Surrogacy: The Impossible Dream Of A Fair Trade Baby – Eurasia Review

By Eurasia Review

While western couples get their longed-for child, Indian surrogate mothers are left with a feeling of having sacrificed more than they have gained. Surrogacy can never become a win-win situation, according to anthropologist Kristin Engh Frde.

Can we really do this, can we defend it? the desperate couple asks in their hotel room in Mumbai.

They have done a lot of research before coming to India, but are still not convinced whether it is possible to find an ethically justifiable way to go through with surrogacy.

The room quivered when I interviewed them, said Kristin Engh Frde.

So much was at stake. They feared having to choose between two extremely strong desires. Between being the type of people they wanted to be the people their entire social universe presupposes that they are or having this baby that they so deeply desire.

But the couple that introduces chapter four of Frdes PhD thesis on surrogacy in India is atypical for the selection of parents she has interviewed.

The last time I spoke to them they had concluded that this isnt ethically justifiable, said the anthropologist.

The rest of the parents reach the opposite conclusion. Following ethical considerations, they conclude that it is a win-win situation for them and the Indian woman who will be carrying forth the baby on their behalf. They believe that they have stayed clear of dishonest actors and found ethically responsible clinics.

One of Frdes findings is precisely this: When you are privileged, you also have the privilege to define the world according to your own standpoint. With support from the way in which surrogacy has been organised in India, it is perfectly possible to see the exchange as a pure win-win situation.

Another of Frdes findings is, on the other hand, that it is impossible to defend surrogacy in India as an arrangement between equals. It gives highly unequal results for the involved parties. The western parents can bring a baby home with them. The Indian woman who has given birth to their baby, earn a sum of money that isnt sufficient to get her out of poverty. The women are often left with a sense of loss: they have given someone a huge gift, but arent even close to be receiving the equivalent in return.

Indias golden days as surrogacy destination was over in 2015, when a new legislation made surrogacy for foreigners illegal. When Frde did her fieldwork in 2012 and 2013, India was still the place to go. The clinics preferred by Scandinavians were located in the city Mumbai.

Women in Indias surrogacy industry have been subject to a good deal of research. The parents-to-be have received much less scholarly attention, however. Frde has spoken to thirty-two of them seven heterosexual couples, seven gay couples, two men whose partners were not available for interviews, and two single men.

And they just have to have a child.

For instance, Im talking to single fathers who have had a child on their own. It is more important for them to have a child than a partner, said Frde.

The fact that you have a good marriage or a good relation to your nieces and nephews doesnt mean that you dont feel a need for having your own children. Having your own child, who is just yours, cant be replaced by anything. Many of the people I spoke with thought that a life without a child was a poor one.

One common objection in surrogacy debates is that it is better to adopt. However, this is practically impossible for the gay men in the material. The heterosexual couples have often tried but failed for various reasons.

The majority of the people I spoke to would have preferred adoption. It would have been cheaper, and it would have required less research, concern, and criticism.

The myth that those who make use of surrogacy are so obsessed with continuing their own genes that adoption is not an alternative finds no support in Frdes study.

Many of them seem less obsessed with reproducing their own genes than most people are, said Frde.

Whats important is to have a child that is just yours. This constrasts with constellations where a gay couple and a lesbian couple have a child together, or a gay couple has a child with a single woman. In such cases, there are three or more parents, but this is not what they want. Its the nuclear family theyre after.

Before they decide to try surrogacy, the so-called intended parents have worked their way through what most of them perceive as moral dilemmas. One couple choose not to go through with it, the rest conclude that this is justifiable. It is good for them and good for the surrogate the woman who will be giving birth to the baby on their behalf.

How can they not know that the surrogates are left with relatively little after this major undertaking, as youve also found in your own research?

I personally spent several months trying to find out how the surrogates felt about this. It cost me a lot of effort, Frde said.

This is one of my most important findings. Who gets to define the reality is closely connected to power. As privileged you also have the privilege to perceive the world as it appears from your own point of view as the truth. At the same time, other truths remain invisible to you.

Frde has called her thesis Intimate distance. A woman will be giving birth for you, but you dont get to meet her during her pregnancy and just barely after. Intimate, yet with major distance.

The way in which the clinics operated strengthened the structural distance between the white western childless couples or individuals and the non-white, poor Indian women.

Many of the parents-to-be also have an understanding that it is better for the surrogates if they dont get too close to them. They imagine that entering her sphere would be a violation of her privacy, said Frde.

This is their paradoxical project: to find out how she experiences it without talking to her.

Keeping a certain distance is a prerequisite for the process to be legitimate, according to both the future parents and the clinics.

But not according to the surrogates, Frde emphasised.

I never heard any such concern from them. Rather, they perceive the distance as a disadvantage, it weakened their negotiating position.

But what about available research and not least news reports concerning surrogacy and exploitation of women?

The parents-to-be had put a lot of work into investigations, according to Frde.

Some thought that research from the US was transferable to India. But according to Frde, the surrogates are in a much stronger position in the US. The surrogate often chooses who she wants to give birth for, and there is often frequent contact between surrogate and parents both before and after birth if this is something the surrogate wants.

One man had seen a documentary from Gujarat in India during the period when he and his husband were considering surrogacy in India. He said that he was shocked and had nightmares afterwards, thinking, We are not that kind of people.

But then he met someone who had been to a clinic in Mumbai, said Frde.

This clinic has promoted itself as an ethical alternative specifically directed at the Scandinavian market.

According to the anthropologist, the clinic has accommodated the western customers wishes. They knew how to talk about and represent things in a way that appealed to Scandinavians. For instance, they had hired a psychologist for the surrogates. This was something that the parents liked, but according to Frde, it was neither useful for nor appreciated by the surrogates.

Benefiting from conversations with a psychologist requires a competence which is strongly connected to a western mind-set and way of living.

But the western adjustment worked; the clinic had many Scandinavian customers.

Many ended up thinking that the ethical problems were related to internal Indian circumstances rather than to surrogacy itself, or to the global relations that facilitate this.

Frde compares it to buying fair trade coffee.

Were looking for ways to compensate for structural inequality. Were all trying to do things on micro level to make up for what is structured on the macro level.

Some had seen or heard gross descriptions of bad conditions and unethical practice, and had reacted to that. But they strongly believed that it was possible to create ethical enclaves within a dirty market. A part of their ethical project was to steer away from the bad actors and find those who sold in ethics as part of their package.

According to Frde, we cant place too much responsibility on individuals.

These parents often face a banal moralism which takes for granted that they are highly self-centred and unscrupulous people, but they are not, she claimed.

They are marginalised people in a society that strongly emphasises the importance of having children.

Its a mistake to assume that those who choose surrogacy are less morally reflective or that they have less integrity than others. The problem is not the individuals weak morals, but the dilemmas that arise when peoples emotions and inner desperate desires become profit. When the market enters these areas of human life, moral integrity and our ability to make assessments are seriously tested, according to the researcher.

But arent these individual acts the basis for the structures on the macro level?

This touches upon a classic debate within the social sciences. I belong to the academic tradition that is interested in how power relations structure our choices and experiences. Our scope of action both our alternatives for action and our repertoire for thinking about the world in which we live are structured by the social relations were born into.

I dont mean to deprive people of their free will, but I dont think transnational surrogacy exists simply because some western individuals have low morals.

According to Frde, it is not only the underprivileged that lack insight into the power relations restricting their lives. The privileged also have difficulties seeing that their experiences and opportunities are shaped by structures they benefit from.

I also went on fieldwork with privileges. I can do my fieldwork because Im an educated white western woman. It was an enormous realisation for me to understand that there is nothing I can do to disclaim my postcolonial privileged position as white. It is written in my body, it is what I am.

But youve become aware of these privileges?

It helps. You can compensate to some extent. The parents were also aware of their privilege. But you cant disclaim privileges as an individual choice, it is impossible.

According to Frde, the moralism dominating the debates on issues such as surrogacy does not bring us any step further.

Ive experienced that people use their energy on moralising rather than looking for causes and solutions on the structural level. But it doesnt help to judge your overworked neighbours because they have an au pair or congratulate yourself because you dont. Again: it reduces phenomena that are founded on global and gendered inequality to questions of individuals moral character. Peoples reproductive marginalisation is also a dilemma that we have to take into consideration.

Perhaps the reality is that some people cant have children, and they just have to accept that?

It is, but who should be excluded from reproduction is a political question and no longer a natural consequence of biological variation, if that has ever been the case. Society already helps people who cant have children on their own through reproductive technology and adoption. As of today, infertile heterosexual and lesbian couples are offered help, whereas homosexual male couples are excluded. This is problematic and should be discussed.

In Frdes material, just over half of the intended parents are gay men.

While the heterosexual couples had been through several attempts to have a baby IVF treatment, adoption surrogacy was often the gay couples first attempt.

To the heterosexuals, surrogacy was often regarded as a sad final stop; they had tried everything and ended up with something far different from what they had first imagined. The gay men had not tried everything and failed at each and every attempt, they did not to the same extent carry the stories of disappointment as part of their baggage, said Frde.

To them it was more like, Wow, we can do this, finally we can also have a child.

Gay men represented a major part of the group who left Scandinavia to go to India for surrogacy until 2015.

The number of couples who are infertile because of the woman is limited, and this is a solution for them. But there are many gay couples who want to become parents, and the fact that commercial surrogacy became a possibility for them contributed to a growing desire for children, says Frde.

The thesis is also based on in-depth interviews with twenty-seven surrogates.

Six of the women were in the process of surrogacy, whereas the rest had finished between four weeks and three years ago. A major part of the women considered becoming surrogates again. Approximately half of them had also donated eggs.

In western debates there have been much discussion concerning the terms we use to talk about surrogates. The Indian women didnt seem to have any strong opinions about this, according to Frde.

American surrogates often have a policy when it comes to the use of terminology, but the Indian women didnt. This may have to do with the fact that their experiences with surrogacy were less articulated. Many of them had barely spoken about their experience with anyone before I interviewed them. They had to a very little degree made use of their language in order to sort out their experiences the way western surrogates seem to have done.

The researcher has deliberately chosen to use the term surrogate instead of surrogate mother.

I think it works, because it leaves open what kind of experience this is, and that it varies between individuals and over time. The term surrogate mother connects the experience to certain connotations in our culture, and does not capture the complex and disparate experience conveyed by the Indian women.

Its not that surrogacy doesnt have anything to do with motherhood, but this was about something completely different from being pregnant with and giving birth to ones own children. Additionally, many experienced that the way in which they perceived their own relation to the child changed through the various phases of the process.

A commonly used argument in favor of surrogacy is that this is a win-win situation. A childless couple gets a baby. A woman, who is often portrayed as independent and capable of making her own choices, chooses to carry and give birth to this child for a sum of money that will put an end to her poverty.

The story about an autonomous woman who chooses to use her body as she pleases and makes money on it does not go down well in the Mumbai slum, Frde emphasised.

These womens stories are about desperation produced by the class society and the Indian patriarchy. They are financially and socially marginalized, and this background is the reason why they become surrogates.

The women that Frde has spoken with are not just poor; they are often poor women who have lost direction in life. Something has gone wrong a sort of social fall, often related to marriage. Their husband has died, theyve gone through a divorce, or their husband is not able to provide for them.

They are forced to make money for their family and their chances for succeeding are extremely low. They have no education and very little experience on the job market. Some have a major debt to pay, such as a hospital bill.

Working as a house cleaner, which was the alternative for many of the women, would only be a drop in the ocean.

Many feel that surrogacy is a chance they have to take. And its important for them to distance themselves from the choice. It was not something they wanted; it was something they had to do.

Just like the so-called intended parents, the surrogates also have to work with ethical dilemmas. They have to make it morally acceptable for themselves to be pregnant with someone elses baby and to give the baby away after birth.

The fact that they are paid for it doesnt make it justifiable, said Frde.

On the contrary, they have to distance it from prostitution and from giving away their child.

The surrogates way of doing this is known from other research. The relation to the pregnancy and the baby must be made into something different from what it normally is. The way in which the child was conceived was central here. The child was a medical baby.

The story they make about the surrogate child is that it is a baby created outside their own body, from medications, which was nourished from medications during pregnancy, and in a way belonged to the medicinal more than to themselves.

And its important for the women to emphasize that theyre not doing it for the sake of the money theyre doing it for the sake of their own children.

Their stories are often quite far from the neoliberal story of reproductive workers in a global market, said Frde.

They go far in making it about a gift economy. The money is not the final station; its a means in order to do good. Being a surrogate becomes equivalent to being a good mother they do this because they are good mothers to their own children.

The women do not present themselves and probably do not think of themselves as modern, liberated women who choose to do what they please with their body, but rather as desperate, powerless mothers who are willing to sacrifice their own health and respectability for their children.

And it is preferable that her surroundings dont know what shes done. There is no acceptance for surrogacy in the local community, and it has been very tough for some of those whose story has been revealed.

The win-win arguments ultimately fail, however, because the money that the women make from being surrogates approximately 30.000 to 35.000 Norwegian kroner when Frde did her field work does not suffice. At least it is not enough to permanently put an end to their poverty.

That is probably the most depressing of all my findings, said Frde.

There are many reasons why the money doesnt suffice, according to the anthropologist. First of all, it is not a huge sum of money in the first place. If the goal is to buy a house, the money from a surrogate pregnancy is not enough to buy property in Mumbai, not even a very humble one. Additionally, many of the women have major debts to pay. Handling large sums of money and making them last are also a skills which might not be within reach for someone who cant read or write, Frde emphasises.

The researcher got particularly close to one of the women whom she has chosen to call Lata in her thesis. Since Lata could speak some English, she and Frde could talk without the use of an interpreter. This led to a different type of contact than with the rest of the women. Lata spent her money on renovating her 12 m2 house. She tiled the floor, bought a fridge, installed a WC and put in a window. Through egg donation, she could later afford to put in a flush button on her WC.

She was proud of it. She said, my children have better lives than before. And her marriage became better as a result, said Frde.

But she didnt have money to implement her original plan, which was to invest in social mobility by sending her children to a better school where they could learn English and qualify for middle class jobs.

She could perhaps have sent one of them to such a school for one or two years instead of renovating the house. Thats how little money it is.

Frde met women who grieved the loss of the baby they had given away for a long time, but this was not the most common experience.

Many described a sense of loss that had more to do with the feeling that they had given something big and received very little in return.

They had helped a child to life with their own bodies; they had given their pain, love, care, and sacrifice. It was like, I have made her a mother, and I am left behind with a life that hasnt changed at all. This was the loss.

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Surrogacy: The Impossible Dream Of A Fair Trade Baby - Eurasia Review

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