Dr. Mohan Rao’s 18th January 2019 lecture on Surrogacy & Assisted Reproductive Techniques (ART) traced the history of surrogacy in India, within the context of an international “bio-economy.” He compared the growing demand of surrogacy in India to the legal status of surrogacy in countries such as Thailand, Israel and USA. Further, his lecture drew attention to the exploitation of marginalised women. He argued against libertarian feminist perspectives which use the language of “women’s reproductive choice” and are co-opted by Indian medical and industrial associations.
Dr. Rao elaborated on a distinction between “reproductive rights” and “reproductive justice” by discussing the discourse around surrogacy furthered by black women and other women of colour in the USA. Women of colour in the USA had rejected the argument of “reproductive choice” in the 1970s by drawing parallels to the history of slavery. They argued that reproductive rights arguments which centre on “women’s choice” obscured the exploitation of women’s reproductive labour.
India has emerged as a hotspot for commercial surrogacy (“reproductive tourism”) in the past two decades. However, this distinction between “reproductive rights” and “reproductive justice” in India continues to be at the margins. Furthermore, caste, poverty, and rural status inflect women’s reproductive choices and agency. Dr. Rao cited the case of Shakuntala, a woman from a scheduled tribe background, who was forced to donate her kidneys and be a surrogate mother more than 18 times. After Shakuntala ran away from home, her husband fatally attacked her. Dr. Rao himself sent this case to the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC), imploring them to take suo moto action. However, no action was taken.
Dr. Rao contrasted this case with the language of empowerment used by proponents of surrogacy. He pointed out that the Indian medical and industrial associations have argued that commercial surrogacy allows women to have an independent source of income and can be an “enriching” and “empowering” experience. These arguments are particularly concerning considering that clinics performing surrogacy and ART are moving to smaller cities and rural areas, where there are several barriers to monitoring and regulation.
The lecture also emphasised the potential health risks of surrogacy. For instance, Dr. Rao pointed to a recent study which found links between the hormones induced in a surrogate mother’s body and ovarian cancer. A lack of regular check-ups and follow-ups with surrogate mothers after childbirth make it difficult to ascertain the full impact of surrogacy on women’s bodies.
Finally, employing a Marxist feminist perspective, Dr. Rao argued against the surplus labour of women in the global bio-economy. He drew attention to the use of women’s bodily parts, such as residuary tissues, umbilical cords etc. for stem cell research. He cited the example of women in Ukraine who were paid £1000 for aborting their unborn children to be used for research. The framing of women’s reproductive labour in terms of voluntary acts of care obscures their inputs in the scientific industry.
The lecture concluded by highlighting how not all women are equally affected by the issue. As per this intersectional argument dalit women in India and black women in the USA are the real victims. Upper caste or white women then stand no locus to theorise on the issue. The discussion following the lecture emphasised the lacunae in international law in addressing surrogacy. Dr. Rao argued that the World Trade Organisation, not only the CEDAW committee and World Health Organisation, must address the issue.
Written with the support of Aishwarya Chouhan, 4th Year Student, Institute of Law, Nirma University