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Double Issue: 9.1-9.2: Fall 2010 / Spring 2011
Guest Edited by Rebecca Jordan-Young
Critical Conceptions: Technology, Justice, and the Global Reproductive Market

Interrogating Narratives About the Global Surrogacy Market

Susan Markens

In 1985 Margaret Atwood published her award-winning book, The Handmaid's Tale. In this dystopian future, elite couples who are unable to conceive due to high rates of infertility enslave fertile women to serve as their reproductive concubines. In 1986, the following year, the world was introduced to the practice of surrogate motherhood through the infamous Baby M custody case.[1] Between 1986 and 1988, when the case of Baby M was argued first at the trial court level, and then reviewed by the New Jersey Supreme court, the case received much attention by the media. For instance, in 1987 alone the New York Times published 131 articles on surrogate motherhood, often more than one appearing on the same day.[2] Following this media attention the topic received much scholarly attention from social scientists and political and legal theorists.[3] Although there were multiple perspectives on the topic at the time, including diverse feminist positions, a dominant initial feminist view expressed concerns about the exploitation of women. These feminist criticisms of surrogacy ranged from a concern with the commodification of women's bodies and parallels between surrogacy and prostitution that would result in "reproductive brothels," to the increased possibility of using poor women, women of color and Third World women's bodies to service the reproductive desires of white elite women.[4] Subsequent ethnographic research in the U.S. has found that surrogates are not 'dupes' but are agents, using their bodies to simultaneously reinscribe and challenge traditional notions of motherhood/family. Furthermore, surrogate narratives speak of a desire to 'help a family' as the primary motivation in becoming a surrogate, downplaying economic factors as secondary or irrelevant.[5]

Fast forward two and half decades from the hoopla of the Baby M case and surrogacy is once again in the news. Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show to issues of assisted reproduction, subtitled "Wombs for Rent." CBS News ran a segment titled "Outsourced 'Wombs-For-Rent' in India." Headlines from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times read "Outsourced Wombs," "India Nurtures Business of Surrogate Motherhood" "Outsourcing Childbirth," "The Globalization of Baby-Making," "Rent-a womb in India fuels surrogate motherhood debate," and "Wombs for Rent, Cheap."[6] Pictures that accompanied these articles depict rows of Indian women sitting docilely in a clinic wearing pink and blue gowns with matching head covers and masks that cover their entire faces except their eyes,[7] or women in saris standing, their faces not shown, but their naked and protruding pregnant bellies prominently displayed.[8] The feminist dystopia—of reproductive inequality and exploitation—imagined by Atwood and feared by many feminists since the Baby M trial has seemingly come to fruition at the dawn of the 21st century. And once again, feminist scholars are paying attention to the topic of surrogate motherhood, and the broader issue of reproductive outsourcing between bodies and across continents. Emerging ethnographic research on Indian surrogates has found some similarities with U.S. based research—from the agency of the surrogates to the specialness they feel in helping a couple create a family. However, and not surprisingly, Indian surrogates, unlike most of their American counterparts, do clearly acknowledge the monetary aspects of the situation to explain and justify their decision to become surrogates.[9]

As someone who has already published research on American cultural politics of surrogate motherhood that existed around the time of the Baby M case, I too have been drawn back to the topic with the recent media attention given to surrogacy and reproductive tourism. I am currently working on a research project comparing the media and cultural discourses used to frame the issue of surrogate motherhood in the late 1980s and early 1990s to those that are deployed in current media accounts of and public debates about the topic. For this new study, I am analyzing all articles that pertain to surrogacy from 1980 through 2009 that appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek, as well as stories appearing in other major news venues in the last several years. Additionally, due to the changes in media brought on by the Internet, I have also collected over a thousand online reader responses to three prominent stories that appeared in 2008.

Despite the growth and changes in the surrogacy industry in the last twenty-five years, I have actually found that there is a great deal of continuity in the debates about the merits and problems with surrogacy. In particular, I find that two main competing discursive frames about surrogacy continue to focus either on concerns about commodified reproduction or defenses of reproductive freedom. In my earlier work I identified "baby selling" and "the plight of infertile couples" as the two main competing frames in debates over surrogacy in the 1980s and I argued that both these frames tend to reinforce cultural notions of a public-private divide.[10] Drawing on preliminary data and illustrative examples from my current project, the following are some further observations I've made about the frames used to construct narratives about surrogacy and the additional cultural assumptions they seem to share. My goal is not to evaluate whether surrogacy is "good" or "bad." The issues I raise are also not meant to be an exhaustive list of the multitude of dimensions by which the global reproductive market can be analyzed. Instead I hope to point out a few overlooked topics and assumptions in current accounts of and debates about the surrogacy industry.

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