Friday, March 7, 2008

Renting a Womb: Outsourcing's Next Frontier

The International Herald Tribune reports this week on the "new but rapidly expanding enterprise" of reproductive outsourcing in India. The trend of foreigners seeking surrogate mothers in India has expanded in recent months, as Americans, Australians, Europeans, Japanese, Israelis, and Taiwanese have sought to benefit from India's low prices, skilled medical professionals who speak English, and, according to one clinic director, women who are "free of vices, like alcohol, smoking and drugs."
Moreover, by travelling to India, foreigners can avoid the stricter laws on surrogacy that exist in their home countries. Voters in countries such as France, Germany, Spain, and Sweden have rejected the possibility of surrogate motherhood outright. Other nations, including Argentina, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, permit surrogacy subject to stringent regulations, including independent ethics committees that evaluate surrogacy requests on a case-by-case basis. Protections are stronger for traditional surrogates (women who provide both an egg and a womb) than for gestational surrogates (women who provide a womb only); for example, in the UK, a traditional surrogate mother can claim parental rights at any time during the first two years of the child's life. In the US, surrogacy questions are covered by state law, so are not uniform, but in at least some states, traditional surrogates cannot waive their parental rights by contract but must instead agree to adoption after the child is born (think Baby M). In contrast, in India, where surrogacy was legalized in 2002, women can and do sign away their parental rights in surrogacy agreements.
So is this an example of globalization empowering poor women to rise above their circumstances or is it simply exploitation on a global scale?
On the one hand, poor rural Indian women are able to earn sums of money they could not possibly earn through their regular jobs. Some use this money to buy a house, others to fund their childrens' education, others to pay their daughters' dowries, and still others to start a small business. Interestingly, the leading clinic is located in Anand, in rural Gujarat, where the money offered by foreigners may be more of a draw than in a larger city with more job opportunities. At least some of the surrogate mothers are illiterate, and some may well be subject to family pressure from husbands and in-laws in order to generate large sums of cash. Moreover, the social consequences of surrogacy in rural India are such that many women choose to keep their pregnancy secret in fear of becoming a social pariah. Faced with alternative occupations such as crushing glass 15 hours a day for $25 a month, this seems a risk worth taking to many women. But it's hard to argue that their financial circumstances make it a free choice, and one these women would make if they had other viable avenues to economic empowerment. (photo credit above right).

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