Updated: Nov 18, 2020
India’s commercial surrogacy industry is estimated at $2.3 billion a year and thriving, branded the “surrogacy hub”, couples flock from all over the world to lay down hard cash for the hope of conceiving a child. However, the business is completely unregulated, and for the mainly poor, underprivileged women who agree to be surrogates, this is a huge danger to their well-being. In fact, this “commercialization of motherhood” is arguably exploitation of the female body.
Manasi Mishra heads the Research Division at the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi, exclaims the industry is “run by haves, to exploit the have-nots”. Mishra’s studies of 200 surrogates conducted in 2010 and in 2012, revealed many women weren’t paid what they were promised and often deceived about the procedures. She unearthed the open use of induced miscarriage, as some hopeful parents will arrange several surrogates but ultimately, choose the most viable pregnancy and abort the rest. Evan as a pro-choice advocate, this sits wrong with me. Perhaps because, the women whose body will suffer, ultimately did not make this choice. Worse still, some women aren’t aware that the pill they are given during a check-up, induced a miscarriage. Simply told to come back after lunch and by which time, they’d be bleeding out heavily and in severe pain. Some are made to believe it is their fault the pregnancy failed, through their “carelessness” and receive no pay.
Yet, since the announcement last year that strict regulation will destroy these “baby factories”, women started queuing up to join. Ultimately, this job will earn each woman up to $5,900 – money they could only dream of otherwise. Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed a surrogate, Razia Sultana, in January 2017. Sultana, who has long worked in the industry administratively, had decided to undertake the opportunity herself since the proposed ban. She openly spoke to TRF about her decision: “my children supported my decision saying bearing a child was better than selling a kidney, which I was considering too”.
Ultimately, Sultana’s testimony supports the view that women that choose to become surrogates, do it out of financial desperation. Many compare it to manual labour or the sweatshops they would otherwise be working in, earning $1.50 a day. In comparison, sitting in the dormitory of a surrogacy clinic and chatting to other women all day is seen as relaxing, despite the strain of pregnancy on their body. The move away from commercial surrogacy will, therefore, be taking this opportunity for economic advancement away from the women that need it. However, many still support the ban as altruistic (unpaid) surrogacy will still be allowed.
The forced switch to altruistic surrogacy does not go without its contentious issues as the proposed restrictions mean many couples won’t make the cut. Only childless, heterosexual Indian couples, married for at least five years, of which the wife must be aged 23-50 and the husband 26-55 will be allowed to obtain an unpaid surrogate, who must also be a “close relative” on the wife’s side of the family. This strict criterion not only destroys the industry but also the dreams of many hopeful parents, who can’t satisfy all the above.
There are clearly two juxtaposed sides to this coin. Some women outcry the exploitation and others revel in the economic advantage. However, it is clear that the vast majority of the women who participate are poor or illiterate, with a weak grasp of their contractual rights so it is arguable that their consent is an informed choice. Around the world, most countries hold differing variations of bans on commercial surrogacy and ultimately, Indian politicians are attempted to bring their legislation up to scratch with developed, Western countries. However, India isn’t the only country that holds the legal grey-area for commercial surrogacy to take place, and as business drains out of India, it floods into Nepal and Cambodia. Both countries lack the infrastructure and funding to support the medical and neonatal care needed. Therefore, the surrogates end up exposed to more dangerous conditions. So, while the ban may push the issue of India’s plate, so long as there is demand for commercial surrogacy, it will continue to find a market.