Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Anonymous Womb: The ‘Construction’ of the Surrogate Mother in the Indian Media

 - Anindita Majumdar

Between the Indian media construction of the “horror story” where the surrogate mother is the exploited poor woman, and her image as the woman-in-need of financial help––there is the anonymous surrogate who is unable to tell her story. 

May 2012. Surrogate Premila Vaghela, 30, gets a stray mention in a few Indian dailies on her ‘unaccounted for’ death while giving birth to the child of a US citizen. The IVF specialist is clueless about why she died “suddenly”, but at least they were able to save the baby through a C-section. The American woman who had commissioned the surrogacy comes quietly to pick up her child and leaves even more quietly. December 2011. Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao welcomed their newborn through IVF-surrogacy. There was a lot of fanfare about how Khan-Rao had now spearheaded a trend wherein childless couples could overcome their stigma and ‘openly hire’ a surrogate. But there was no mention of the surrogate. The mother was Kiran Rao and the surrogate was aligned with the technology––a by-the-way. The Indian media did not insist on knowing about her, or even seek Khan and Rao’s feelings about this mystery woman. Aamir Khan, in turn, in his press release following the birth thanked everyone, but the anonymous surrogate mother. She just did not exist except in the phrase “IVF-surrogacy”.

The Indian surrogacy “industry” pegged at an astounding £1.5 billion a year has been in the news for all the reasons that make it great fodder for news stories. There are several aspects to this story. There is the largely international clientele from the developed world––infertile couples seeking to have a family. Then there is the state-of-the-art IVF treatment facility which sells itself on its professional and qualified specialists and comparatively low prices. And finally, there is the Indian surrogate who at less than half the price of the American surrogate, is willing to carry your foetus for nine months.

The Indian surrogate is carrying your foetus––wherever you are––for money. She is desperate, poor and needs to have your money to realise her own and her children’s dreams. The Indian media’s latest salvation project is the poor Indian woman who has to carry your baby because she needs financial help. She is willing to sacrifice this child (genetically not hers, as most reports insist, in fine print) for the sake of her children.

The media, both electronic and print, has lapped up this story in good faith. Yet, the representation of the surrogate woman is intermittently placed within a rhetoric that traverses between the extremes of exploitation and plain absence. The construction of the surrogate is part of these extreme representations where she is part of a plot in which she is often subordinate to: the market, the family, the infertile couple and medical technology.

The Narrative of the Desperate Woman
The ways in which the market comes to be the leitmotif in discussions of the Indian surrogate’s motivation is very telling. In exclusive profiles on the surrogate, the fees that she is given––and interestingly not what she charges––is always the focus. That she has no say in her fees is amply clear––there is no scope for bargaining either. The IVF clinic/agents and the infertile couple decide on a standardised fee. But this is never really amply explored.

In most of the narratives, her husband is a failed man and she has to take up this demeaning, stigmatised work due to dire circumstances. The surrogate mother is built into the image of the sacrificial Indian mother––for the sake of her family she will go to any lengths, within respectable limits, of course. Such a narrative constructs her in a way that sells surrogacy as divergent from prostitution, but more on the lines of organ “donation”. Thanks to IVF technology, Vimla, Sudha and others can carry someone else’s child without necessarily ‘prostituting’ themselves. Framed on such lines, the Indian surrogate mother is the subject of sympathy––not derision.

Susan Markens (2010–11) finds the American media buying into the ‘poor victim’ discourse with much fervour. Unfortunately, she finds that the same media has a very unkind stance towards the American surrogate. The poor American woman who becomes a surrogate is pictured as the single mother living on state welfare and surrogating to escape working. The media places the American woman who agrees to surrogate for altruistic purposes (namely to give the “joy” of a child to a childless couple) as the most suitable candidate––only next to hiring the poor Indian woman. The differential and myopic representation of surrogates in the West and in India places women within the clause of deserving and undeserving thereby unfairly qualifying their poverty.

Narratives of Anonymity
The Indian surrogacy story is discomfiting. It is lucrative, growing as a practice but yet unnerving. That hint of squeamishness is exacerbated in stories of the pregnant surrogate being under house-arrest for nine months (to monitor diet and “behavior”), and being subject to a potentially lethal cocktail of hormonal drugs, and possibly invasive surgery. The Indian media goes from selling the surrogacy story to highlighting its “horrors”. The horror story places her as a victim, again. Subject to the machinations of IVF specialists, ruthless agents, inconsiderate family and distant commissioning couples––the surrogate is subject to life-threatening technology to which she acquiesces. There are no stories of rebellion, and demand for information and participation.

Yet, the documentary film Made in India (directors Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha, 2010) shows how an Indian surrogate negotiates and negotiates for more pay for having given birth to twins for an American couple. Similarly, Amrita Pande (2009) finds that despite being “trained” to believe that she is merely a vessel for the baby, and it does not belong to her, most surrogates believe that the baby is more theirs than the adoptive mothers. They feed and nurture the foetus for nine months making him/ her their own “blood”. On NDTV 24X7’s “We the People” discussion on surrogacy, amongst the multiple voices of the IVF specialist, the activist, the couple, the journalist, the agent and the academic, no one takes the lone voice of the surrogate––masked, anonymous––seriously. For the activist, she is parroting the line the doctor taught her. For the IVF specialist, she is too poor and too ignorant to be taken seriously. And for the couple who hire her: she-is-“OK”-with-it-so-what’s-your-problem.

The anonymity of the surrogate is the biggest lacunae in news stories on surrogacy. She is non-existent in the successful portrayals of all the happy couples who have had children through surrogacy. Pictures of couples with the newborn(s) and the IVF specialist show who the real players in the surrogacy arrangement really are. Ever since the media hit on how popular the Indian surrogacy industry has become for foreign gay couples (primarily men) who can have children through a surrogate––most success stories focus on the new fathers and the baby. There is no mention of the surrogate, except for a fleeting reference.

The ways in which the Indian surrogate is represented in the media puts her in frames of reference that do not really focus on her. Elly Teman (2008), academic, finds that research on surrogates suffers from social constructivism that places her as abnormal, unnatural and going against the grain of motherhood. A “normal” mother “naturally” will never want to give up her child. So it is only for extraneous unnatural reasons that the surrogate would do what she is doing. News reports too seem to be falling for a kind of construction where they reduce the surrogate, literally, to her womb.      

The horrors of surrogacy and the absence of the surrogate mother in news stories miss out on one very essential thing––her voice, the surrogate’s own voice. It’s bad enough that no one else listens, and that they have to parrot the line given by the IVF specialist, the husband or the activist––but to miss out on why she does what she does is the vacuum in the great Indian surrogacy story. To stereotype and sensationalise is to benefit those who are out to exploit the situation on behalf of the surrogate––primarily the IVF-surrogacy industry. And to call it ‘womb renting”, “organ renting”, “wombs on hire”, “cash on delivery”, “reproductive outsourcing”, “outsourcing the womb” is to demean all those women who are trying really hard to stay relevant in an arrangement that is difficult to survive in anyway. 

Markens, Susan (2010–11): “Interrogating Narratives about the Global Surrogacy Market”, The Scholar and Feminist Online, 9(1–2).
Pande, Amrita (2009): “ ‘It May Be Her Eggs But It’s My Blood’: Surrogates and Everyday Forms of Kinship in India”, Qualitative Sociology, 32: 379–397.
Teman. Elly (2008): “The Social Construction of Surrogacy Research: An Anthropological Critique of the Psychosocial Scholarship on Surrogate Motherhood”, Social Science and Medicine, 67: 1104–1112.  


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