Cross-posted with Biopolitical Times on April 23rd, 2015.
“Outsourcing Embryos” is the name of a new fifteen-minute documentary from Vice for HBO in which correspondent Gianna Toboni travels to India to delve into the industry of commercial surrogacy. What she uncovers is eye-opening, even for those who have been following the surge of cross-border “womb-renting” for years.
India’s medical tourism industry is now worth $2.3 billion, with $500 million of that solely from the legalization of commercial surrogacy. Couples travel to India from all over the world to take advantage of prices that are a sixth of the cost in the US – about $30-60,000 from a reputable clinic. But, as Toboni explains, the problem with commercialization is that “businesses start under-cutting one another and next thing you know, we’re bidding for the cheapest baby.”
To find out how low the prices could go, Toboni went undercover and found a man working from a back alley who offered a guaranteed delivery for just $12,000.
At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Nayna Patel, who is surely the most well-known fertility specialist in India. She is currently building what will be the largest surrogacy clinic in the world, an “all inclusive facility” that will eliminate the need for a hospital entirely.
Patel schedules all of the women working for her as surrogates to undergo C-sections, so she can perform deliveries back to back. After watching one herself, Toboni was visibly shaken. “We just saw a baby being born ten minutes ago and already we’re racing back upstairs to see the next baby being born. It’s like this turn-over is so quick here.”
According to Patel, surrogates carrying a foreign couple’s baby can make about $9,500 for one, or $12,000 for twins. Patel is adamant that surrogacy is highly beneficial to the woman who take part. And indeed, many women find it to be the best option available to them.
A woman named Vasanti told Toboni, “Nobody likes doing this. I didn’t have a home, so I thought I could build one by being a surrogate.”
Another surrogate, Nisha, told her “It does feel a little bad, but what can I do? I’m helpless. There are no alternatives.”
Toboni found non-profit organizations that purportedly “empower” women to find employment, but effectively work as surrogacy recruiters by explaining to women living in extreme poverty how the payment compares to the alternatives of housecleaning or menial labor. Other recruiters regularly comb through the slums.
Despite Patel’s insistence that she discourages this practice, a recruiter found in the Mahavir slum claimed to be working directly for her, and seemed to be skimming several thousands of dollars off the payments to women that had been quoted by Patel.
There is currently no law regulating surrogacy in India. Dr. Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research explains the position of her group,
We are not against surrogacy. We think if the child can be given to a childless couple, it’s a noble idea. But we are against commercialization. This commercialization is totally based on an exploitative system. The violation of rights of a poor woman.
Throughout their Centre’s extensive research, they did not find a single surrogate who had a copy of her contract, leaving them without any legal recourse if they are under-paid or encounter serious medical problems.
The documentary includes Michele Goodwin, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at UC Irvine, explaining that clinics are motivated to implant multiple embryos at a time to maximize their chances of delivering a “successful product.” As well as putting the surrogate mother and babies at additional health risks, this ends up leading to “extra” babies that the commissioning parents weren’t expecting. As the Baby Gammy controversy of last summer made clear, some unwanted babies simply get abandoned.
And this documentary uncovers an even darker side of the problem. While posing as potential clients over dinner with a surrogacy broker, two Vicecorrespondents are shown a baby and told, “you can take that baby now… Let’s just make the deal now.” Toboni explains their reaction,
We soon realized that this woman was actually trying to sell us the baby they had brought with them to the restaurant. This wasn’t renting someone’s womb. This was human trafficking.
This fifteen-minute documentary shows the complex reality of the unregulated world of commercial surrogacy, beyond the smiling photos of beautiful babies and appealing price tags. As Goodwin puts it: “It’s a baby farm.”