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India: A market for surrogacy, why not!

Oct 01, 2014

Surrogacy is now a million dollar industry resulting into livelihoods for thousands of poor women in India, writes Renu Pokharna.

Renu Pokharna

Ahmedabad/Columbia: India may not have been Angelina Jolie’s first choice when it came to adopting a child, but it is, for millions of women around the world looking to become mothers.

After being the choicest market for outsourcing business processes, medical transcription and customer help-lines, India is now the new destination for ‘outsourcing pregnancies’. Or to put it less crudely, providing surrogate services to childless couples from richer nations.

Even as I write the word ‘services’ next to surrogacy, I can picture the frown on the faces of the more conservative at the thought of converting childbirth and pregnancy to a business. But there is no denying that it is a million dollar industry resulting into livelihoods for thousands of poor women across the country.

Thanks to cheap airfare, developed medical infrastructure and affordable lodging, couples from around the world prefer to rent wombs in India. It doesn’t hurt that the laws around surrogacy in India are not as strict as they are, say in the UK.  Ironically, the country famed for its labyrinthine bureaucracy has relatively less paperwork to furnish when it comes to surrogacy.

A report by the Confederation of Indian Industry puts the industry’s worth at $2.3 billion. There are no estimates however of the numbers of women who might be employed in this industry, either as surrogates or as support staff.

One thing is clear; an amount of $5,000-6,000 per surrogacy has made this attractive to poor women in India. A regular low-skilled job would pay them the same amount in 6-8 years. So, the customers are happy, and seemingly, so are the providers and doctors. The problem lies in the morality and health stance taken up by policymakers and feminists. India for example, is looking to introduce a legislation which would set limits to one surrogacy per mother, an age limit for becoming a surrogate and bar all foreign nationals and unmarried Indians from the option of getting surrogacy services in India.

The moralists call the policy exploitative to a woman’s body and the severing of the bond between the mother and the child as against normal motherhood.

What strikes me odd are the double standards. On one hand we cry shrill over the reduction of a woman’s body to a womb, while on the other hand, it is okay for millions to flock to brothels everyday to reduce a woman’s body to a vagina.

If you ask me - morally, hands down renting out one’s womb makes it an ultimate act of kindness towards the new parents. Whereas prostitution is more impersonal, it also has a lot more health related dangers than surrogacy does and of course the criminality associated with it.

If we look at the entire incentive mechanism or do an economic reasoning of surrogacy, it is easier to see why surrogate mothers would receive the best care in a market. The entire exercise is geared towards producing healthy babies, and couples who use this service tend to watch over mothers as much as they would have if they were pregnant.

Thus, the risk aspect which has been harped on by lobbyists is a lot less than perceived. Prostitution on the other hand is a high supply market with little incentive on keeping the woman healthy or safe.

What should be regulated in the surrogacy market is perhaps the forfeiture of money, if any happens in case of a miscarriage. Or limiting the number of times a woman may become a surrogate with respect to the number of children she already has or plans to have than any random number.

Women in the stories that I came across while researching for this issue, actually financed their children’s education or bought homes with the money so earned. This should actually come as a cheer to the feminists and moralists who worry about the effect of this on the surrogate’s children without realizing that in the absence of this, she may have turned towards a profession which would have been harder on her children.

Of course, we as a society should create conditions where women don’t have to resort to either for earning a living. But reaching economic, social and political conditions like this would take a developing country, decades to achieve. Even developing technologies which make the need for surrogacy obsolete would take probably twice as many years.

What we need are rational policies which do not pass judgments from a moral high ground ignoring the ground reality of the situation. I tell the same thing to my American friends who look at ‘sweatshops’ in developing countries as a pejorative term for places that exploit women.

The harsh reality is that sweatshops has kept women out of much worse alternatives, and for a developing country, they need to exist, with better regulation being the norm.

Next time we think derogatively of ‘surrogacy tourism’, lets pause for a moment, and think would we rather live in a world as we do now with thriving ‘sex tourism’?

Renu Pokharna had earlier worked with the Gujarat government. Currently, she is pursuing her Master's in Public Administration at Columbia University

The views expressed here are those of the writer and not necessarily of OneWorld South Asia.

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