Surrogacy – simply the practice of another woman bearing a child for someone who will then keep the child as his or hers to raise – has become a hot political topic in recent years, often claimed to be an important solution for childlessness. In the context of globalisation surrogacy has turned into a transnational business – often described as a so-called “fertility business” – dominated by mostly western couples travelling to “developing countries” to literally rent a woman’s uterus and buy her pregnancy labour. I believe that feminists should take a strong, critical standpoint against this growing business of transnational surrogacy.

There exist a few common myths about surrogacy that we urgently need to dispel. It has been argued that surrogacy, for instance, deconstructs current family norms as it allows for alternative ways of family formation, and that it even liberates women from traditional roles of motherhood. But we must first ask: who are the most common surrogate mothers, and who buys their labour?

India has become one of the world’s largest exporters of “surrogacy babies”. Sociologist Amrita Pande has spent nine months in a “surrogacy clinic” in Anand, India, and gives us many important insights of their working conditions. Many of the surrogate mothers in the clinic are women from poor backgrounds. A frequent number of them describe in interviews how selling pregnancy labour has become the last resort for raising money in order to provide for their family, pay a medical bill or perhaps fund their children’s education. The surrogate labour, naturally, lasts every hour per day and the women have to take a large amount of medication daily. They are paid an average of fifty pence per hour. Every day, the surrogate mothers have to go through what is referred to as “alienation practices” in order to separate themselves from the growing baby in their uteruses. On the receiving end of this industry are the buyers; mostly heterosexual western couples. We must critically question who, in fact, has the privilege of deconstructing traditional family norms and roles of motherhood? If this deconstruction then, by extension, points at simply “outsourcing” the unavoidable labour of childbearing to another woman, I believe it is deeply problematic. Whose liberation is this?

Others have argued that surrogacy labour is a form of emancipation as it brings the workers economic gain and will therefore empower them. Others say that we should not “hinder” women who want to sell their uteruses and pregnancy labour. This argument seems to presuppose that engaging in surrogacy labour is solely an act of free choice. But I want to ask: what is “free choice” in this context, entrenched in the capitalist system of supply and demand? Many liberal feminist strands have claimed that these women actually make autonomous choices, yet autonomy becomes deeply problematic in this context when it is clear that this is a question of an unequal economic hierarchy.

I believe it is therefore crucial to re-consider the language of choice in this context. We must ask why one becomes a surrogate mother, rather than merely looking at the economic benefits it has (and on a side note: is not fifty pence per hour peanuts if we are to talk about economic empowerment?). This issue is often overlooked as it is seen as merely a “contract” between a buyer and seller. Namely, through this contract economic power structures become naturalised, which make it look like an equal relation. And yet, is it an equal relation? We cannot, and should not, ignore global economic power hierarchies when we discuss issues of “choice” and “autonomy”. Seemingly, surrogacy is simply a very long going form of reification. As Pande demonstrates, the surrogate mothers go through the “alienation practices” in order to become separated from the growing baby – everything becomes for the purpose of making surrogacy fit into our perception of labour: she is just a selling product. Yet, she cannot escape sickness, having to take pills everyday. This is very point we must remember when it comes to this very form of labour; the surrogate cannot simply “alienate” herself from the “the product” as the baby grows inside her and because of her. She can never escape from that.

Consequently, to me, transnational surrogacy is nothing else than pure commodification of women’s bodies in an international context – and the business is just growing. It is currently legalised in India, the USA, Israel, Netherlands, Ukraine, Hungary, South Korea and South Africa, and more countries are following the trend. Feminist should strive for a society where we not only question and fight against the commodification of women’s bodies, but also question and challenge generic liberal notions of “free choice” and “autonomy”. I believe feminists must take a clear standpoint on this issue immediately.


Artwork © Alexandra Unger