wombs in labor: transnational commercial surrogacy in India
Wombs in Labor: Transnational Commercial Surrogacy in India by Amrita Pande is a deeply personal yet political book that presents a nuanced understanding of transnational surrogacy in India. The outcome of extensive ethnographic fieldwork, the book reflects primary research conducted by the author in one of India’s first surrogacy clinics and surrogate hostels in a small town in India. However, rather than focusing on the couples who opt for surrogacy, Pande places the surrogates at the centre of the analysis. The reflections that emerge from the ethnographic data portray an intimate analysis of the lives, hopes, aspirations and expectations of the surrogates as well as their families, brokers, intended parents, doctors, nurses and the surrogacy hostel matrons. Woven into these intimate stories is an intricate feminist analysis that engages with ideas of labour and work while reflecting on discussions around reproductive technologies, population policies, bodies, surveillance, medicalisation, economic inequalities, emotional work (which Pande calls ‘kin labor’ in Chapter 8), motherhood and stigma. The book enhances discussions around reproductive labour while focusing on macro global forces marked by governmental, political and medical systems.
Wombs in Labor is divided into nine chapters and an epilogue that tells a story of surrogacy within the globalising context of India’s surrogacy market. The first chapter of the book introduces the study through the eyes of the ethnographer in the form of a self-reflective account, contextualising the ethnographic process that permeates the book. The second chapter provides a brief history of reproductive health policy in India which focuses on population control. Here Pande notes the hypocritical nature of the Indian state as it promotes surrogacy while enforcing family-planning measures to restrict the birth rate. Pande reveals this irony of surrogacy in India, where poor women align their own reproduction to meet the needs of commercial surrogacy and brings into focus the moral, legal and global neoliberal policy ramifications around surrogacy in India.
Chapters 3 to 5 present vignettes from the interviews and observations of the author. Through these vignettes emerge the aspirations, economic desperations, expectations and dreams of the surrogates that take into account their hopes for improving their lives. These chapters talk about the recruitment process and the emotional and reproductive labour that is expected of the surrogates (Pande describes this as the ‘perfect mother-worker’ in Chapter 4). One of the most interesting facets that the ethnography brings to light is the personal negotiating that takes place to justify the decision to become a surrogate. Surrogates set aside their personal beliefs and adopt a new moral code. Similarly, they create religious negotiations in the form of an ‘everyday divine’—a mélange of Hindu gods (Lord Krishna), Usha Devi (who is a goddess of medicine and popular demigoddess among surrogates) and a ‘surro-dev’ or ‘surro-god’—that makes the surrogacy possible. These everyday divinities transcend beyond formal religion and provide emotional support to the surrogates.
Chapters 6 to 8 provide an analysis of surrogacy as embodied labour and show that while surrogates seek to claim power over their bodies, they are often unable to negotiate once they are bound by the surrogacy contract. The focus of the surrogacy becomes centred around the delivery of the baby to intended parents, which means that the bodily integrity and health of the surrogates becomes secondary. Surrogates find their rights and mobility suspended during the surrogacy period and often cannot make reproductive choices (e.g., vaginal delivery). Pande refers to this as a neo-eugenic disciplinary project that exploits the role of surrogates as ‘needy’ but not ‘greedy mothers’ (Chapter 5) and as disciplined-yet-disposable workers and mothers (Chapters 7 and 8).
The concluding chapter, together with the epilogue, provides an unsettling account of the surrogacy process as the surrogates often lack control over their earnings. It shows that the money earned runs out and many of the women become repeat surrogates. Pande’s research found only two surrogates who were able to save money and were in the process of starting a business. The life transformations that the surrogates dreamt of are often unfulfilled once the surrogacy ends. Pande brings into focus the lack of governmental regulation on surrogacy in India, which does not recognise the rights of surrogates and creates avenues for further exploitation of vulnerable women.
Pande’s book does not provide a fairy-tale ending of the surrogacy story. However, it identifies and unfolds complex discussions that take into account how discourses on altruism, commercialisation and commodification are contributing to the reification of surrogacy in contemporary India. By placing the surrogate at the centre of the discussion, Pande advocates for a model of ‘fair trade surrogacy’ (p. 319) that would uphold the rights and dignity of surrogates. The nuanced analysis presented in this book has great potential for informing laws, rules, regulations and policy around transnational surrogacy. Taken together, this book lays the groundwork for feminism to engage with the immensely fraught but important terrain of transnational surrogacy and provides a key starting point for future feminist research on the subject.