How Does India’s Surrogacy Market Thrive Despite being called the “Rent-a-Womb” Industry?

By Sharmila Rudrappa and Caitlyn Collins

Today India has become a major hub for commercial surrogacy with clients from around the world arriving to hire working-class Indian women to become pregnant through in-vitro fertilization. Infertility agencies charge clients $25,000 to $45,000 and pay surrogate mothers roughly $4,000 to $6,000 for their labor. These same services in the United States are estimated at $80,000 to $120,000. The massive costs of commercial surrogacy in the United States and legal restrictions against gay parents in countries such as Israel, for example, have fueled a surge in demand for reproductive services in countries such as India and Mexico where women are paid far less for surrogacy.

Despite appellations such as “baby factory,” “back-womb” services, “rent-a-womb” industry, and “life factory,” surrogacy in India is thriving. How do surrogacy businesses continue to attract clients to India in spite of the circulation of such shock-inducing labels? Drawing on interviews with eight infertility doctors, twenty intended parents, and seventy Indian surrogate mothers, as well as surrogacy blogs and media stories, we find that participants justify their economic pursuits by framing their decision to hire an Indian surrogate mother as an act of compassion and altruism on their parts. We suggest that this moral framing is not incidental, but is constitutive of transnational surrogacy.

The two dominant moral frames constitutive of surrogacy are that such economic pursuits liberate Indian women by providing wages that move their families out of poverty; and that surrogacy enhances reproductive rights for infertile individuals and working-class Indian mothers who can now provide more for their own children. Our findings suggest that these two frames are facilitated by the images of surrogate mothers in circulation in popular media. These images, actively controlled by surrogacy agencies, posit surrogate mothers as monolithic, Third World, gendered subjects. They are loving, but shy; living in deplorable conditions and desperate to send their own children to better schools, while simultaneously eager to help fulfill clients’ dreams of becoming parents; cheerful to be of service to others, yet unable to speak with clients. This imagery posits surrogacy as a means by which two deserving parties are brought together in economic exchange; that is, needy and principled Third World mothers acquiescing to highly invasive medical procedures in order to meet the needs of worthy clients in desperate need of babies. But crucially, by casting the mothers as shy and unable to speak with strangers, the agencies maintain distance between the clients and their surrogate mothers.

Not surprisingly, many of our client interviewees believed they were not exploitative, but were “compassionate consumers” who were agents of social change for Indian working-class women and their indigent children. Such perceptions enabled clients to perceive their market pursuits as inherently moral endeavors. Take the example of a New York gay couple who have three children via two Indian surrogate mothers in Delhi; each mother had been paid approximately $5,000. The client fathers were unsure of the exact amount. They rationalized their decision to pursue surrogacy in India this way:

The argument I tried to make at the time is that if we had a surrogate in the U.S. and paid all this money, and the surrogates are paid $25,000 – tell me what that does to anyone in the U.S. They pay tax on it. It doesn’t fundamentally change their lives. … [In India] this fundamentally changes their lives. It’s the equivalent of maybe five years of income – it has enabled them to move into a home, to get an education for their children.

Contrary to their beliefs, however, surrogacy is not a “mother-friendly” job, and does not necessarily result in long-term benefits for the surrogate mothers and their children. First, surrogate mothers are housed in dormitories and away from their own children for the duration of their pregnancy. For example, Roopa, a Bangalore garment worker in her mid-thirties said that because of her compulsory stay at the surrogacy dormitory her seven-year old daughter’s safety was compromised. The child had to be left behind in the care of a physically abusive, alcoholic father. Moreover, the mothers’ earnings through surrogacy disappeared in a matter of months. They were constantly short on money in their struggles to make a decent life, and some women wanted to become surrogate mothers all over again. Thus, contrary to agencies’ and clients’ notions that surrogacy was “life-changing” for working-class women, there was often no marked economic difference in mothers’ lives after surrogacy.

By framing commercial surrogacy as compassionate consumerism, infertility doctors and couples adopt a moral identity that allows them to navigate around threats of racism, classism, or sexism. We conclude that the very structural factors that make working-class Indian women particularly suited for surrogacy also allows for the circulation of reproductive imaginaries of benevolence and rescue from poverty. The moral frames of altruism and compassion used to justify surrogacy rely on racist, classist, and sexist tropes about Third World working-class women.

Indian mother and child

Former garment worker and surrogate mother and her second son at home in Bangalore, south India. One of our interviewees quoted in the article. Photograph by Sharmila Rudrappa, 2011.

Sharmila Rudrappa teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research in the U.S. and India focuses on race, gender, labor, reproductive justice, and bioeconomies. Her most recent book is Discounted Life: The Price of Global Surrogacy in India. New York University Press, 2016.

Caitlyn Collins is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology and a Graduate Fellow of the Urban Ethnography Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. She conducts cross-national qualitative research on gender, work, and families.


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