It seems like not a day goes by without a a new report being published on reproductive tourism. Here is Slate’s reporting on surrogacy in India:
But the usual empowerment vs. exploitation debate eludes something much more fundamental that the surrogate industry reflects about India. India has leap-frogged several stages of development and zoomed straight into a service economy. Indians stock call centers and tech help lines where Westerners can get their questions answered efficiently. In these centers, Indian youths temporarily adopt new personal identities by using Western names and accents—another, milder way that Indians act as “surrogates,” or substitutes for Westerners. The country is romanced by the idea of selling human capital as its next great commodity. So surrogacy resonates not as an old problem of exploiting the poor but as an inevitable part of the “new India,” where the locals provide much needed services for the new global economy. This kind of forward-thinking economic liberation dovetails with an ideology of personal freedom. “I think women should be free to choose what they do with their bodies,” says Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, a fertility specialist in Mumbai. “We shouldn’t treat them as stupid just because they are poor.”
This appeal to modern ideals of self-determination make sense to members of the “new India” like Dr. Malpani and his clients. The problem is that the surrogates are not members of this India. Alan Greenspan writes that “India is fast becoming two entities: a rising kernel of world-class modernity within a historic culture that has been for the most part stagnating for generations.” The surrogates tend to hail from this “historic culture,” which is essentially semi-feudal and pre-industrial. It is this gap that allows for exploitation in surrogacy and other industries to happen, and it is the gap—not surrogacy itself—that is the root of the problem.
To exercise one’s freedom meaningfully requires information and education, and many surrogates are deeply ignorant about what the procedure entails. It is not uncommon for surrogates to authorize contracts with a thumbprint as opposed to a signature because they are illiterate. Even those who are literate often aren’t able to read the contracts, which tend to be written in English. Lack of technological understanding among rural Indians also breeds misconceptions about surrogacy. Many, for example, thought that it would be necessary to sleep with another man in order to conceive. Even the pricing structure of surrogacy perpetuates social inequality: Many religious Indian surrogacy clients would prefer for their child to be birthed by an upper-caste brahmin, so high-born surrogates can get paid up to double.
These problems are hardly going to stop the phenomena of surrogacy in India from spreading, though. In fact, one might even suggest that India is moving towards a surrogacy-based economy, in which Indians—in call centers and fertility clinics alike—specialize in substituting Westerners in a cheaper, more efficient way.