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Damien W. Riggs and Clemence Due

Further information

About the author

Damien W. Riggs is a lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Social Policy at Flinders University. He is the author of What About the Children! Masculinities, Sexualities and Hegemony (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2010) and (with Victoria Clarke, Sonja Ellis & Elizabeth Peel)Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer Psychology: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2010). He is the founding editor of the Australian Psychological Society's journal Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review.

Clemence Due is a postgraduate student in the School of Psychology at the University of Adelaide. Her research is concerned with representations of belonging and race relations within Australia, and her PhD research examines such representations as they appear in the media with regards to marginalised racial groups living in Australia. Her research has also included refugee and migrant education, and parenting studies.

Publication details

Volume 22, May 2010

Gay Men, Race Privilege and Surrogacy in India


In her book Do Men Mother?, Andrea Doucet (2006) examines whether or not men living in western societies who take on a primary caregiving role actually become mothers. Her findings, in sum, suggest that whilst men who act as primary caregivers engage in many of the same behaviours and are potentially driven by similar feelings and investments as are women who undertake primary care of children, men do not become mothers. This is largely the case, Doucet suggests, because women who are primary caregivers engage in the role through a relationship to notions of the maternal, and the expectations this places upon women’s bodies and identities. Men, in contrast, always already parent as men living in a patriarchal society, one in which gendered roles continue to be highly regulated and where inequities continue in regard to the recognition accorded to women’s work in comparison to men’s work. Importantly, Doucet does not suggest that men who act as primary caregivers should be denied recognition for the important carework they undertake. Rather, she suggests that their carework must be placed in a relationship to the ongoing fact that women continue to undertake the majority of carework.

The matter of whether or not men approximate the carework undertaken by women becomes a particularly vexed question in relation to gay male parents. Lesbian and gay activists and parents have long challenged the assumption that only heterosexual couples are capable of raising children, and in so doing have challenged some of the normative assumptions surrounding the supposedly ‘essential’ nature of gendered behaviours. Yet, at the same time, lesbian mothers in particular (e.g., Pollack & Vaughn, 1987) have called for a continued focus upon the gendered nature of carework, and the particular burdens and expectations placed upon women who parent in a society where they are expected to do so, and moreover, where the work of carrying and birthing a child carries with it unique stresses and expectations that are often not adequately recognised. By comparison, gay men who are parents as a whole have been somewhat less circumspect in their consideration of the gendered nature of carework, and nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in the growing use of surrogacy services amongst gay men.

Of course examining how gay men come to be parents is fraught territory in and of itself. As academics and as parents we support the rights of all people to reproductive freedom. Yet at the same time, we are equally concerned with locating the rights of those of us living in the overdeveloped west in a relationship to the rights (or potential lack of them) of those living outside of this privileged location. This concern becomes particularly salient if we are to consider the use of transnational surrogacy (and particularly within India) by white gay men living in Australia, as we do in this paper. Specifically, our concern is not about whether or not surrogacy should be allowed at all (a topic that has occupied feminist researchers and activists for some time now, see Shanley, 1993, for a summary), but rather about the race privilege that white gay men evoke when they undertake surrogacy arrangements in India, and the specific constructions of the maternal and women’s bodies that this produces.

In order to examine these issues, we outline in close detail the implications for Indian women and their families that arise from white gay men’s use of surrogacy arrangements in India, and we illustrate how some of these concerns play out in one such instance of transnational surrogacy documented on the current affairs show 60 Minutes. The show aired on May 22nd, 2009, on Australia’s Nine Network, and detailed the story of Peter West and Trevor Elwell, a white gay couple from Melbourne, Australia, who had twin babies using surrogacy services in India. The story included footage filmed when the babies were born at the clinic used by the men, as well as interview clips with the two men and presenter Liz Hayes at their home before the babies were born. Some attention was also paid within the story to the experiences of the Indian women who act as surrogates. Importantly for our argument, this story presented a relatively balanced image of Indian surrogacy, where both the joys of the gay parents, and the potential challenges faced by the Indian women, were presented. Yet despite this, we would argue that Indian women are still largely represented as objects available for commodification by those living in the overdeveloped west.

We are of course mindful of the fact that in analysing this story, we potentially do not do justice to the journey faced by the gay couple (and to white gay men who become parents through surrogacy more broadly), just as we are mindful of the fact that our analysis potentially contributes to the objectification of Indian women. We hope that in the sections that follow the necessity of our argument is made sufficiently clear so that these concerns can be placed in a broader context where enactments of race privilege must be examined and indeed challenged, and where practices of objectification and commodification of particular women’s bodies can be better understood through close examination of the ways in which the maternal is reduced, in some instances, to a mere byproduct or job that has no relationship to women’s identities and sense of self as women.

Context of Surrogacy in India

In talking about surrogacy, it is important to make a distinction between altruistic gestational surrogacy (where a woman may, for example, offer to carry a baby to term, without payment other than covering pregnancy costs, for a friend or relative who is unable to do so), and commercial surrogacy (in which women are paid to carry babies for other people). The latter form of surrogacy remains controversial, and is illegal in many parts of the world, and expensive in most countries where it has been legalised (Nurluqman, Wei Xin, & Shijian, 2009). Yet despite the costs, commercial surrogacy — especially in countries such as India, as is the focus of this paper — is so commonplace now as to be referred to as an ‘industry’ in reports such as that aired on the 60 Minutes programme. Indeed, commercial gestational surrogacy is estimated to be worth around US$500 million a year to India (Nurluqman, Wei Xin, & Shijian). Despite this extraordinary (and growing) amount of revenue raised by surrogacy services, Indian women who act as surrogates are generally only paid around US$6000 (Vora, 2009), although there have been reports of women being paid as little as US$500 (Nurluqman, Wei Xin, & Shijian). This is in comparison to women who act as surrogates in the US, who are typically paid US$14,000 — $30,000 (Smerdon, 2009).

Of course the money paid to women contracted to act as surrogates is only one of the controversial issues associated with the commercial surrogacy industry in India. Other issues of concern include 1) methods of gaining consent, where it is unclear whether women considering acting as surrogates fully comprehend the nature of the agreement into which they are entering (Nurluqman, Wei Xin, & Shijian, 2009), 2) cultural differences in conceptualisations of the body between western medicine and the understandings of many Indian women (Vora, 2009), and 3) an industry that is largely unregulated. Some of these concerns may be addressed with the passing of the draft Assisted Reproductive Technologies Bill and Rules (introduced to parliament in 2008) that is expected to be legislated in India in early 2010. Additionally, the Law Commission of India has submitted a Report regarding the need for legislation concerning surrogacy which makes a number of recommendations, including that 1) clear contracts exist between women contracted to act as surrogates and the intended parents, 2) the intended parents be named on the birth certificate, and 3) all medical expenses be carried by the intended parents, as well as life insurance for the surrogate woman. Interestingly, however, this Report actually recommends that surrogacy not be used for commercial purposes, thereby opposing the draft ART Bill which recommends formally legalising commercial surrogacy in India (Priya, 2009).

Yet despite these two significant documents currently being discussed in India, commentators have noted that neither of the documents discusses the use of surrogacy by couples in a same-sex relationship (Qadeer, 2009). This is an important point as until recently, homosexuality was a criminal offence across India. In July 2009 the Delhi High Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for homosexuality to be treated as a crime under the Indian Penal Code, thus setting a precedent for recognising discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as illegal. However, despite these 2009 changes in legislation in Delhi, same-sex relationships remain a taboo subject in a largely conservative country, with courts in jurisdictions outside Delhi still able, in theory, to convict a person for engaging in same-sex intercourse.

In regard to surrogacy, the legal situation in India in regard to homosexuality has several implications. Firstly, given the conservative culture, many surrogacy clinics do not offer surrogacy to same-sex couples, regardless of whether they are Indian or international couples (Nurluqman, Wei Xin, & Shijian, 2009), which has the effect of doing the opposite of what ARTs are normally seen as doing (i.e., conservatism in India closes down rather than opens up options). Yet despite the relatively conservative context of Indian culture, some clinics, however, do offer services to gay couples (such as the Rotunda Clinic in Mumbai). However, whilst this may seem a positive occurrence, it is nonetheless important to consider which gay couples are likely to use such services. In other words, due to the relevant recency of the Delhi High Court decision (and the fact that it doesn’t automatically apply as a ‘right’ across all Indian states), it is highly unlikely that Indian gay men in any significant numbers will make use of surrogacy services in India in the short term. As such, the contracting of Indian women as surrogates to help gay couples have genetically-related children is much more likely to be a service that only (nominally white, middle-class) men from overdeveloped countries outside India will have the privilege to utilise, as the 60 Minutes story would suggest. This sets up a complex relationship between race and the use of surrogacy, where the bodies of poor Indian women are commissioned for the use of richer, predominately white, men.

In the sections that follow we examine two main areas of concern that arise from this disparity between who is contracted to provide surrogacy services (i.e., poor Indian women) and who uses surrogacy services in India (i.e., primarily white couples from outside of India, some of whom are gay couples, as is our focus in this paper). Our first concern relates to the way in which biology and kinship figure in discourses of surrogacy, and the relationship this has to the racialised differences between white gay men and Indian women. Our second and related concern is how discourses of transnational surrogacy (as they circulate within and beyond the 60 Minutes story) contribute to the commodification of Indian women’s bodies, and the implications of this for the families of Indian women.

Desire for Genetic Relatedness and the Enactment of Race Privilege

When considering white gay men’s use of transnational surrogacy, it is important to first understand how it comes to be that gay men consider engaging such services. Key to understanding the use of surrogacy amongst gay men, we would suggest, is a desire for genetic relatedness (at least by one of the fathers). In this regard, Damien has argued extensively elsewhere (Riggs, 2010) that gay men are no more outside of hegemonic understandings of parenting or family formation than are heterosexual men: a drive to genetic reproduction plays out amongst gay men in examples such as an investment in the outcomes of sperm donation or, as is the case in this paper, being motivated to undertake transnational surrogacy. In the 60 Minutes feature, the topic of genetics is rendered salient by the presenter, who takes up a comment made by one of the men about the importance of having children:

PETER WEST: I can't imagine my life without children. There'd definitely be something missing. Our lives just wouldn't seem complete.
LIZ HAYES: Are you getting a sense of the clock ticking?
PETER WEST: Oh definitely, there's definitely the maternity clock.
LIZ HAYES: In your case the paternity clock?
PETER WEST: Yes! There's definitely a genetic clock ticking, of some sort, in there, yes.

In this extract the category ‘children’ becomes solely about children who are genetically related, as we can see through the first and then final comment by one of the men. Of course, and as Damien has suggested elsewhere (Riggs, 2007), there is nothing wrong per se with gay men speaking of a drive to have children, or indeed a desire to care for children. Speaking about such desires and drives is important in a society that still in many ways constructs gay men who parent or who wish to parent in negative ways. As such, reference to a ‘clock ticking’ may well be fair in terms of gay men wanting to parent at a time in their life when they are best suited to caring for young children and the demands that come with parenting. Our concern, however, relates to what happens when reference to the ‘clock ticking’ becomes reference to a ‘genetic clock ticking’, and thus when having children for gay men becomes all about having genetically-related children, a desire that can result in gay men engaging in transnational surrogacy without adequately examining the ethical implications that come with it.

One of the primary ethical implications, as we argue throughout this paper, relates to the evocation of race privilege that occurs when white gay men make use of surrogacy services in India, and where, in effect, a desire for genetic reproduction amongst gay men (and the potentially proprietal claims that this evokes) is privileged over and above the rights or needs of non-white women. African-American feminist scholar Dorothy Roberts (1995) has extensively documented the negative effects of legal presumptions about the use of surrogacy services by white couples upon the bodies of African-American women. She suggests that African-American women may often be implicitly viewed as ideal surrogates by white commissioning parents due to the fact that they are less likely to be able to afford to litigate if they wish to amend the surrogacy contract (either to terminate the pregnancy, to keep the child after giving birth, or to have access to the child after birth), or if they do litigate, they are less likely to be successful (as high profile cases brought to trial involving African-American surrogates and white intended parents in the 1990s demonstrated). The cases we refer to here involved African-American women seeking to retain custody or have access to children they had carried for white couples. The judges in both cases determined that, because there was no genetic relationship between the African-American women who had acted as surrogates and the child that they carried, then they had no attendant rights to the child. This notion that a ‘lack’ of genetic relatedness results in a lack of relationship was evident in the 60 Minutes story, such as in the following extract:

LIZ HAYES: For the surrogate who has no genetic link to the babies she's carried, giving birth is the end of a 9-month business arrangement. She and the woman who donated her eggs have agreed never to see these children. Instead, the babies are cleaned up and immediately introduced to their fathers. The only parents they'll ever know.

References to ‘agreed’ and ‘donated’ aside (points we take up in the following section), the presenter constructs gestational surrogacy as producing no “genetic link” between the woman who carries the baby and the baby itself, and that as a result the entire process is simply a “9-month business arrangement”. In her work on Indian transnational surrogacy, Kalinda Vora (2009) has suggested that the construction of gestational surrogacy as merely the use of ‘unused space’ (i.e., Indian women’s wombs), and the emphasis upon the use of donor eggs to support the claim of there being no genetic link between the woman who carries the baby and the baby itself, serves two functions: first, it minimises the incommensurable differences between the work that any person undertakes under capitalism, and the psychological and physical work that women undertake through pregnancy, and second, it denies the fact that the baby grows through being linked to the woman who carries it both in a psychological sense and in a physical sense (see also Raymond, 1994). Ignoring the experiences of women who act as surrogates, and the bond they potentially experience to the baby they carry, allows for the construction of the commissioning parents as “the only parents they’ll ever know”: the commissioning parents can only be seen as the only parents if the woman who carries the child is fundamentally constructed as not being a parent, and if she is instead constructed as simply a vessel who has no relationship to the child.

This notion of women who act as surrogates as simply ‘babysitters’ was used in one of the aforementioned US cases in which an African-American woman (who had carried the child of a white man and Filipino woman) was constructed as being akin to a foster parent or a wet nurse. Such analogies fail on multiple levels to recognise the role that women play in acting as surrogates. First, the basic association of surrogacy with foster parenting or wet nursing means that the racial implications of black women carrying (in this instance) the children of white men are not placed in a historical context where black women’s bodies have long been treated as tools for the use of white men (Roberts, 1995). Second, wet nursing, foster care, and surrogacy are treated as though they all require the same (or even commensurable) emotional or physical labour (and thus produce similar kinship claims – i.e., none in the eyes of the law). Again, this means that surrogacy is constructed as simply the use of an empty, unused uterus and therefore as simply a business arrangement for the woman involved (Raymond, 1994). Thirdly, (and problematically for each of these forms of carework, but particularly for foster parenting and surrogacy), caring for another person’s (biological) child is seen as not resulting in any form of rights. Whilst a discussion of the attachment of rights to carework is beyond our scope in this paper, it is nonetheless important to recognise that when the care of a child is constructed as ‘simply’ work, then the need for rights for those who engage in carework disappears when biological kinship is treated as the most privileged form of kinship. Moreover, the minimisation of carework only functions through the construction of those who engage in carework as supporting the rights of those who are related through biological kinship: the two (carework and biological kinship) are treated as being in a hierarchical relationship with biological kinship at the top.

Certainly we would suggest that claims to what Mary Lyndon Shanley (1993) has to referred to as the “right to procreate” (p. 618) function within the 60 Minutes feature to privilege the desires or rights of the commissioning parents over those of the women who act as surrogates. This can be seen in the following rhetorical statement made by the clinic doctor in response to a question from the presenter as to the ethics of gay men using transnational surrogacy:

DR. GAUTAM ALLAHBADIA: Isn't it morally right that every human being is entitled to propagate his own genes?

Here the reference to ‘his genes’ is important not just for the fact that the doctor was potentially referencing the fact that the interview was about gay men using surrogacy, but also for the fact that, as Dorothy Roberts (1995) has again argued:

The new reproduction enforces patriarchal roles that privilege men’s genetic desires and objectify women’s procreative capacity… IVF serves more to help married men produce genetic offspring than to give women greater reproductive freedom (p. 937).

Roberts’ argument can fairly be extended to encompass the drive amongst gay men to produce genetic offspring, and thus to suggest that transnational surrogacy does much less to meet the needs of Indian women than it does to meet the needs of gay commissioning parents. This is particularly the case when we consider the families of Indian women. A recently published book by Muhd Nurluqman, Tan Wei Xin and David Lee Shijian (2009) entitled The Indian Surrogate suggests that most woman who undertake surrogacy do so to benefit their children; to provide for their education and to improve their living standards. Whilst this may well be the case, what is missing in this ‘surrogacy helps to overcome poverty’ logic is that the actual experiences of family that Indian women have (and particularly those who enter into surrogacy contracts) are nothing like those experienced by white middle-class Australians (for example). Our claim here is not in relation to cultural differences in family styles (though that will certainly play a role in the distribution of the money received by Indian women who act as surrogates). Rather, our claim is that poorer Indian women (who are predominantly those who enter into surrogacy contracts) must in many ways forsake their own families in order to meet the dreams of family held by others. As Vora (2009) suggests in relation to some of the Indian women she spoke to in her research, women who act as surrogates are often expected to live in ‘surrogate hostels’ where they can be monitored, prevented from doing heavy lifting, and provided with ‘hygienic’ living conditions. This stands in direct contrast to the conditions in which they will likely have raised their own children, and to which they will return after giving birth. Furthermore, living in ‘surrogate hostels’ means that Indian women will see little of their own families for nine months, a fact that also undermines the claim that acting as a surrogate a priori benefits Indian women and their families.

Dorothy Roberts (1995) extends the issues we raise above in relation to the contexts in which Indian women live, where she suggests that most couples in the US who make use of reproductive technologies are white, whereas the highest rates of infertility are within black communities. Recent research in India (Kumar, 2007) suggests very much the same, where poorer women have much higher rates of infertility at much younger ages than both their richer Indian counterparts and indeed in comparison to those living in the overdeveloped west. Additionally, whilst many surrogacy clinics in India require women to have carried at least one pregnancy to term before becoming a surrogate, it must be recognised that for Indian woman who undertake surrogacy (or indeed egg ‘donation’), the risks involved can have a significant impact upon their future potential to bear more children of their own (i.e., who will remain a part of their family). Research suggests, for example, that hyerstimulation of ovaries for egg retrieval can lead to infertility issues later in life, just as hormone injections to allow for egg implantation can lead to increased vulnerability to cancer among women with no other family history of cancer (Ness, Cramer & Goodman, 2002). And of course the very fact that most women who undertake surrogacy are required to deliver through caesarean may further compound the risk factors that Indian woman face in both carrying children for other people, and in future births were they to have another child of their own, but were unable to access a caesarean for themselves. Again, whilst surrogacy holds the potential for Indian women to secure a better or more secure social position in terms of economic outcomes, the demand upon their bodies and families are significant. As we discuss in the following section, then, the drive toward having genetically-related children amongst white gay men (and indeed all who use surrogacy services) does more than simply privilege the families of white middle-class gay men over those of Indian women; it also deprivileges or commodifies the bodies of Indian women.

The Commodification of Indian Women’s Bodies

As we discussed in the previous section, commercial surrogacy requires women’s uteruses to be constructed as ‘empty spaces’, a construction that feminist academics such as Janice Raymond (1994) have suggested leads to the commodification of women’s bodies in ways that render them objects for use by others. There is, however, debate in the literature about the extent to which women’s bodies are commodified through surrogacy arrangements, with some writers suggesting that surrogacy (even commercial surrogacy) is not so much about the exploitation of poor women as about women choosing to provide a ‘service’ to people unable to have children of their own (Scott, 2009). What such constructions of surrogacy in the literature overlook (and indeed what Scott acknowledges but does not discuss in her defence of commercial surrogacy), is that transnational surrogacy in India typically involves poor women who clearly state that they would not become surrogates if other avenues of work were available to them (e.g., see Nurluqman, Wei Xin & Shijian, 2009; Vora, 2009). As such, and as Smerdon (2008) argues, ‘win-win’ arguments (where women who act as surrogates are able to earn money whilst providing someone with the ‘gift’ of a baby) are only plausible when the two parties are treated as though they are on an equal footing.

Whilst surrogacy is not specifically constructed as a ‘gift’ in the 60 minutes program, it is discussed as a business arrangement; a construction that ignores the racial inequalities that lead poor Indian women to work as surrogates. Indeed, the experiences of surrogate women themselves barely feature in this program, with the focus instead on the clinic and the service it provides. This is illustrated in the extract below.

DR. GAUTAM ALLAHBADIA [Speaking to an Indian woman undergoing IVF]: It's going to take just two minutes this is a non-invasive procedure.
LIZ HAYES [to audience]: Dr Gautam Allahbadia is a fertility specialist who runs what he describes as "a baby factory". [to Dr Allahbadia] So you're standing right where it all happens?
DR. GAUTAM ALLAHBADIA [to Presenter]: Yes, this is our temple.
LIZ HAYES [to audience]: It's standard IVF. But what sets Dr Allahbadia apart is that his services are available to everyone, regardless of sexual preference or marital status

In this extract, the IVF procedure is constructed as ‘non-invasive’ and as only taking ‘two minutes’ despite the fact that there is an extensive literature concerning women’s experiences of IVF which discusses women’s recollections of the procedure as emotionally and physically stressful (e.g., Hammarberg, Astbury & Baker, 2001), and that this is especially so for Indian women (Widge, 2005). Indeed, the program moves quickly from the ‘non-invasive’ IVF procedure to the ‘services’ of the man who runs the clinic. By constructing surrogacy in this way (as non-invasive and as a service run by others), the day-to-day lived experiences of women who act as surrogates (who often must live away from their families and their own children and who are subject to extensive medical surveillance) are overlooked completely. In this way, Indian women’s bodies are systematically devalued, at the same time as being central to the functioning of surrogacy services (Allen, 1991; Roberts, 1995).

Of course it is important to note here that the very fact of commercial surrogacy leads intended parents into a relationship with potential surrogates that is based on commodification. Indeed, in instances where intended parents are able to choose the woman who will carry their baby, it follows that this process invites intended parents into the objectification of women who act as surrogates. This is evident in the 60 Minutes program in which Liz, Peter and Trevor discuss the procedure the couple went through to have a child through surrogacy:

LIZ HAYES: Peter and Trevor found the clinic on the web. It's a one-stop shop, where eggs and sperm and the services of surrogates can be purchased. Trevor and Peter selected the mother of their twins without meeting her. Was there any particular characteristic, though, that you thought...yes!
PETER WEST: Yeah, she's had pregnancies before, she's healthy, she doesn't have any blood disorders or issues or anything like that.
TREVOR ELWELL: At the end of the day you just go, "she looks like a nice lady".

In this extract we see the two white men talking about gazing at the bodies of Indian women in a ways that reduce them to solely being an empty uterus that is likely to be able to deliver a healthy baby. Smerdon (2008) argues that, for white people, it may be easier to view the uterus of a black woman as simply a tool to be made use of when the woman’s race does not match that of the child she is bearing. Thus, as demonstrated in the list of criteria spoken about above (that “she’s had pregnancies before, she’s healthy, she doesn’t have any blood disorders or issues…”), it is possible for Peter and Trevor to view this woman as little more than a body that has a high potential to carry a child to term for them. And further in relation to Trevor’s final comment (“she looks like a nice lady”), this may be read less as personalising the woman, and more as yet another form of selection criteria. Margie Ripper (2007) found similar representations in her research on lesbian recipients of known donor sperm, where many women spoke of feeling as though they were appraised by donors as to whether they would be ‘good mothers’ or whether they were ‘nice people’. This evaluation of women thus serves the purposes of the assessing party who deems it their role to engage in such an assessment (and that ‘being nice’ is a fair part of such an assessment).

The program is also explicit in its construction of surrogacy as simply a business arrangement, referring to the clinic the men used as a ‘baby factory’ and referencing the fact that intended parents are not even required to travel to India as “You have to just send your sperms by DHL”. As discussed briefly above, the business aspect of commercial surrogacy is extended to women themselves, who are considered beneficiaries of a system that provides them with opportunities they would not have otherwise had, rather considering the decision to act as a surrogate as stemming from social and economic inequalities. This is evidenced in the following extract:

LIZ HAYES: Gaia and Evelyn are healthy and content. Trevor will take leave to help Peter care for their babies. The surrogate, the woman who gave birth to them, prefers to remain anonymous. But there are many like her, women prepared to rent their wombs. Poverty-stricken women like Razia. Razia was paid US$5,000 to deliver twins two years ago. But she did it in total secrecy. How did you explain to people when you had your babies and they were not with you?
TRANSLATOR: For the people who found out that she'd gone to hospital her husband told them that the child was not doing well, and had to be kept in an incubator. And when she came back home she said "look, I'm you know, the child didn't survive." (sic)
LIZ HAYES: The money has helped Razia and her husband, a tuk tuk driver, educate their three children. They're also saving for a new home. And despite it being against her Muslim beliefs, she's going to do it all again.

Here, the brief interview with a woman who has acted as a surrogate is largely focused upon the economic ‘benefits’ of the arrangement. This is despite the fact that the woman herself (through a translator) speaks about the impact that surrogacy had on her life in terms of what she and her husband were required to tell her family and friends about the baby she had delivered. As we discussed previously, focusing on the commercial aspect of surrogacy means that the carework women do through pregnancy and birth is constructed as equal to any other work performed under capitalist arrangements, despite the incommensurable differences entailed in a woman using her body to carry a child in order to earn money and other forms of paid labour (Vora, 2009).

Proponents of surrogacy argue that to suggest that a woman is unable to act as a surrogate without forming attachments to a child is to suggest that a woman cannot enter a surrogacy contract as an informed actor who is making a decision to further her own situation at the same time as offering a service to another person (Scott, 2009). Clearly, however, it may well be true that poor Indian women who feel they have few other options to care for their own children are unable to enter a surrogacy contract as informed and fully consenting participants (Smerdon, 2008). Further to this, it is equally arguable that a system which, almost by its very nature, objectifies and commodifies the bodies of poor Indian women, leads to a situation in which surrogacy reinforces the existing inequalities between middle-class white men and poor Indian women.


Our intention in this paper has not been to argue against surrogacy per se, nor do we write as individuals who fall within any of the categories of people directly involved in the surrogacy ‘industry’ in India (i.e., intended parents, women who act as surrogates and their families, healthcare professionals, children born of surrogacy, legislators etc.). Rather, our point has been to explore how race privilege plays out when white middle-class gay men make use of transnational surrogacy, and the ideological and embodied effects this has upon Indian women’s bodies, lives, and families through the co-option of the maternal into a solely economic understanding of women’s bodies. We now conclude the paper by noting some further observations that require ongoing consideration in relation to the use of surrogacy services by white middle-class gay men.

In regard to the points we have made about the drive toward genetic reproduction amongst some white middle-class gay men, we think it important to provide one explanation for this. Partly, and as Damien has argued elsewhere (Riggs, 2010), this is the product of living in western nations where particular forms of kinship are privileged, and which promote a hegemonic masculinity that is shored up by paternalistic claims in relation to genetically-related children. For gay men specifically, this investment in genetics may be further exacerbated by the effects of heteronormativity, which function both to close down the range of options deemed viable by gay men wishing to start a family, as well as endorsing a very narrow (i.e., liberal, nuclear) version of family to which gay men are expected to subscribe if they seek sanction from the State. We make this point not to absolve gay men of responsibility for their reproductive choices, but rather to recognise the multiple forces that likely shape their choices.

Yet at the same time as noting some of the factors that shape some gay men’s investments in having genetically-related children, we also think it important to consider the ethical injunction that arises from the choice of engaging in transnational surrogacy, one that is similar to that which arises through engagement in transnational adoption. As Damien (Riggs, 2009) has argued elsewhere, transnational adoption on the part of white middle-class lesbians or gay men living in Australia brings with it an injunction for these groups of people to consider their location within global networks of power that produce the very disparities that give rise to children placed for adoption, and from which white middle-class gay or lesbian adoptive parents stand to benefit. This injunction, however, should not be taken as demanding a ‘benevolent response’ on the part of potential adoptive parents (or equally parents through surrogacy), nor does it necessarily mean refusing to engage in adoption or surrogacy (particularly in the case of transnational adoption, where global economic disparities continue to place children in ‘third world countries’ at greater risk of serious negative health and psychological outcomes as a result of being raised in orphanages). Rather, the aforementioned injunction upon white middle-class lesbian or gay adoptive parents (or in the case of this paper, white middle-class gay men who become parents through transnational surrogacy) requires a two-fold response: 1) to refuse practices of exoticisation or pathologisation toward both birth parents/women who act as surrogates and their cultures, as well as children either placed for transnational adoption or born through transnational surrogacy, and 2) to engage in a praxis that explicitly connects transnational adoption or surrogacy to a critique of these practices and to the role of overdeveloped nations in the perpetuation of global inequalities which result in the production of non-western women’s bodies as available for commodification. Importantly, both of these approaches would seek not to locate white adoptive parents/those who become parents through surrogacy as either outside global practices, or as benevolent saviours who simply critique neoliberal practices. Rather, white middle-class gay parents (amongst others) must see themselves as products of neoliberalism who are just as much subject to critique as neoliberalism itself.

One response to the ethical injunction noted above is suggested by Vora (2009), who highlights the potential for women who act as surrogates in India to be woven into the kinship narratives of intended parents and their families through a sense of duty. This sense of duty, Vora suggests, is one that typically informs Indian families, and is something that could be taken up by white middle-class intended parents when they engage in transnational surrogacy. Obviously claims to kinship with Indian women hold the potential to be taken up in benevolent ways by commissioning parents, or in ways that claim inclusion when in reality they function disingenuously to feign kinship when really it is not desired. But placing commissioning parents into some form of relationship to women who act as surrogates (rather than simply treating women who act as surrogates as ‘wombs for hire’ who are expected to disappear after the birth of child) may go at least some way toward encouraging recognition of the global context in which transnational surrogacy occurs, and in which commissioning parents most often stand to benefit from race and class privilege. Taking on a sense of relationship (either at a distance through sharing photos, or through the stories that are told about the family formation, or in building a relationship — if desired by all parties — between the intended parents and the woman who acts as a surrogate for them) may help commissioning families to recognise the privileges that they hold.

We are of course not suggesting that having an ongoing relationship with women who act as surrogates ameliorates the hardships these women face, nor the ways in which the surrogacy industry commodifies their bodies. But at the very least, recognising the relationships between those in the overdeveloped west and those in India may encourage greater understanding amongst the former as to the complex interdependencies between the two cultural contexts, and the responsibility that this engenders from those living in the overdeveloped west. If this holds the potential to facilitate recognition amongst white middle-class gay parents (amongst others) as to their privileged location, and for recognition of the fact that such privilege must be used in ways that seek to examine, critique and challenge the operations of neoliberalism and its role in perpetuating the disadvantaged location of poor Indian women (amongst others), then this is one step toward increasing the visibility of the global disparities that underpin transnational surrogacy. In other words, it would be just as disingenuous to simply call a halt to transnational surrogacy (or adoption for that matter) as it would be to allow it to continue without question. Rather, what is needed are practices that encourage recognition of the role of racialised hierarchies in the perpetuation of inequality and the responsibility this engenders for those of us who occupy privileged positions within the overdeveloped west.


We acknowledge the sovereignty of the Kaurna people, the First Nations people upon whose land we live in Adelaide, South Australia.


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