Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Life, for Rent

There is this Marathi soap that the MIL watches called Anubandh. I have occasionally caught snippets of the story and it seems to be tackling a fairly controversial and topical issue – that of surrogacy.

A very-very middle class single girl finds herself in some dire financial straits (don’t have the background on the hows and whys) and agrees to become a surrogate mother for a very rich couple who cannot have a child (for a whooping fee of course). She seems to be doing this unknown to her very conservative brother and his rather shrewish wife and her fiancĂ© who is away studying in the US. Right now, the girl has just got pregnant – and I assume the plot will try and address the various conflicts which arise from this decision of hers.

And I started thinking about this surrogacy thing. It’s an interesting dilemma – on the one hand, you have the anguish of a woman who is desperate to have a child by any means and cannot do so, (Lets not even get into the societal aspect of barrenness and infertility in India) .On the other hand, you have another woman who is forced to lease out and almost give up her rights (for those nine months) on the absolutely most personal possession she has – her body.

Let me take the surrogate mothers bit in this post.

My first and gut reaction is that it is absolute, unforgivable violation. I would put almost on par with rape and/or prostitution. I know logically, rationally, mentally the two are nowhere similar – rape on the face of it is forced physical intimidation – which is violent and without the consent of the victim. Surrogacy is a consensual contract – the surrogate knows exactly what is it that she is getting into charges a compensation for that – there is no coercion, there is no physical violation and it is certainly done with her buy in.

But doesn’t the fact remain that in both cases, there is a superior strength (physical in some cases, financial in the other) which dictates the balance of power? In both cases, while the act and deed might be completely physical - the ramifications are as much emotional and mental and far outlive the duration of the act. (I am no expert, but I find it difficult to believe that any female can carry a child in the womb for nine months, go through labour and then part with the child without emotional cataclysm).

And let’s look at some of the other aspects- the physicality of it for one. In the normal course of things, a woman is pregnant with her own child – a part of herself, who is for those months sharing residence with her in her body – so yes, she needs to compromise and sacrifice and maybe do a number of things or cease to do a number of things because she is sharing premises – to give a loose analogy, similar to what she would be doing with a spouse or a family member. But would the same feelings, compromises, sacrifices be possible (with the same level of emotion) with say a paying guest (and an unknown one at that), who is sharing the room? Wont the value equations, (This much money, this is what I will do), or even worse, resentment start coming into the picture at SOME point of time?

One could argue that it is the woman’s body and she is free to do as she please with it – but by that logic what is stopping someone else from selling a kidney because of financial imperatives – it’s his or her body after all. You can carry the argument further and say that a kidney donation is life threatening and will seriously debilitate the donor – but isn’t the same true for multiple pregnancies as well? (Hell, my grandmother had 12 pregnancies and 13 kids from them and that left her physically exceedingly frail). There are always risks, of dying in childbirth, or physiological complications and infections. (And I think it is fair to assume that if someone is financially compelled to rent out the womb, chances are she might not have access to five star medical care and comfort during the tenure)

And there are so many other ethical and moral questions which this throws up.

What if the child is less than perfect(God forbid). Do the parents have a right to walk away asking for a refund? Whose responsibility IS it – the fault of the genes or is it some problem in the time the foetus was in the womb?

What if the parents who have initiated it (the non-surrogates) for whatever reason decide to part ways – can they lose the accountability for the kid just because they don’t have the physical experience of having the kid (I vaguely remember reading a case like this sometime back)

What is to stop family members from using women as breeding machines to get that money?

What is to stop potential leasers of wombs from evaluating the prospects for suitability for surrogacy – (much as one would evaluate cattle or slaves in olden times). Isn’t that the ultimate degradation and commoditization of the women?

Frankly I don’t buy the altruism argument. I do not think that the females who become surrogates for financial compensation do so because they want to allow someone to have the joy of parenthood. The reason they do it is because they have mouths to feed or kids to educate or some other pressing financial needs – and leasing their body out is the only way for them to do so ( doesn’t it sound again uncannily like prostitution? Only for a cause which is less sordid)

As I was writing this post, I came across an article in Marie Claire – about how Anand in gujurat has become a surrogacy shop – foreign and non-resident tourists come here to outsource the pregnancy. The doctor who was running the show gave one glib line about how this money gave the woman the “first taste of empowerment”. Those nine months could have been utilized in giving her some training, some skills which would be genuine empowerment and would last beyond those $5000 that she gets for renting her womb out isn’t it?

Having said that I have all the sympathy in the world for those people who unfortunately cannot bear children of their own. I can even understand the motivation behind wanting the child to carry their genes as opposed to adopting an unknown orphan. But somehow I wish there was a way to do it without exploitation of poor, uneducated women.

What do you think?


narendra shenoy said...

Superbly written. Agreed with everything!

Thanatos said...

Hmm, good post.

@ Surrogate mothers : It's not rape. If it's consensual, it's not rape. We can discuss ethics all day long, but I'd make the very same argument you made to say its not okay - that it's her body. People have sold kidneys before and will continue to do so. I was honestly tempted to sell my blood plasma once, so yeah, gotta say - it's the person's prerogative to use his mind or body.

People sell their minds (kinda) and time everyday to some employer, how's that any different or more acceptable than selling their bodies?

As far as the post-birth-what-if scenarios are concerned, surrogate all parties need elaborate legal paperwork, but doubt if that can be enforced very well.

How much can you empower a woman with little or no education living in dire poverty? How much further will vocational training take her beyond what $5,000 can take her?

Pinku said...

you have raised some very difficult questions...which I cant say i have answers to.

Though I do have a question : The empowerment of the surrogate mom is all very well but how much empowered does the doc get with each such procedure??

Dreamer said...

I agree with almost all your points. This is an issue which always leaves me confused. The surrogate is almost always a willing party. But I cannot even begin to imagine what she has to go through for money. But sometimes money is not involved. I read and hear about family members like the woman's mother or sister willing to be a surrogate, to help out. I guess that scenario is at least slightly more rewarding as the birth mother can actually see the child and the family.
Unscrupulous medics trying to make a fast buck and passing it off as "empowerment" is just crap.

mentalie said...

i'm with you, cynic. while i think the prostitution line of argument confuses the moral issue at hand, there is no doubt that those poor women are being exploited like lab rats.

popsie said...

Very well written post. A pleasure to read!

As for "What if the parents who have initiated it (the non-surrogates) for whatever reason decide to part ways – can they lose the accountability for the kid just because they don’t have the physical experience of having the kid": there was a similar situation in the movie "Juno".

You've raised very pertinent questions. Exploitation or not:am unsure. It is a conscious and difficult choice.

popsie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Soulmate said...

This post reminded me of the movie: Filhaal by Meghna Gulzar.. It was about surrogate motherhood.. the only difference there was Sushmita gets into it for her friend and not out of financial crisis. It was more of emotional rather than financial.

Kanchan said...

This is what I'll call as "grey". One cannot mark it as white or black.

Being a female myself, I would say rather to rent a mother to carry your baby, pick someone who don't have a mother. Believe me, its all about mind-set. I don't think emotions have to do anything with genes. Love is unconditional. Going against nature cannot do any good to anyone. We need to accept and love those who really need it the most.

AmitL said...

Great post,Cyn..honestly, send it to one of the mags-maybe Marie Claire itself,as a reaction to the anand surrogacy shop article..it'll surely be printed.:)(Want me to do it?Gimme ur address...I'll send it in ur name..:))
But honestly, looking at two sides of the coin make me feel that if it's done for the purpose of helping someone and also to come out of financial troubles(for the surrogate mother)- well, it somehow makes sense. However, when it's greed that is at the source of such surrogacy, it needs to be penalized...but,who will judge?It's like blood donation- people go selflessly and donate. Some sell it regularly- to make two ends meet or to buy desi drinks for themselves...Sigh!!There's no 'good'or'bad' answer,I guess.

Maddy said...

many years ago (1989) there was a brilliant Malayalam film that dealt with this subject beautifully - it was called Dasaratham..See it if you can..surely available with subtitles from moser baer.

But well, this has been there since ages, willful impregnation for progeny - that is. Starting with epics, it was seen in all cultures actually. But as a business, well, it is just starting to boom, and I agree, wrongfully.

Then again, if you can sell body parts and as the oldest profession,the body for pleasure, why not the body for childbirth? this one is safer and not so harmful compared to the former. I am not for it, but I am just pointing put the irony..

So long as there is a method to make money, humans will go for it, right or wrong. that is what modern society dictates...

Parul said...

I read this when you published it and wanted to comment then itself. Brilliantly written, I thought.
There was this instance in my mom's circle where a lady suffered from breast cancer and could not have children. Her sister acted as surrogate to give them a baby girl. The couple brought up the child very well but the cancer patient succumbed to her illness after a few years. The girl went back to her birth mother. A complicated, complex person possibly and most likely due to the circumstances of her birth. You are right, it must be impossible to part with a child however much one has prepared oneself. Again, very well written.

Trauma Queen said...

excellent piece!

you have brought up points I have never even thought of before. but what of surrogacy that is the result of altruism (as is the case with Phoebe Buffet from Friends)? Though monetary reasons are the main reason I agree....especially the bit about outsourcing pregnancy! sheesh! Desperate housewives also touched upon the same questions you brought up....Gabrielle and Carlos, a Hispanic couple, get their Chinese domestic help to be the surrogate mom for a good lump sum of money (and she is a virgin mind you..), but she ends up giving birth to a black baby cos of a mess-up by the doc.

Yes it is about power, but then does this not extend to adoption? And might I add..if it is oay to sell kidneys and lend wombs, why are euthanasia and suicide such a big deal? Might as well give people the right to end their lives right?

Morpheus said...

There was a recent story in one of the british newspapers about 'womb for sale'. It did raise some of the questions here. The problem of poverty is overcome in many different ways by people. Women being the weakest and most ignored segement of society often pay the highest price in terms of exploitation. Though I would not compare it to prostitution at all..which is an entirely different ball game and comes with many other societal implications...

Vibhuti B said...

I dont think Ive come across a single other blog that may have discussed and analyzed this subject with such maturity of thought...
Really superb!
Kudos alllll the way....

Arunima said...

very mature post! enjoyed all the comments too.

Animesh Kulkarni said...

No doubt at all on the powerful way that it is written. Unique & brave topic.

You did say that the impact this action can have on the surrogate mother lives longer than those 9 months. But what if the impact is a good one?

They say that giving & sharing is very divine, peaceful & soul-soothing act. So if everything works well (the chances of which are not very bad), why should we forget the extreme happiness which the lady would enjoy?

If you follow F.R.I.E.N.D.S you would remember......
Phoebe is approached by her step-bro & his wife to be surrogate mother of their would-be kids. to make her realise the importance of the incidence, Phoebe's mom gives her a puppy, but just for 3 days. when her bro & his wife come to visit her she sees them happy with the pup. & its then that she decides...."Look at them, and I made that, so… I know it’s gonna be like a million times harder to give up a baby but, oh my God, it’s gonna feel like a million times better, right? I wanna do this. I wanna carry your baby."

roop said...

as always, loved reading you!!! and the comments! :)

no opinion. confused as always.

Cynic in Wonderland said...

Hi all, lots of chaos happening so have not posted, commented, or visited any blogs or commented on any blogs. Pls excuse and pls bear with me. Will reply individually soon!