Dr. Daisy Deomampo is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Fordham University. In 2009, while a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘The New Global ‘Division of Labor’: Reproductive Tourism in Mumbai, India,‘ supervised by Dr. Leith Mullings. Last year, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite in Mumbai and share findings from her research on kinship and race in the context of transnational surrogacy.
In December 2013 I returned to my fieldsite in Mumbai, India, where I studied the social, cultural, and ethical implications of transnational surrogacy. The practice of transnational surrogacy forms part of a broader phenomenon known as fertility tourism, transnational reproduction, and cross border reproductive care, involving the travel of prospective parents in pursuit of assisted reproductive technology (ART) services such as gestational surrogacy, egg donation, and in vitro fertilization. When I began this research in 2008 I was especially interested in how various actors—including commissioning parents, surrogate mothers, and egg donors—understand and articulate notions of kinship and race as they undergo assisted conception across national, ethnic, and class boundaries. Since then, my interests have expanded to include questions related to power and agency for all actors involved, but especially for the Indian women who become surrogate mothers for foreign clients and wealthy Indians.
These questions are important to consider, particularly as surrogacy remains unregulated in India and the Draft ART (Regulation) Bill and Rules awaits decision in Parliament. As debates continue around how to legislate the flourishing fertility industry, various groups have argued that major gaps exist in the protection of surrogate mothers and children in the current draft bill (Sama 2010). Yet the voices and perspectives of Indian women who participate in commercial surrogacy remain largely absent in ongoing discussions around ART policy and legislation. Because of this, I wanted to return to India to share my research findings, which illustrate the ways in which Indian women do not conform to simplistic stereotypes and binary oppositions between agent and victim. Indeed, these findings demonstrate how women resist dominant constructions of surrogates as powerless victims and express forms of individual and collective agency, albeit within larger structures of power.
In this engagement project, then, my goals were to disseminate research findings and to provide a forum in which Indian women involved in surrogacy could voice their hopes, desires, and visions for the future of surrogacy in India. The aim was to provide an opportunity for surrogate mothers and egg donors to articulate their concerns around the health, medical, social, and contractual aspects of commercial gestational surrogacy. Thus, this engagement project encompassed several activities, carried out in December 2013 and January 2014 in Mumbai, India, including a participatory workshop with surrogates and egg donors and a research presentation with the local scholarly community.
Working with my translator, Prachi, I began by meeting informally with current and former surrogate mothers and egg donors, many of whom participated in my dissertation fieldwork in 2010. My goal was to share key findings and to provide women a space in which to reflect on these findings and their own personal experiences of surrogacy. During these discussions, we focused on women’s individual reactions and reflections on how surrogacy has affected their lives. Their stories spanned a wide range of experiences. While some women shared stories in which they successfully harnessed the benefits of surrogacy to buy a new home or pay off their debts, others recounted tales of ongoing struggle, to which surrogacy offered only a brief reprieve. Deepa, for instance, told of how surrogacy has allowed her children to envision a different kind of future, one that includes increased expectations for a good education and material possessions, indicators of middle-class status in Mumbai. She explained that her surrogacy work has allowed her to provide for her family in ways she could not have imagined before. Indu, on the other hand, recounted how her surrogacy earnings—approximately $3,300—were not enough to purchase a house in Mumbai; she would have needed more than twice her surrogacy payment to buy her own home. Since she was unable to purchase a home or save her earnings, Indu tried to become a surrogate four more times, each attempt without success. Another woman, Alka, described the social effects of surrogacy and lamented how surrogacy harmed her relationship with her siblings and mother; her increased earnings, she explained, created conflict with her mother and brother, with whom she is no longer close. To be sure, women’s narratives illustrated the diversity of their experiences and personal histories, showing how there is no “single story” of surrogacy in India.
These meetings culminated in a participatory workshop with women who had previous or current experience in surrogacy or egg donation. The workshop took place at the home of Aruna, a former surrogate mother who now works as an agent-caretaker, in a city I call Nadipur, situated less than 40 miles outside of Mumbai. While our previous discussions tended to focus on individual and personal experiences of surrogacy, my goal in the workshop was to generate discussion around women’s collective concerns. Broadly, I hoped to foster a discussion of key issues that women believed should be accounted for in ongoing policy debates.
Our discussion traversed a range of themes as women considered the following questions: what are the issues that matter most to you? What issues would you want to see included in policy discussions and debates about surrogacy? What changes would you like to see in current surrogacy practices in India? Women seemed to embrace the opportunity to openly discuss a range of issues and opinions, stemming from their own experiences as surrogates. Several key themes emerged in the discussion. First, women agreed that the money earned through surrogacy is simply not enough, given the rising cost of living in Mumbai. As Leena described, “If one gets two to two and a half lakhs (approximately US$3,300 to $4,100), you can’t do anything with that. Even children’s education cannot be covered with that. If one wants to buy a house, it costs five to seven lakhs (US$8,200 to $11,500). If one receives at least five lakhs, then maybe you could take out a loan of two lakhs and buy a house.” Others believed that the payment was not enough to address the health risks involved in surrogacy. As Madhuri explained, “Yes, they should increase the payment. If one is going to cut her stomach (via cesarean section), it should be worth doing that. Our health is also concerned.”
Another theme raised in the discussion examined the relationship between surrogates and intended parents. In many cases, surrogates told stories of how they never had a chance to meet the people who commissioned their surrogate pregnancies. While many doctors I interviewed chose not to encourage intended parents to meet with surrogates, the women agreed that this made them feel poorly treated, and they believed it was important to foster connections between themselves and their “clients”, as they were called. Prema explained that it was not necessary to meet very frequently but that it was important to meet at least once during embryo transfer; she asked, “If your own wife were pregnant, would you have stayed so far away?” Throughout the workshop, women articulated a range of concerns about issues that were important to them, from the need to remain close to their children (in cases where surrogates are obligated to live away from their families in clinic-arranged housing) to problematic practices with respect to payment and disbursement of funds.
A second major goal of this project was to disseminate key findings of this research with the local academic community in Mumbai. This took the form of a research presentation at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, sponsored by the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies and the School of Development Studies. Faculty, students, and participants from the participatory workshop in Nadipur attended the seminar, in which I presented my research questions, methodology, findings, and conclusions. Following the presentation, I answered questions from the audience that prompted a discussion of various themes, including the role that the researcher’s positionality plays in fieldwork, the treatment of surrogacy as a form of labor, and how best to include surrogates’ interests in policy debates.
This engagement project serves as only the beginning of what I hope will include ongoing activities to incorporate women’s voices into ART policy-related discussions. With greater attention to empirical evidence and increased participation of surrogate mothers and egg donors in policy discussions, I hope that future efforts to regulate the ART industry will include sufficient protection for surrogate mothers and attention to these women’s experiences, needs, and desires.
* All names used in this post are pseudonyms.
2010 Critique of the Draft Assisted Reproductive Technologies (Regulation) Bill & Rules-2008. In Making Babies: Birth Markets and Assisted Reproductive Technologies in India. S. Srinivasan, ed. Pp. 126-138. New Delhi: Zubaan.