The degree to which financial incentives can muddle ethical deliberation and practice is evident in the commercial surrogacy trade in Indian. For years, “rent-a-womb” services to foreigners has been “big business” indeed, generating nearly $1 billion annually.
Would-be Western parents, many from the U.K. and Scandinavia, argue that commercial surrogacy arrangements are a win-win situation for everyone. They get the baby they’ve longed for and the Indian women receive significant financial compensation. Surrogates typically are paid $6,000 or more to provide their womb. In a country in which average monthly earnings are $215, this is an extraordinary amount. The financial incentives for Westerners to do business in Indian fertility clinics should not be underestimated either. Costs for a surrogate birth in India total $15,000-$20,000, approximately one-tenth the price that would be incurred in a California clinic. What’s not to like about people desperately desiring a baby receiving one at a bargain rate, while desperately poor Indian women receive several years’ worth of income for nine-months work?
There’s plenty not to like about these arrangements. One of the greatest concerns is the exploitation of the poor who comprise the vast majority of surrogates. Free and informed consent by Indian surrogates may not be as free as it appears. In her recently completed Ph.D. dissertation on commercial surrogacy in India, Kristin Engh Førde argues that financial desperation has the potential to override genuine personal autonomy: “They are forced to make money for their family and their chances for succeeding are extremely low…Some have a major debt to pay, such as a hospital bill…Many feel that surrogacy is a chance they have to take. And it’s important for them to distance themselves from the choice. It was not something they wanted; it was something they had to do.”
Julie Bindel contends that commercial surrogacy represents an exploitation of women generally, not simply of poor women specifically: “As a feminist campaigner against sexual abuse of women, and in particular the sex trade, I feel sick at the idea of wombs for rent. Sitting in the clinic, seeing smartly dressed women come in to access fertility services, all I could think about was how desperate a woman must be to carry a child for money. I know from other campaigners against womb trafficking that many surrogates are coerced by abusive husbands and pimps. Watching the smiling receptionist fill out forms on behalf of prospective commissioning parents, I could only wonder at the misery and pain experienced by the women who will end up being viewed as nothing but a vessel.”
Fortunately, the Indian government has taken notice of the actual and potential abuses inherent in commercial surrogacy. After all, what country wants to be known as the bargain-basement destination for the exploitation of women and the poor? As of October, 2016, foreigners are prohibited from “renting” Indian wombs, though it is doubtful this official action will shut down the trade completely and permanently. Big money talks, whether the market is officially opened or closed.
On a personal note, I am distressed by the effects of commercial surrogacy in India. Having travelled to India often over the years, I’ve come to love the country and its warm, friendly, and hospitable people. It is evident to this visitor that Indians highly value parenthood and family. I can hardly imagine a practice that has greater potential to destroy the wonderful family dynamics I’ve observed in my travels than commercial surrogacy marketed to rich Westerners. I applaud the India government for taking the first difficult step, at significant economic loss to the country’s economy. In the case of commercial surrogacy, market forces cannot help but impinge virtuous ethical decision-making.