Review: Wombs in Labor

January 29, 2017

From the January-February 2017 issue of News & Letters

Review: Wombs in Labor: Transnational Commercial Surrogacy in India, by Amrita Pande, published by Columbia University Press (September 23, 2014), 272 pages.

Pande, an Indian emigrant, was prompted to write this book because there was almost no research on “India’s new form of outsourcing,” gestational surrogacy. This differs from traditional surrogacy in that, rather than using an egg cell from the surrogate mother, the fertilized egg implanted in the Indian woman’s womb is from both biological parents. India is the first country in the global South to have both national and international customers for this medical industry. It costs one-third of what it does in the U.S. and has no government regulations, but surrogates can earn more than what they normally would in ten years.


U.S. media runs glowing stories portraying it as a win/win situation for clients and surrogates. Academics and activists studying surrogacy have portrayed it in four different ways. Some debate its ethics or morality. Liberal feminists support the right of the woman surrogate to choose to use her own body as she pleases. Radical feminists condemn surrogacy as patriarchal and capitalist exploitation of women. The more recent ethnographic approach studies “the impact of surrogacy on the meanings of motherhood, kinship, and work.”

Pande references these viewpoints but studies surrogacy as a form of labor. Her book “goes beyond moral questions to question how a labor market in wombs is created and how the laborers experience this market.” She also states: “[B]y identifying commercial surrogacy as labor susceptible to exploitation and simultaneously recognizing the women as laborers, this book complicates the image of the victim always evoked whenever the bodies of third world women are in focus.”

Pande doesn’t make any prescriptions about what should happen to surrogacy and future reproductive technologies. She does not draw any conclusions about whether it is ultimately good or bad. She instead shows us the many complicated social factors that affect the women and how they deal with them—just as laborers do in other situations.

She interviews surrogates who live at a clinic for the duration of their pregnancy, spending most of their time in bed, getting shots and medical exams and walking around. The level of surveillance seems like what Margaret Atwood describes in The Handmaid’s Tale and like any factory sweatshop.


However, some of the women welcome a chance to rest from their normal physical labor. They are given a high level of medical care, which was not available to them for their own pregnancies. Some were coerced by their families into becoming surrogates; others defy their families to make a decision about their own bodies and income. Some feel that they are turning the tables on anti-natalist government propaganda that preaches that the fertility of their bodies is driving them into poverty.

In the face of a society that confuses surrogacy with prostitution, the clinic personnel tell the surrogates that they are providing a great gift for their clients and providing for their own families. However, they are compared to prostitutes if they attempt to negotiate with the clients for a higher income. Their clients feel they are helping to pull the less fortunate out of poverty, but the money is usually depleted in financial emergencies.

Pande points out that the notion that reproductive and care giving work done primarily or exclusively by women is “natural” rather than a “conscious, social activity” has been used to deny income to women for this work. She also states that surrogates and their clients can form alliances that could lead to “transnational feminism.”

Pande’s book examines the very complicated real-life experiences of women paid for the biological use of their bodies and places them in a context of labor. It is a valuable contribution to understanding the increasingly complicated future of biological technology.


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