BRAMPTON, Ontario — Commercial surrogacy is when a high-income, infertile couple offers a monetary incentive to a female in financial need who is willing to carry their biological child until the time for birth. There are several neologisms to refer to commercial surrogacy including “wombs for rent” and “baby farms.”
Surrogacy in India was legalized in 2002, but the industry has yet to be properly regulated. Infertile western couples often seek willing Indian surrogate mothers because of the lower costs and more lenient legal liabilities. The cost of one surrogacy in the West can amount to $90,000, while in India the expenses are only a third of that price. The surrogate mother may receive up to $7,500, the equivalent to several years’ income, and the clinics receive the rest.
The Akanksha clinic in West India’s state of Gujarat tends to about 110 surrogates annually, being one of the most popular surrogacy clinics in India. Surrogate mothers reside at a surrogate house and only Sundays are opened to family visitors.
32-year-old Ranju Rajubhai’s husband’s burn injury left him out of work. Ranju decided to turn to surrogacy in order to pay for her husband’s surgery, get them a house and do a good deed for the western couple. She plans on undergoing a second surrogacy pregnancy as the money from the first pregnancy was still insufficient to cover the surgery expenses.
Even in a country where surrogacy is legal, the poor regulations in the industry make commercial surrogacy an exploitative business. Thus, India has proposed a bill outlining that 35 is the maximum age limit for surrogate mothers and these women are only allowed to undergo five births including their own offspring.
In countries where surrogacy is illegal, such as China, it paves the way for a thriving black market.
Huang Jinlai’s Baby Plan Medical Technology Company helps high-income, infertile couples in China. Couples who have higher education often wait until later in life to have a baby in order to better focus on their careers. However, with increasing age, conceiving a child may become more difficult. Thus, many high-income couples opt for surrogacy. Despite prohibition from the law, Chinese tradition places grave importance on starting a family and having children, making these couples desperate.
Huang’s Baby Plan Medical Technology Company scouts for willing surrogate mothers. Sometimes the surrogate may be known to the couple, other times the woman may be a total stranger. Most, if not all of the time, the woman is from an impoverished, rural community.
Chinese couples may even accept foreign women, such as women from Vietnam, to act as surrogate mothers because of lower costs. This demands the woman to temporarily leave her home land to stay in a country where she has very little legal protection. These are women seeking to alleviate their families from poverty, ranging from youthful to married middle-aged women.
The woman and the couple take off to Thailand, where surrogacy is legal, to implant the couple’s embryo into the surrogate. They then fly back to China where the surrogate lives in a private apartment and is cut off from her family. Since China has banned surrogacy, couples who decide to do this along with the clinics involved must enforce strict sanctions on the surrogate to ensure she does not run off.
Months before implantation, the surrogate mother must undergo months of hormone treatment. During pregnancy, the surrogate is under constant surveillance and has frequent visits from a psychological counsellor in order to remind her of the emotional detachment that is required.
One surrogate mother from Wuhan was earning money for her ill father. However, he passed away during her pregnancy and the stringent house rules she was under prevented her from attending his funeral. Although the clinic expressed sincere regret, it does not ease the woman’s guilt any more.
Commercial surrogacy is a booming market, whether legal or illegal, and the market’s little regard for the surrogate mothers has garnered much controversy.
Activists and feminists have drawn parallels between commercial surrogacy and prostitution over the years. Novelist Kajsa Ekis Ekman wrote Being and Being Bought, a book in which she explains the similarities between commercial surrogacy and prostitution. Both businesses profit from selling women’s bodies. One industry offers sexual services while the other offers reproductive services. Moreover, to reduce female abilities by referring to them as services dehumanizes women.
Supporters of the industries contend that commercial surrogacy and prostitution are choices made by women. The stigma attached to the industries is an issue of societal opinion, not one of the morals of the businesses.
However, the women who willingly agree to participate in these markets are driven to do so by poverty. There is not much freedom of choice for these women because their destitute situation forces them to be willing.
Also, surrogacy is sometimes praised as more of a heroic feat than prostitution. To some surrogacy proponents, surrogate mothers bring life; there is more criticism surrounding sex workers.
Western feminists should be more concerned about the debates about international commercial surrogacy and its parallels to prostitution. Due to poverty, the women in these industries do not have much of a voice, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation sometimes without even realizing it.
Countries must implement more effective methods to safeguard both the physical and mental health of these women. Empowerment of women is essential so that they are not coerced by their families into possibly exploitative businesses and countries must create opportunities for women to be self-sustainable.
– Carmen Tu