WINTER ISSUE

The public/private body

Women’s body becomes a locus of understanding the public and the private, here the public would entail the government and the other agencies apart from the individual in concern. The private would be the women and her own agency. The public/private dichotomy is hence manifested within the bodies of women, while procreating is a personal and private matter it leads us to understand how the act of surrogacy, wherein the State machinery is involved in controlling this very idea of the public and the private, reinforcing the belief that there is nothing strictly public or private, both these sphere reinforce one another.

Women’s bodies and their autonomy have been discussed and critically analysed by sociologists, feminists and legal theorists. The discourses around women’s reproductive rights have been a point of contestation among feminists from varied schools of thought and surrogacy has been a hugely “contested ground for feminists, medical practitioners, governments, judiciary, potential parents (many of whom reside outside India), and surrogate mothers.” These ethical debates do not have a concrete good vs bad judgements, they fall on a continuum whereas scholars we cannot undermine the larger social processes, that affects one’s view of morality, and also reactions and opinions towards these debates.

Unlike many countries in Europe that have completely prohibited Surrogacy, “both to protect the reproductive health of the surrogate mother as well as the future of the newborn child”, India has never had a regulatory law on surrogacy.  While the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2020 can be seen as a positive juncture to protect the reproductive rights, at the heart of this bill lies the ban on commercial surrogacy, while it allows ethical altruistic surrogacy. However, there seems little difference between these form of surrogacy apart from the monetary exchange. It would be apt to note that “the difference between commercial and altruistic surrogacy is socially constructed rather than self-evident or intrinsic.” The legal criticism of surrogacy is the economic issue, where these monetary exchanges  have a higher probability of leading it to further exploitation of the poor and the disempowered woman.

Mass media also plays an extremely crucial role in disseminating the information with regards to surrogacy along with the cacophony of voices that is contributed by the medical profession which leads to consign essentialist gender roles to women. The arguments that are constructed around the rejection of commercial surrogacy while on one hand speaks about baby-selling and exploitation of women, on the other hand, more rigorous criticism is against women who are viewed as violating the sacrosanct notions of motherhood and maternal instincts. Both of these criticisms cannot be merely dismissed as both arise from socially prescribed ideas of motherhood, which looks at the sanctity of birthing a child only on the basis of the selfless love, which is expected from women. 

I argue that surrogacy in itself is exploitative in nature. This exploitation is not merely economical, but also physical, mental and the emotional which is evident in both commercial as well as altruistic surrogacy. I do not argue against surrogacy due to the essentialist notions of motherhood tied with surrogacy but do so with caution treading on a highly contested issue amongst feminists. 

Studies have shown that the language of choice, autonomy or objectification, must be contextualised among different communities, class and race. These ethical dilemmas do not merely serve the purpose to show how altruistic surrogacy leads to regressive behaviour but also to question and critically reflect if these arguments hold ground in the larger debates around women’s reproductive rights. We may focus on the concrete visible aspects of surrogacy, while completely ignoring the invisible within the family and the gendered exploitation that takes within the family.

Gender socialisation that intersects with class, race, caste and sexuality also create a plethora of socially gendered practices and responses that are difficult to generalise or predict in advance. In our contemporary situations, we always assume objectification to be done by “the other”, but are mutually agreed upon objectification, like in the surrogacy contract still be seen as problematic? Can one act of a person be held accountable for a larger feminist discourse? Many of these ethnographic studies, while not been connected to each other on the ground level, are intermittently connected to the larger feminist discourses.

The concept of “maternal hospitality”, where the womb is seen as accommodating, nourishing and passive,  for those women who are able to yield and host a child in their womb pushes them again into essentialist roles. The reconstruction project that many feminists argue surrogacy benefits women,  seem to fail, as they are thrust into the same roles where maternity or motherhood is seen as the end goal for all women. 

At the heart of surrogacy lies the preference for a genetically related child. Amrita Pande states from her ethnographic field study in Anand, Gujarat, that surrogates had different takes with respect to how genetic ties and how they relegated men during their own surrogacy procedures using the language of emasculation. She notes that while the surrogates experiences cannot effortlessly challenge patriliny or patrilocality,  their experience can be seen as a step towards the imagination of a multivocal kinship.

While motherhood has been understood as this selfless and also this all encompassing virtue of a woman, who has the sole responsibility to gestate as well as the perform the care functions later on after the birth, surrogate motherhood has been viewed differently. The responsibilities of care function after birth is not the concern of surrogate mothers, as they are seen as temporary vessels for storing foetuses and keeping them safe. The women, in this case, are seen to be merely the receptacles of “the other’s” genetic combination in form of their embryo. Christine Overall views these technologies as eugenicist policies which are ableist, classist as well as racist.

Looking at children through the lens of continuing the parents family name is based on patriarchal notions on inheritance, they are treating them merely as objects in order to benefit their inheritance. The notion of “pass on” a name, in most cultures only males can carry on the family name. The Indian law does not allow a single man to have a child via surrogacy. There is also this conception of spontaneity through which one must view the altruistic surrogacy, as a gift relationship, here the child is merely seen as a transaction without any agency but a mere object to be shared whenever, and however the parties find it feasible to transact. The surrogate child in the womb is then a mere biological object, passed on to from one person to another while being continuously denied their full personhood. 

References:

  1. Amrita Pande, “It May Be Her Eggs But It’s My Blood”: Surrogates and Everyday Forms of Kinship in India.
  2. Suze G. Berkhout, “Buns in the Oven: Objectification, Surrogacy, and Women’s Autonomy.”
  3. Kathryn Abrams, “From autonomy to agency: Feminist perspectives on self-direction.” 
  4. Christine Overall, “ Deontological Reasons for Having Children.” 

About the author: Nangsel S (she/her) is currently pursuing her Masters in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Her articles have been featured on national and international platforms, through the electronic media. Nangsel strives as a defender for all genders in the spectrum. She is currently in her hometown reading her way through books in the dead of the night.

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