrogacy is highly stigmatized in India, in part because it “involves the bodies of poor women.” Moreover, “many Indians equate surrogacy with sex work,” mistakenly believing intercourse is involved. Too, “getting pregnant for money...is associated with the ‘immoral’ commercialisation of motherhood.”

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