Movement and mobility in transnational surrogacy: Taking a geographical approach to understanding power and inequality

In much of the media coverage on surrogacy in India, images of women confined to surrogacy hostels accompany stories of infertile parents’ journeys to India for gestational commercial surrogacy. When I first began researching transnational surrogacy, I was intrigued by the role that mobility and movement played in these stories—and I was particularly interested in its implications for geography, power, and inequality. Why did some people seem to move through space with ease, while others’ movements were restricted and strictly monitored? What might a geographic lens reveal about power in transnational surrogacy?

Indeed, it appeared that while commissioning parents traveled, literally, to the ends of the earth in pursuit of parenthood, Indian surrogate mothers found their own mobility regulated as they remained confined to surrogate housing during their pregnancies. Yet, during my fieldwork in India, I found that the experiences of commissioning parents and Indian surrogate mothers reveal a more complex story. When viewed through a geographic lens, transnational surrogacy is not simply about one group limiting the movement of a less powerful group. Rather, I found that power and mobility play out in complex and contradictory ways, wherein both commissioning parents and surrogate mothers experience periods of mobility and immobility, movement and stillness, albeit in distinct ways.

For example, the story of Avani, a 25-year-old surrogate mother who lived in surrogate housing, contradicted the claims of many doctors who believed that the housing was always a desirable option for women. As Avani explained: “Of course I like my place more than this one…Here, nobody is around to talk to and there are restrictions on my roaming as well. I get so bored. Our routine is just eating and sleeping.” At the same time, Avani’s and other women’s pregnancies were characterized by regular travels to clinics and hospitals for various medical procedures. Moreover, even when women were not compelled to live in clinic-arranged housing, doctors and local caretakers monitored their movements and mobility in other ways. In contrast, foreign commissioning parents moved with ease across national boundaries. Yet, they also told stories of stillness and immobility, as some parents spend months in India awaiting the travel documents needed to return to their home countries.

This article takes a fresh look at the global surrogacy industry by using a geographical approach to understand how movement and mobility impact commissioning parents’ and surrogate mothers’ experiences. Rather than view parents and surrogates through binary oppositions such as “exploiters and exploited” or “agents and victims” (or, as those who have power and those who don’t), this article highlights the subtleties of how power works through space and mobility.

By Daisy Deomampo on her article, “Gendered geographies of reproductive tourism” published in the August 2013 issue of Gender & Society.


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