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No, surrogacy is not exploitative

Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas' baby born through surrogacy has restarted debates about the practice. Why do we think there's only one way to be a mother?

Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas announced on their Instagram pages on 21 January 2022 that they had welcomed their first baby, born via surrogacy. (File photo)
Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas announced on their Instagram pages on 21 January 2022 that they had welcomed their first baby, born via surrogacy. (File photo) (AP)

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“Motherhood is a state of being which has, from time immemorial, been defined by a set of cliched, internalized words that are as powerful as they are evocative. Woman, womb, mother…. In our minds, the creation, sustenance and nurturing of life hinges on the blending of these words into synonymity.” I wrote these words in in the preface to my 2014 book Baby Makers: The Story Of Indian Surrogacy, and went on to ask whether being a “mother” necessarily includes the whole gamut of actions like conceiving, carrying and bearing a child. What if one cannot conceive or bear a child for some biological reasons, or chooses not to for personal reasons? Does that make her less of a woman? Can she not still be a mother? 

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After actors Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas announced the birth of their baby via surrogacy—setting off social media debates about exploitation and reproductive rights—Bengaluru-based counsellor Mahesh Natarajan posted an imaginary conversation between a man and a woman on his Facebook wall. 

The man is very angry with Priyanka Chopra.  

“She announced she and Nick Jonas are now parents through a surrogate,” he rages. “Why? Just because she is rich and busy? What's wrong with people these days?" 

"But," the woman reasons, "Half the people have always become parents through surrogacy of sorts only, no?"  

"What do you mean?" he says. 

"Men." She explains: "Men have become parents through women always. If you are so mortified by her choice of parenthood, would you say men don't get to claim parenthood unless they can be pregnant?"  

If a woman chooses not to have babies, she is scorned as selfish. If she cannot conceive, she is considered flawed. If she hires a surrogate to carry her baby, she is exploitative. If she chooses to carry someone else’s baby in her womb, she is labelled exploited.

And there you have it. Men don’t have wombs. They have many other reproductive tools without which a baby cannot be created. But they do not have that one essential space—the womb. The baby’s first haven, safe space, cocoon. And therefore, they don’t seem to be able to deal with human beings who have them. If men had wombs, would their world view be different? Would they be open to having random people discuss how their wombs should be used? 

To state the obvious, the womb is an integral part of a woman’s body, and she alone has the right to decide on all matters related to it. Yet reproductive decisions are never left to women. Society decides for a woman all matters pertaining to when, how and how many babies she should have.  

A woman’s womb defines her. If she chooses not to have babies, she is scorned as selfish. If she cannot conceive, she is considered flawed. A woman who hires a surrogate to carry her baby is considered exploitative. A woman who chooses to carry someone else’s baby in her womb, she is labelled exploited. 

Artificial Reproductive Technology (ART) clinics have been around for several decades. The first child born through IVF in India was delivered in Kolkata in the 1980s. Since then, fertility treatment using ART has transformed. For more than two decades, babies have been created outside the womb using either donor gametes or the gametes of the intending parents and gestated in the womb of unrelated women. In other words, ART enables couples in need of medical intervention to make babies which are genetically connected to themselves. It has helped infertile couples, same sex couples and single people to become parents. It has also helped career women, whether in management, the arts or sciences or the entertainment industry, choose when and how they wish to have their babies.  

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Since the woman’s womb is an integral part of her body, she cannot be coerced into carrying someone else’s child. She has to be a willing participant in the process of surrogacy. She has to be willing to go through the whole process of getting her body prepped to bear someone else’s child, and carry it for nine months. A woman who signs up for surrogacy knows what she is doing. Usually, there is a surrogacy contract which specifies how much she will be paid to compensate her for giving up other jobs and focusing on this pregnancy.  

The Rajya Sabha passed the ART (Regulation) Bill, 2021, with a voice vote and the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2020, with
The Rajya Sabha passed the ART (Regulation) Bill, 2021, with a voice vote and the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2020, with (MINT_PRINT)

During the course of researching my book, I met several women who had worked as surrogates. I deliberately use the word “work” because that is what they consider the process of giving birth to another woman’s child. In India, women with proven fertility are the ones who are eligible to become surrogates. These women usually would have had one or two children of their own. They shared with me the problems they had faced while carrying their own babies, when they had to do their own housework plus a job to earn a living. In comparison, they said, they had it easy carrying another woman’s baby. Since the baby was very precious to the commissioning parents too, they took care to see that the surrogate had plenty of rest, nutrition and medical care. The money surrogates earned was more than they would have earned working in other people’s houses—another job that can also be considered exploitative labour. I met women who had been surrogates twice or thrice and had used the money to build homes or educate children.  

Just last month, 43-year-old Bhanu Vankar, a former surrogate mother, made news after she was elected unopposed as sarpanch of her village of Gorva in Borsad taluka of Anand. Vankar said she had turned her life around by renting out her womb twice, delivering two sets of twins for two childless couples. She now has ambitious plans to improve lives in her village.  

When author Taslima Nasreen described children born through surrogacy as “readymade babies”—the same day Chopra and Jones announced their child’s birth—she exposed the monumental ignorance most people have about surrogacy (she later clarified her comments were not related to the celebrity couple). 

Deciding how and when to have a family is a personal choice. The many couples who go through fertility treatment do so because they desperately want a baby of their own. Their treatment can be very expensive, painful and prone to failure. A baby born through a surrogate is in no way “readymade”. The parents struggle hard to create it. Surrogates come in only at the end of the treatment and usually only if the commissioning parent is unable to gestate the baby on their own.  

I have no idea if Chopra and Jonas had fertility issues or not. But like the many other celebrities who have taken the same route, they too have a right to choose how they want to create a family. The surrogate who carried their child is unlikely to have been financially exploited as California is one of the most expensive destinations for IVF and surrogacy. 

Do we really have a right to be judgemental about a woman who rents out her womb to earn more and improve her circumstances? Do we have a right to judge another woman or man who compensates a surrogate for the invaluable service she has provided? Isn’t it much more exploitative to expect a surrogate to be altruistic and do it for free, putting her life on hold for a couple of years, and going through the pains of pregnancy and giving birth to a baby? 

When I started researching surrogacy in India in 2011, it was a free-for-all situation. There was no regulation, no law, and only Indian Council of Medical Research guidelines to go by. ART and surrogacy was available to anyone willing to pay for it, regardless of gender, nationality or marital status. I remember reading the blog of two gay men from the US who had bought eggs from an Indian donor and hired surrogates through a Mumbai clinic which was LGBTQAI-friendly. In 2008, they each had a beautiful daughter to whom they were connected genetically. 

Around this time, the Law Commission submitted its 228th report in which it addressed the need for regulating ART clinics and surrogacy. It laid out some confusing guidelines. In 2014, when my book came out, the whole issue was still stuck in limbo, none of the issues resolved. Surrogacy was not illegal yet there was no legal framework governing it. Dubious ART clinics had sprung up all over the country. As the years rolled by, our lawmakers got more and more confused. Technology was developing so fast that the lawmakers were unable to keep pace. 

Even as we debated the ethics, the legality, the social, medical and economic implications of these miraculous fertility treatments, the world moved on. Some healthy babies have already been delivered from transplanted wombs. If this medical breakthrough becomes practical and accessible, will surrogates become obsolete? Will womb trading replace womb renting? And what if artificial wombs are developed? Will humans be able to hire artificial wombs where they can gestate their babies? These are all distinct possibilities as research is going on in all these fields. Meanwhile, we in India are still debating who should be allowed access to surrogates and who can avail of treatment rather than address the nitty-gritty of the issue. As a result, the whole issue of ART and surrogacy remains in limbo. Even if the two proposed Bills are passed in Parliament now, they are so flawed that they are open to more litigation. 

Most of the proposed legislation avoids the main issues and focuses only on the concept of exploitation.  For example, foreigners are now banned from using Indian surrogates. How does this help and whom does it help? The genetic material of the surrogate is not transferred to the baby in her womb as the embryo is already fully formed when transferred to her. So, the nationality of the baby makes no difference to the surrogate. An Indian surrogate can give birth to a baby who is genetically Caucasian. However, she does stand a chance to earn more money by carrying that Caucasian couple’s baby.  

A good intervention by the Indian government earlier was to issue notices to all our embassies abroad, prohibiting them from issuing visas for medical tourism related to fertility issues if the country of origin did not accept babies born through surrogacy. This could have been retained, instead of issuing a blanket ban on foreigners coming to India for surrogacy. So much of the process of artificial reproductive technology and surrogacy is misunderstood, and legislators have made no attempt to understand it either. 

Yes, we need legislation, but first, the lawmakers need to understand all the related issues. In their haste to appear to have solved a problem, they are pushing confusing—and in some cases even regressive—legislation which can only muddy the waters and push everything underground, creating more avenues for exploitation.

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