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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Making sense of surrogacy

Gita Aravamudan’s “Baby Makers” explores in depth the changing notion of motherhood and the complex ethical issues involved in surrogacy. We live in a world where mothers are no longer who we traditionally thought they were: now women’s wombs like houses can be rented, mothers are sourced and surrogates relinquish parental rights over the children they bear.

Nor do we live in that simple world where the act of conceiving requires sexual intercourse between a man and woman. Babies can be produced without sex and they can also be produced for couples of the same sex. We have now entered an age in which reproduction is not a mere biological natural activity but a commodity, a flourishing business where agreements are signed between parties, and deals, if broken, can be met with devastating consequences.

Baby making can even become a full-time occupation for some women. There are women in Aravamudan’s stories who sell their eggs and produce children in quick succession because they feel it pays well, feeds hungry poor families and is gratifying.

To make a baby, the journalist-author finds, requires crisscrossing nations, meeting strangers in unknown lands and from alien cultures — an effort that is accompanied by many problems too. She explores these through personal narratives: couples attempt to manoeuvre their way through hazy ethics, surrogates wrestle with conflicting emotions, governments and courts stand as obstacles to babies grappling with problems of nationality and citizenship. Also, couples try hard to justify their unconventional decisions to friends and families and are forced to trust strangers with crucial decisions.

Baby makers, apart from being a guide to understanding surrogacy in India, is also sociologically interesting as it explores the lives of those with money (often the couples) and those without (often the surrogates). Manisha, a Nepali, whose sister Bina tells her how she sold her eggs in Mumbai and is ready to bear a child, is horrified when her sister suggests that she try it. How are eggs even sold, she wonders. Does it involve physical contact with another man? Do husbands mind their wives bearing children for other couples, she asks Bina. “Isn’t it better than selling one’s own body?” Bina replies. She manages to convince Manisha — her fair skin and good looks will be much sought after, she says. However, we learn in the end that by being forced to donate more and more eggs, much more than her fragile body can handle, Manisha becomes sick. The surrogates’ situation is juxtaposed with the couples who come to clinics in Anand in Gujarat, or in Mumbai — they are all rich.

However, Aravamudan does not reveal her opinions or say that surrogacy is indeed exploitation. She takes great pains to stay clear of opinion and reveal both sides of the picture in every story. She says the book is “a non-judgmental, open-minded enquiry into surrogacy laws (rather, the lack of them)…” And indeed it is. We also read a lot of what we already know about India. To foreigners, surrogacy in India is an inexpensive process compared to their countries. Laws are still fledgling here and can be circumvented and the industry is booming. India may be “poor and filthy,” as a U.S. woman Cathy ponders, but she goes there anyway after watching Oprah’s show “Sperms in an autorickshaw.”

To Indians who consider the option, there are different kinds of problems. They are met with horror-struck parents and discouraging friends. The woman is always blamed for not being able to produce. We see this in a partially literate girl’s parents-in-law simply asking their son to marry again if he wants children, and a Tamil Brahmin couple constantly grumbling that their daughter-in-law is “issueless.”

A feminist friend in one story launches into a tirade on the abject commodification of women. “You don’t have to prove that you’re a woman by producing a genetically related child,” she says to a confused Meena to which the latter retorts, “You have proved yourself as a woman. You have produced two sons. You can afford to talk and preach.” These stories show how important a functional womb continues to be in defining the woman’s role in society.

We also read about other countries and their surrogacy laws. In the U.S., surrogacy is expensive and there are legal tangles; Korea, we find, is like India, where “women are defined by their womb and their ability to reproduce gives them their status in society.” Girl children are unwanted and Koreans ask if sex can be determined before birth.

A couple living in Australia discover after they get their child that their DNA needs to be tested and preferably in their country. Further, the baby requires DNA testing in Delhi or Mumbai by “specific panel doctors only, failing which citizenship will not be granted to the child.” “Developing" countries like India and Thailand and East European countries like Czech Republic have surrogacy laws in place, but the more developed countries like the U.S. don't.

Apart from these facts that are revealed through Aravamudan’s reportage, we also learn about landmark cases in surrogacy that gave rise to more difficult questions — the Elizabeth Kane case, the Baby Manji case, the Pearl Linda Van Buren Green case and the Baby M case, among others. These provide context to the stories and help in understanding why surrogacy laws are so complicated.

“Baby makers” is written in simple prose. Aravamudan, who describes the process of writing the book as being “akin to stepping into a swirling whirlpool” seems to want to drive home her point in as basic a manner as possible. But given that there is so much information to pack in such little space, and given the necessity to address all the complexities in the subject — that really do make it a “whirlpool” — this style makes for easy reading. Interlude 5 in the book alone stands out oddly though, for all that could not be incorporated in the rest of the book seems to have spilt over here. But for that, “Baby Makers” is informative, well-researched and compelling.


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