Surrogacy – Exploitation or Choice?

Via the F Word blog, I came across this practice of women in India acting as surrogates for couples who are unable to have a child and also unable to go through with IVF. The F Word acknowledges that the surrogate mothers are being well taken care of, and receive a pretty good sum of money – infact a sum that would otherwise take them many, many years to earn. However they still raise the issue of whether this is exploitation of third world women to satisfy the desires of first world couples?

For once, I quite disagree with the F Word blog, of which I am otherwise a huge admirer. I do believe that there need to be some stringent guidelines – its quite possible that this company is doing a good job, and others who jump on to the bandwagon may not. To prevent that, it is necessary to have guidelines in India. But as for the other objections, I can’t somehow buy into them. These women are making a choice which they perceive as being beneficial for their families, in the long run. And I firmly believe that choice should be left to them.

Sure, they spend 9 months away from their families. But as the article states, their families are not prevented from visiting them. And perhaps, this way the organisation running the program can look after their health better? Take a look at India’s maternal mortality rates. Many women die without access to hospitals or even a primary health care centre. These women might very well feel that the care they receive is reasonably good. I’m not saying this is the only way to do it – perhaps there is a way to monitor their health even if they live at home. But considering the heavy work many women in India do, at all times, including pregnancy, it doesn’t per se seem so terrible. Now, can such healthcare be extended to our women when they give birth to their own children? Ideally it should be, but we all know how badly the government healthcare functions. And private healthcare is not going to get into unless they can make some money.

Now comes the issue of, would they opt to do this if they didn’t need the money? Quite probably not. But then. People wouldn’t opt to do lots of things if not for the money. People wouldn’t work in hazardous conditions if not for the money. Atleast in this case, no one is being placed into anything inherently unsafe. And we are talking about Anand here, the relatively prosperous milk belt of the country, not Kalahandi. Its quite possible that these women could view it as an opportunity to improve their lives and climb up to a situation they otherwise would never get to. It may not necessarily be a choice between this and dire poverty. Even if it were, should we call it exploitation? I don’t really know. Hundreds of women enter the flesh trade every year due to dire poverty. The choices may not be what they seem to a Western eye.

And whether the women will feel terrible giving up the child? Yes, quite possible. On the other hand, none of them are newbies who don’t know what it feels like to have a child. Only women who have had children before are chosen. Presumably, they understand the pain and joy of giving birth to a child, and can decide whether or not they can do it for someone else. Indian history and culture is infact replete with stories of one mother handing over her child to another, and for completely altruistic reasons. Infact, in my parents’ generation, it was not at all uncommon for childless couples to “borrow” a child from a sibling. Very different ofcourse from carrying a child for a stranger, but what I’m saying is, the concept of surrogacy is not entirely new to India. Which probably explains why some of the women quoted in the story also see it as a good deed they are doing.

I’m not saying this is the way to lift the third world out of poverty. No single thing is. Instead, everywhere women (and men) are doing things they can to lift themselves out of the situations they find themselves in. I don’t think we should get into this mindset that we know better than them what implications their choices have. If anything – we should work on the other end – ensuring safety; The rest – I believe these women, (even in cases where they come from fairly poor families) are capable of thinking it out for themselves.



  1. It is sad that lack of money pushes a woman to accepting 9 months of pregnancy followed by giving up the baby but then exploitation is not a new phenomenon isn’tit.Do women feel happy working as housemaids or farm hands?one has to do many things against one’s will for the larger benefit of the family.

  2. i completely agree with your view that the western eye (and even quite a few urban indian eyes) would not quite understand how this option might be a much better and far safer option for the women making this choice than the alternative, or lack of it, back home.

    is it any different from professional blood donors? or organ donors? who also do it for the money!

    and i think many of these people (including many of us) who make their choices in life do have a clear mind, a sense of determination and, in many cases, also a sense of pride and purpose. (i know house-maids who feel proud about the fact that they are bringing up their children to be good human beings on the strength of their work and income!)

  3. Yes, I read that piece too, Apu. I agree with you that these women are making their choice and know the implications.

    Far more disturbing for me is this question: why are people more willing to spend so much on having their own child through surrogacy rather than adopting one of the millions of orphans in the world?

  4. Thank you all for writing in; Padma-ji, my point was actually a little different – that the women are “accepting” this pregnancy is a critical point, it is not thrust upon them; Ofcourse as you say, money is the critical thing….

    Guru – thnaks; except in the case of organ donation, i would differ….since it can and often does become a case where the patient is duped of his organs; While pregnancy, although no easy matter, does not “rob” a woman in that sense.

    Smokescreen – actually, the F Word had also pointed that out, and personally, i would agree with them; But – i also believe that people are free to spend their own money in any fashion they wish, and if they feel the need to have their “own” child, can we condemn it any more than whether people should have private islands and jets and so on. My point is, how do we decide what is really worthwhile spending?

  5. […] on Cubically Challenged offers, from the Indian perspective, a view on women in India acting as surrogate mothers for western couples. You might not have expected the position she […]

  6. “Atleast in this case, no one is being placed into anything inherently unsafe.”

    I take your point about the standard of medical care that the surrogate mothers receive, as compared to the standard of care that they could otherwise afford, but pregnancy *is* inherently medically risky. And there’s no guarantee that having had an uncomplicated pregnancy before will mean that the next pregnancy won’t have serious medical complications. Compromising one’s health out of economic need seems a bit dodgy (some women may decide that is genuinely the best option for them. Other women may not, but may decide to go ahead with a surrogacy anyway, out of dire economic situations, and the latter arguable *is* a form of coercion.).

    “People wouldn’t opt to do lots of things if not for the money. People wouldn’t work in hazardous conditions if not for the money.”

    That’s true, but I think a lot of hazardous conditions aren’t ok, and are not made ok by the fact that people chose to do them. One can’t eradicat all hazards of course (and one can’t eradicate all the risks from pregnancy), but it seems to me that those shouldn’t be “jobs for poor people” because well-off people have better options. That is, at the very least, risky jobs ought to have the risks minimized, and ought to involve the best possible protection for workers, and ought to be paid what well-off people would want to be paid for doing it.

    Are the surrogate mothers receiving the degree of care that the Western couples who pay for the surrogacy would themselves expect if it were their own pregnancy? It’s exploitative if they’re not.

    Having said all that, in the imperfect world in which we live right now, I can certainly see why a lot of women would chose surrogacy.


  7. Hello dear Apu,

    I just heard about this cultural phenomenon recently when a friend of mine, upon learning that Basil and I will be unlikely to have children due to my medical condition, suggested that we “have a baby with a surrogate in India.”

    I don’t think we’ll go the surrogacy route for a number of reasons, but I really appreciated your thoughtful entry.

    Hope you are well!


  8. IP, thank you for your detailed comment. I agree that in hazardous jobs, risks need to be minimized as much as possible. My point was that pregnancy isn’t inherently risky, although many pregnancies may have some risk attached to them. So there I disagree with you – so long as the medical care is good, I don’t see it as a fundamentally risky condition. And – whether the pregnant women are receiving the same care that a Western woman would – well – I would put it a little differently – practically, its not possible to ensure that everything is the same – but if their care is as good as what good medical care in India would be, then that’s fair acco. to me.

  9. Baraka, thank you for taking the time to comment. Whatever route you choose, I hope things work out well for the two of you.

  10. Then the problem isn’t what is being done with the mothers – though clearly “free choice” is up for debate here. let’s assume the mothers have chosen freely about the use of their bodies – the bigger question then becomes the commoditization of babies, of life – a central facet of feminism.

    I am certainly not arguing a pro-life standpoint, I simply seek to explore this question: I agree women should have a right to choose what to do with their own bodies – but should they be allowed to offer life created on the free market? There is certainly some responsibility of motherhood being lost here.

  11. This article reflects true and contemporary feminism. It is nice to read women write about issues as sensitive as surrogacy and yet be not judgemental/ emotional about it.

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