This week, the Shout Out! Bloggers and I attended a fantastic lecture that presented the issue of women’s health through a different, global lens than the typical arguments heard in American media. While women’s health often revolves around choice, access to birth control, and health care- we often forget how health is involved in motherhood itself. Dr. Modhumita Roy, professor at Tufts University, visited JMU’s campus to give a lecture on commercial surrogacy in India.
When I first heard about the lecture, I tried to figure out what I really knew about surrogacy. I was familiar with some pop culture references of famous couples having surrogates, but otherwise it seemed like pretty uncharted territory to my knowledge. However, I did not expect the lecture to discuss how commercial surrogacy plays a role in how we shape motherhood, family structure, and familial identity as culturally entities as well as the objectification of women who are employed as surrogates.
Globally, most countries have strict laws or have completely banned commercial surrogacy, citing that commercial surrogacy makes birth it a business transaction and it could have potential dangerous health consequences for the surrogate woman. However, while some countries have legalized altruistic surrogacy (where the woman is not given a compensated pay, but does have her medical expenses covered), India is one of few countries that have made commercial surrogacy legal. This mostly unregulated industry in India has led to “reproductive trafficking”. The women who are employed by these agencies are put into houses or “baby farms”, to keep watch over them through the gestation period. These buildings have poor conditions and unregulated health policies. For example, in India, as they start the surrogate process they are allowed to place up to five embryos into the body at a time, leading to a painful extraction of the embryos that do not become fertilized. Surrogates in India also have no legal rights and commercial surrogacy is culturally shamed by society. Typically, when women become surrogates, their families often lie to others in the community and say the woman “went away” to her mother’s village because she is pregnant, and then claim she lost the baby during childbirth to explain why she returned childless. When the act itself is kept under secrecy, empowerment or female agency to justify the commodification of one’s body is invalid.
The surrogate becomes a means of outsourcing reproduction, with no rights, no agency, and virtually no personhood. Dr. Roy explained that the rhetoric typically used to discuss commercial surrogacy describe the surrogate’s body as an “environment”, “space”, or “vessel” as a space only used to create the child. It makes the womb an object, rather than a part of the female identity. Also, value is place on the purchased egg and sperm making them private property because of their purchased ownership, which leaves the womb of the surrogate as ambiguous. This could lead to an overall view of women that segment women’s bodies into parts that have certain value and remove them from the overall female identity.
Along the lines of value, it is important to point out which kinds of women are being used as surrogates. Often, women from lower socio- economic statuses are recruited by agencies to be surrogates, taking advantage of their need for economic support. These women are often exploited, making poor women’s bodies are deemed as less than, and thus justified to be used for commercial transactions. Just because these women may not be able to speak for themselves does not mean their identity is worth compromising. We as feminists need to be aware of the i
njustices of women around the world, and how we can help in making all women be deemed as valuable for their identities, rather than be seen as a sum of their parts.
What do you think about commercial surrogacy? Let me know in the comments below! Next week I will continue this post to discuss how commercial surrogacy and science is influencing the way we view childbirth and the control of the creation of a child.