Wombs in Labor: Transnational Commercial Surrogacy in India
New York: Columbia University Press, 2014, 272 pp.
Reviewed by Julia Kowalski
India emerged in the mid-2000s as a major site for transnational surrogacy, offering gestational services to would-be parents from around the world. Pande’s Wombs in Labor offers the first full-length ethnographic investigation of this industry. Pande demonstrates how surrogacy, along with the local and global anxieties that swirl around it, illuminates profound contradictions within discourses of gender, labor, and production/reproduction in transnational context.
Over several years, Pande interviews dozens of surrogates, as well as family members, medical staff, brokers, and clients—the intended parents of children born through surrogacy. The result is a nuanced depiction of surrogacy, contextualized both within India’s history, and within the global market for female labor and biomedical services. Pande includes long direct passages from interviews, allowing us to hear the diverse narratives of surrogates. These narratives refuse any straightforward description of surrogates as merely consenting or coerced.
There is much about the project of “outsourcing” gestation to affordable Indian wombs that is disturbing, from a lack of regulation to the politics of race and global inequality that underlie transactions between client, clinic and surrogate. Behind this is the question of whether transnational surrogacy in India is exploitative. Wombs in Labor is written in the shadow of this question. The short answer is yes: as currently organized, transnational surrogacy is “fundamentally exploitative” (170). Wealthy clients tell Pande that they are transforming women’s lives and even undoing oppressive patriarchal norms. Yet most surrogates find their earnings quickly absorbed into family businesses, medical emergencies, and routine household costs. Strikingly, the surrogates whose lives did substantially change were transformed not by money from clients but by the social ties they built with other surrogates while pregnant.
However, Wombs in Labor does far more than address the question of exploitation in surrogacy. Rather than condemning the moral gray areas surrounding surrogacy, Pande shows us how those gray areas are used to discipline surrogates into obedient workers. Rather than exoticizing Indian surrogates, she draws on their own narratives to demonstrate the sophisticated, surprising ways that surrogates repackage tradition and kinship in order to exert some degree of control over relationships with intended parents, the baby they will deliver, and the surrogacy clinic.
This is a phenomenal work of feminist ethnography: it takes what seems to be an extraordinary practice and shows how deeply that practice speaks to long-standing questions surrounding labor, gender, and reproduction. Pande manages the delicate balance of showing continuities between surrogacy and other gendered labor while articulating the distinctive demands that commercial surrogacy makes on women’s bodies. For example, she draws comparisons between the project of disciplining surrogates into the “perfect worker-mother,” safely maternal yet ultimately disposable, and the disciplinary projects that produce the docile nimble-fingered women workers of the global South. Yet in surrogacy, such discipline extends to bodies, wombs, and fertility. Women whose own children were born with minimal medical support submit to a highly interventionist biomedical regime; women whose fertility is aggressively discouraged by the Indian state discover that the state is perfectly happy to let the surrogacy industry co-opt their fertility on behalf of wealthier would-be parents.
Pande resists furthering critiques of surrogacy that reify ideologies of public vs. private, or that naturalize motherhood as inherently distinct from the market. Instead, she explores how surrogates transform tropes of motherhood and sisterhood, religiosity, and labor as they reframe their interactions with intended parents and with clinic staff. Yet surrogacy makes painfully visible the ironies of resistance and power. Pande deftly demonstrates how even as surrogates create new arguments about divinity, work, and family, they submit to new disciplinary demands from the clinic and their own kin. Surrogates, for example, sometimes turn to surrogacy in order to get the capital to escape kin-based subordination. Yet the clinic, in turn, asks them to submit to new disciplinary modes of kin discourse that reify deeply unequal gendered ideologies about motherhood.
Wombs in Labor is highly teachable, accessible to non-South Asia specialists without sacrificing attention to the specificity of the Indian context. The prose is narratively driven, and theoretical discussions are clear and rooted in the data. While Pande frames her material around questions of labor, discipline, and resistance, her material also speaks to current anthropological discussions about agency and autonomy, and would be provocative to assign alongside theoretical texts on docile agency and liberal notions of contract and consent.
While transnational surrogacy may be medically innovative, Pande’s great insight is that in the context of gender, labor, and reproduction, commercial surrogacy is less remarkable than we’d like to think. Rather than representing a radical departure from norms of labor and care, surrogacy allows us to better interrogate the gendered politics of production and reproduction in an interconnected yet unequal world.
Julia Kowalski is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Williams College, and received her PhD from the University of Chicago. Her research examines how NGO staff at women’s rights organizations in north India repurpose patriarchal kinship in the service of women’s rights. She is at work on a book manuscript focusing on the intersections between human rights claims and kinship in Indian family counseling practices.