Why Brits? Why India?

Julie Bindel had a piece in The Guardian the other day about India’s surrogate mothers.  It makes for pretty grim reading.  Even if the surrogates are paid, and are paid more than they might otherwise have earned, there’s still a range of problems that the piece makes clear.

For one thing, the background of the surrogates is an important factor.  Bindel writes that

[s]urrogates are paid about £4,500 to rent their wombs at this particular clinic, a huge amount in a country where, in 2012, average monthly earnings stood at $215.

It’s tempting, at first glance, to look at the opportunity to be a surrogate as a good thing in this context: these women are earning, by comparative standards, good money.  But, of course, you have to keep in mind that the standard is comparative.  If your choice is between doing something you wouldn’t otherwise do and penury, doing the thing you wouldn’t otherwise do looks like the better option.  But “better option” doesn’t imply “good option”.  So there’s more to be said there; more questions to be asked.  Choosing x over y because y is more awful doesn’t mean that x isn’t.  It might be a good thing; but it might not be.  There might be economic – structural – coercion.  Choosing to become a surrogate might be a symptom of there being no better alternative.

A related question is this: are the women really making a free choice in offering their reproductive labour even assuming that the terms are economically just?  Possibly not:

I have heard several stories of women being forced or coerced into surrogacy by husbands or even pimps, and ask Mehta if she is aware of this happening.  “Without the husbands’ [of the surrogates] consent we don’t do surrogacy.”

Note (a) the non-denial, and (b) the tacit acceptance that it’s the husband’s decision anyway.  That’s not good.

(In a wholly different context, I’ve recently been reading David Luban’s Lawyers and Justice, and – in a discussion about lawyers cross-examining complainants in rape cases, he makes this point:

([H]ere we have two people who are confronted by powerful institutions from which protection is needed.  The defendant is confronted by the state [that is: in any criminal trial, the defendant does need protection from the power of the state – IB], but the victim is confronted by the millennia-long cultural tradition of patriarchy, which makes the cliché that the victim is on trial true.  From the point of view of classical liberalism, according to which the significant enemy is the state, this cannot matter. But from the point of view of the progressive correction of classical liberalism, any powerful social institution is a threat, including diffuse yet tangible institutions such as patriarchy. (p 151)

(The sentiment would seem to apply here.  A view of human agency that sees liberty as being mainly or only about avoiding state interference is likely to miss all kinds of much more subtle, insidious pressures that are liberty-limiting.  Economic factors are such pressures.  The idea of the wife as property is another.)

I do wonder if readers of this blog might help out with answering one more question, though.  One of the startling claims is that

[a]pproximately 12,000 foreigners come to India each year to hire surrogates, many of them from the UK.

I don’t know how many “many” is, but let’s take as read that it’s more than none.  It’s a statistic that raises a question for Ophelia Benson over at Butterflies and Wheels:

Why India? Why not hire surrogates at home?

Because India has a lot of poor people, that’s why. Because the price is a fifth of what it would be at home. Because it’s a perfect setup for rich pale people to exploit very poor brown women.

I don’t think that that’s quite got it.  As I commented on Ophelia’s piece, this wouldn’t easily explain the UK factor.  As the article makes clear, commercial surrogacy is illegal here; surrogates are allowed only to recoup reasonable expenses.  Surrogacyuk.org suggests £7000 – £15000 as a guide for the “price” (I know I shouldn’t use that word, but you know what I mean) in the UK; but if Indian surrogates are paid £4500, and the clinic is still making up to £18000 on the transaction (assuming I’ve not misread the article), the Indian market is likely to be more expensive for commissioners, even without the cost of travelling to India to begin with.

So why do Brits use Indian surrogates?

Here’s a hypothesis.  In the UK, surrogacy arrangements aren’t enforceable, the woman who gives birth is automatically recognised as the mother, and a Parental Order is required for the commissioning mother/ couple to be legally recognised as having parental status.  I don’t know what the legal niceties are in India, but my guess is that that side of things is probably a bit easier to deal with.  After all, if the procedure there is as free-wheeling as Bindel suggests, keeping track of exactly who gave birth to whom and with whose eggs isn’t going to be foolproof.

Is that it?  Is there any other reason why people from the UK might commission an Indian surrogate mother?