The latest in outsourcing: cheap wombs.

// 2 January 2008

What to do when you can’t have a baby yourself, IVF isn’t working and a surrogate from your own country is just too expensive? Well, you could hire an Indian womb. For less than £5,000, couples from the US and the UK can engage the services of a commercial surrogacy agency in India. The agency sources and cares for 15 women at any one time who carry the babies of foreigners, as well as rich Indians. The couple fly to India for the fertilisation and are present at the birth, while the pregnant women stay in special houses where they are monitored and offered English and IT classes during their stay. They then give up the baby and return to their families (all surrogates must already have children) with between £2,000 and £4,000. It would take them around 15 years to earn this on their normal salary.

It’s a difficult one. The doctor behind this scheme argues that it is valuable for everyone involved:

There is this one woman who desperately needs a baby and cannot have her own child without the help of a surrogate. And at the other end there is this woman who badly wants to help her (own) family. If this female wants to help the other one … why not allow that? … It’s not for any bad cause. They’re helping one another to have a new life in this world.

I see her point, but it’s really not that simply. For a start, while the women may be earning a large amount relative to their normal salary, a surrogate in the US earns £40,000. Like the workers in factories and call centres across India, they are being employed simply because their labour is cheap, because they can produce the object of richer countries’ desires for much, much less than these countries’ own workers.

We all know that when it comes to cheap labour, workers’ wellfare often goes out the window. The particular agency profiled in the article sounds caring enough, but would we really expect a US or UK surrogate mother to stay in a special house for the duration of the pregnancy, restricting her freedom to go about her daily life like other pregnant women? A key worry, however, is that:

…competition among clinics could lead to compromised safety measures and “the clinic across the street offers it for 20 percent less and one in Bangladesh undercuts that and pretty soon conditions get bad.”

What’s more, the industry is not regulated by the government, and ethical guidelines issued by health officials are nonbinding.

Now, I haven’t been pregnant, let alone a surrogate, so I have no authority here, but I can imagine that giving up a baby – even if it isn’t yours – is not an easy thing to do. The fact that the Indian agency provides post-pregnancy counselling for its surrogates indicates as much. The decision to become a surrogate, then, should ideally be made independent of financial hardship. In the case of these women, hired by rich foreigners for their cheap labour, it appears to be the main incentive. The women interviewed seem happy with this:

“The fetus is theirs, so I’m not sad to give it back,” said Gheewala, who plans to save the $6,250 she’s earning for her two daughters’ education. “The child will go to the U.S. and lead a better life and I’ll be happy.”

Nevertheless, the whole concept still suggests exploitation to me, and I’d be interested to know how many would choose to be surrogates if it wouldn’t otherwise take them 15 years to earn the money they’ll earn in less than one through surrogacy.

There are also questions to be asked about the legitimacy of resorting to commercial surrogacy when there are so many unwanted or orphaned children in the world that desperately need a home. One US woman speaks of spending $200,000 on IVF and a further $20,000 on the Indian surrogacy due to her and her partner’s desperation to have their own child. I’m aware this sounds heartless, but it seems selfish to me: that’s $120,000 that could have made a real difference to other children’s lives, while a child who could potentially have been adopted remains without a family and a poor Indian woman is stuck in house for 9 months and treated as a baby incubator first, free individual second.

Yes, she will go home much better off than before, able to better care for her own family, but is the privileging of First World women’s selfish desire for a baby really the solution to Third World women’s poverty?

Image by kellyandapril, shared under a Creative Commons License.

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