Saint or sufferer?: Challenging caricatures of surrogates transnationally

Kaja Aagaard



In 2010, Vaishali Sinha and Rebecca Haimowitz set out to tell the stories of Indian surrogates in a rich documentary about global reproductive medicine and structural violence. Yet, as I watched a YouTube trailer for the film, it was the public comments section beneath the video window that grabbed my attention. What emerged in those posts were vociferous, highly emotional, and polarized points of view. Surrogacy was both condemned and applauded with gusto:


“If you’re infertile, you deserve your own bundle of joy. For those that conceive easily, they just don’t understand.”


“Surrogates that are paid in any country are generally doing it as a result of poverty. Women generally don’t rent out their uteruses to supplement their investment banking income.”


“There’s thousands of kids out there who need the love you could give. But I also understand the feeling it is to have your own kids. Your own child made of your own DNA is a feeling you can’t recreate.”


YouTube comments, “Made in India” film trailer, posted in 2010 and 2011


I had stumbled upon an unexpected and compelling compilation of social opinions and cultural sentiments about international surrogacy.


What’s more, as I dove deeper into the anthropology of reproduction, I frequently encountered articles by scholars bearing as much emotion as these YouTube comments. Every passionate analysis was quickly contradicted by a subsequent article, to the extent that days of digging through literature brought me no closer to answering my research question: Is surrogacy ever freeing for women, or is it always exploitative (Whittaker 2019; Saravanan 2018)?


I came to realize that the “good-bad” dichotomy of surrogacy debates, as they are commonly framed in both academic and popular contexts, is problematic. In the myopic narrative that these dichotomies produce, surrogates’ views are usually missing. Instead, polarized depictions of surrogacy—such as representations of surrogacy as an act of ultimate love or abject exploitation—lead to a caricaturizing of surrogates across social and academic media. In these sites, surrogates may only play two roles: benevolent heroine and helpless victim. Yet, while their bodies become subjects of popular discourse, their voices are muted.


As I sought to make space for surrogates’ stories in my research, I hoped not to speak for them. They are complex individuals, and their stories are best told as equally complex: journeys that carried them through diverse encounters, spatiotemporal “scapes,” and emotional states (Appadurai 1990). Experiences of surrogacy are highly particularized to place and person such that the process potentiates both exploitation and empowerment—and often both at once.


Social media is a critical space to see these complexities at work. People increasingly use platforms like YouTube, personal blogs and support sites like Resolve, Daily Strength, and the Bump, to tell intimate stories about the social and economic complexities of IVF, surrogacy, gamete donation, and parenting. To sufficiently document and understand these perspectives, critical online ethnography has become essential. Here, I hope to complicate narrative polarization with more tangled, unexpected stories—from the lips (and typing fingertips) of surrogates themselves.




The US is one of few countries in the Global North to allow commercial surrogacy. One surrogacy-friendly state is California, where a majority of surrogates are white, middle-class, married, cisgender women. Relationships between these women and intended parents are usually defined in positive, emotional terms: surrogates are interested in helping to create loving families and financial exchanges are abstracted as “gifts” (Levine 2003; Bromfield 2016; Gunnarsson et al 2020). In such a geography, where reproductive assistance is typically only available to those who can afford it, a discourse of artificially-altruistic surrogacy emerges.


But surrogates are also challenging images of altruism through a growing blog network. Their digital storytelling uses visuals (e.g., a cartoon of a pregnant Rosie the Riveter) and language (exaltations of a “divine” ability and kindred “surro-sisters”) to position their work as a new category of exceptionally skilled and special labor. Surrogates’ posts express sentiments of generosity in tandem with pride, exclusivity, and self-assurance that challenge idealized images of sacrifice or self-compromise. American surrogates’ digital stories at once complicate, refuse, and reinforce the social and emotional norms entailed in reproductive economies.


In contrast with California surrogate bloggers, surrogates in India are embedded in caste and class precarities and histories of colonialism, racism, and market medicine that deeply stratify women’s reproductive experiences. The current geography of Indian surrogacy is also entangled in relations of transnational capitalism and “repro-travel” (Inhorn 2015). As a result, a growing number of surrogacy intermediaries, like fertility clinics and surrogacy brokers, reap incredible profits from the industry (Saravanan 2018). In stark contrast to California, the structures of violence that shape Indian surrogacy contribute to an explicitly commercialized and clearly exploitative version of the practice.


Indian surrogates’ stories are also often told by ethnographers and filmmakers, who produce content inscribed with themes of labor, longing, sweat, and blood (Pande 2015; Sinha 2010). Yet, rendering motifs of exploitation at an individual level is complicated. In one scene in Sinha and Haimowitz’s film, a Gujarati mother demonstrates immense relational affect through her bodily sacrifice (and subsequent financial gain): love for her own children, hope for their futures, and a longing to be a “good mother”—even as she must eventually give up the child whom she carries. Many Indian surrogates use therapeutic narratives of biological and relational intimacy to struggle against their ontologically distressing work: “It may be her [intended mother’s] eggs but it’s my sweat and blood” (Pande 2015).





In reproductive health policy debates, a kind of ethical calculus is performed—when is surrogacy okay and when is it not? This approach quantifies a surrogate’s autonomy to facilitate a more technocratic, rights based, and humanitarian agenda. Sociolegal interventions are often facilitated by such structural analysis, and real gains can be made for reproductive justice work. Yet, nuances of emotion and personhood—of what it feels like to experience exploitation and empowerment—and the meaning-making associated with those experiences are obscured. Just as seemingly altruistic American surrogacy is complicated by commercial interest, the Indian surrogacy biomarket does not act upon passive surrogates but is negotiated and interpreted by women in highly personalized ways. Critiques and experiences of surrogacy tend to get concealed by common caricatures—the heroine, the victim; but these fail to appreciate powerful identities of personhood, e.g., the “divine” family maker, the “good mother,” that women use to construct and navigate life across a range of literary, digital, and therapeutic landscapes today.



References


Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Theory, Culture & Society 7(2-3): 295-310.


Bromfield, Nicole. 2016. “‘Surrogacy has Been One of the Most Rewarding Experiences in My Life’: A Content Analysis of Blogs by U.S. Commercial Gestational Surrogates.” International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, (9)1: 192-217.


Gunnarson Payne, Jenny, Elzbieta Korolczuk, and Signe Mezinska. 2020. “Surrogacy relationships: a critical interpretive review.” Upsala Journal of Medical Sciences, 125(2): 183-191.


Inhorn, Marcia. 2015. Cosmopolitan Conceptions: IVF Sojourns in Global Dubai. Durham NC: Duke.


Levine, Hal. 2003. “Gestational Surrogacy: Nature and Culture in Kinship.” Ethnology, 42(3): 173-185.


Pande, Amrita. 2015. “Blood, Sweat and Dummy Tummies: Kin Labour and Transnational Surrogacy in India.” Anthropologica, 57(1): 53-62.


Saravanan, Sheela. 2018. A Transnational Feminist View of Surrogacy Biomarkets in India. Singapore: Springer.


Sinha, Vaishali. 2010. “Made in India, Film Trailer,” YouTube video, 2:55. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_k_h-Z-Lv2c.


Whittaker, Andrea. 2019. International surrogacy as disruptive industry in Southeast Asia. New Brunswick: Rutgers.

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