- Transnational Surrogacy in IndiaInterrogating Power and Women’s Agency
On a sweltering summer day in 2010 I sat in a restaurant on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, with Nishi, a young woman preparing to become a surrogate mother for a foreign couple outside of India. Though not yet pregnant, Nishi was hoping to enter the world of transnational surrogacy, in which would-be parents from around the world travel to India to make babies through in vitro fertilization (ivf), egg donation, and gestational surrogacy. India made commercial surrogacy legal a decade ago in an effort to boost the medical tourism industry; since then hundreds of women like Nishi have found their way into this global market, transacting their bodies, body parts, and reproductive labor in exchange for the monetary payment they hope will ease their families’ financial burdens.
Nishi told me of how she had separated from her husband four years earlier; separation and divorce remain unusual in India, particularly among workingclass women like Nishi, but several women in my study had left their husbands, some of whom had been abusive. Indeed, as one fertility doctor I interviewed explained, “You’d be surprised at the number of separations and divorces that are happening [among lower-class women]. … After we started doing surrogacy in the past three years, we realized that about 30–40 percent of them are separated.” This doctor asserted that most of these women walk out of their marriages because of abuse and alcoholism; Nishi’s case proved typical.
Following her separation from her husband, Nishi struck up a friendship with Nikhil, a young man from south India who managed an electronics shop in Mumbai. As their friendship evolved into a romantic relationship, Nikhil supported Nishi and her two daughters in times of need. Nishi shared that she felt she also should support Nikhil, whom she planned to eventually marry. When Nishi learned about surrogacy, she viewed it as a potential financial windfall for her and her family and began preparing for surrogacy without telling Nikhil. When she told Nikhil of her surrogacy plans, he disapproved: [End Page 167] “He is not agreeing to it. He says don’t do this; he thinks it is illegal. Yet I am trying to convince him somehow and I am trying. I also told him that everything has been done. I told him I have done the et [embryo transfer] and I cannot go back now. So, he is sitting quietly now, not saying anything.” In fact, at the time of our interview Nishi had not yet undergone embryo transfer. She was still in the preparatory phases: taking hormone injections and undergoing tests and procedures to determine her viability as a candidate for surrogacy. Why did Nishi deceive Nikhil?
What are the strategies that Indian women contemplating surrogacy employ to negotiate and respond to the structural and social constraints they face daily? How do women enact agency in their efforts to meet or secure their self-defined needs and desires, even as their efforts may maintain structures of inequality? And what are the consequences of such acts of agency, particularly as they challenge cultural norms and expectations? This article addresses these questions by tracing the complexities of agency, constraint, and inequality in the lives of women who pursue surrogacy in India.
The views and experiences of women I spoke with resist reduction to simplistic stereotypes and binary oppositions between agent and victim, rich and poor, East and West; indeed, the more I learned about surrogacy in India throughout my fieldwork, the more inadequate these notions became. I contrast the stories of Nishi and her friend Antara, a surrogate agent, whose personal narratives regarding surrogacy and the circumstances that motivated them to become gestational surrogates buttress the point that the global surrogacy industry reflects and reinforces a broader stratification of reproduction. At the same time, however, their narratives reveal the complexities of women’s lives and fend off the temptation to portray them as victims. This article shows how women indeed find ways to resist dominant constructions of surrogates as powerless victims. I argue that in expressing forms of resistance and individual and collective agency, women find ways...