Surrogate mothers are seen at Kaival Hospital in Anand, India, in 2006. Photo: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki
The voice was commanding, slightly disdainful and officious.
“The legal issues in the United States are complicated, having to do with that the surrogate mother still has legal rights to that child until they sign over their parental rights at the time of the delivery. Of course, and there’s the factor of costs. For some couples in the United States surrogacy can reach up to $80,000.”
This was “Julie,” an American thirtysomething who’d come to India to pay a poor village woman to bear her baby. She went on:
“You have no idea if your surrogate mother is smoking, drinking alcohol, doing drugs. You don’t know what she’s doing. You have a third-party agency as a mediator between the two of you, but there’s no one policing her in the sense that you don’t know what’s going on.”
Would you want this woman owning your womb?
The Indian surrogate mothers quoted along with Julie in a report on American Public Media’s “Marketplace” on NPR last week didn’t much appear troubled by that kind of thought. After all, the money they were earning for their services — $6,000 to $10,000 – might have been a pittance compared to what surrogates in the United States might earn, but it was still, for their families, the equivalent of 10 to 15 years of normal income.
They couldn’t hear Julie speaking in her awful, entitled tone. And if they had, would they have cared? “From the money I earn as a surrogate mother, I can buy a house,” said Nandani Patel, via a translator. “It’s not possible for my husband to earn more as he’s not educated and only earns $50 a month.”
We, however, can hear the imperious tone, so much more audible in radio than in the troubling print reports that have surfaced lately on Indian surrogate mothers’ “wombs for rent.” And we should care about how things sound.
Because what’s going on in India – where surrogacy is estimated now to be a $445-million-a-year business — feels like a step toward the kind of insane dehumanization that filled the dystopic fantasies of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale.” (One “medical tourism” website, PlanetHospital.com, refers to the Indian surrogate mother as a mere “host.”) Images of pregnant women lying in rows, or sitting lined up, belly after belly, for medical exams look like industrial outsourcing pushed to a nightmarish extreme.
I say “feels like” and “look like” because I can’t quite bring myself to the point of saying “is.” And in this, I think, I am right in the mainstream of American thought on the topic of surrogate motherhood.
Unlike in France, where commercial surrogacy is banned, or in Italy, where almost every form of assisted reproduction is now illegal, laws in the United States are highly ambivalent on this most drastic use of reproductive technology. Commercial surrogacy is legal in some states, illegal in others and regulated differently everywhere, and little that’s clear and conclusive about where a birth mother’s rights to a baby end and where the fee-paying mother’s rights begin.
Perhaps that’s all as it should be – murky, ambiguous and confused. The confusion, at least, acknowledges that there is more to the process of carrying a baby and giving birth to it than being an incubator on legs. It acknowledges that there are physiological and psychological factors that bind a mother and baby together at birth and a violence — perhaps temporary, perhaps not — that is done to each of them if you sever that unique bond.
“The human body is not lent out, is not rented out, is not sold,” France’s highest court ruled back in 1991, when it outlawed surrogate motherhood. In the United States, lip service has long been paid to the notion that women can’t be instrumentalized as baby-making machines. Indeed, one of the ways that surrogacy survives here is under cover of the fiction that the women who bear other women’s babies do so not for the money – which would be degrading – but because they “love to be pregnant.”
But our rules of decency seem to differ when the women in question are living in abject poverty, half a world away. Then, selling one’s body for money is not degrading but empowering. And the transaction is not outsourcing of the basest nature – not modern-day wet-nursing taken to the nth degree – but a good deal for everyone concerned. “There’s nothing wrong in this,” Priyanka Sharma, another surrogate, concluded the Marketplace segment. “We give them a baby and they give us much-needed money. It’s good for them and for us.”
In its perverse way, surrogacy does seem to bring a measure of empowerment to the poor Indian women who take part in it. Dr. Nayna Patel, the director of a popular clinic that draws dozens of poor rural women as surrogates every year, houses them and provides them with constant monitoring and medical care, told Marie Claire magazine last summer that she takes steps to ensure that each woman who contracts with her as a surrogate keeps control of her money afterwards. “If she wants to buy a house, we’ll hold her money for her until she’s ready. Or if she wants to put it in an account for her children, we’ll go with her to the bank to set up the account in her name,” she said.
Which brings us back to the fertile question of the “feels like” rather than the “is.” In an awful world, where many women are in awful circumstances, how do you single out for condemnation an awful-seeming transaction that yields so much life betterment?
Being infertile when you deeply desire a baby is one of those heartbreaking, life-altering trials that an outsider to the experience cannot begin to appreciate; I appreciate that. Adoption is complicated; just how fatally complicated some of the cases of children adopted from orphanages in Russia and Eastern Europe turned out to be was chronicled, devastatingly, last month in Newsweek. And poor Indian women don’t have an awful lot of choices so far as real money-making – to pay for school, to pay for a home – is concerned.
Maybe when greater steps are taken toward improving international adoption procedures, maybe when more substantive steps are taken to improve the health, status and education of women world-wide, it’ll be easier to say with a clear conscience that what feels like callous exploitation really is just that.
- Judith Warner, NYTimes.com: