January 16, 2008

Merchants of Birth

Recently, an enterprise in India has made news around the world. It's claim to fame? Offering to labor at globally competitive wages to prospective employers from the U.S., U.K., and many other parts of the world. The workers were endowed with resources that its employers either were lacking or the expected dis-utility of putting their own to use was relatively higher. The management received salaries for business development, organizing a team of excellent service providers, and managing them. The entrepreneur earned a return for the capital she had invested in the business.

Of course, there's nothing earth shaking about this story. Selling what one has in surfeit for a price that reflects what the buyer is willing to forgo has been going on for eons. In fact, it's the hallmark of differentiating humans from most other life forms. Trade. Another emotion-laden term for this timeless human activity is outsourcing. India must have thousands of factories and back offices that sold goods and services to their outsourcing customers. So, what is the hullabaloo about this particular enterprise in Anand, Gujarat?

The enterprise is a clinic run by one heck of a business woman. A maternity clinic run by a savvy gynecologist - Dr. Nayna Patel. Dr. Patel hires women of child-bearing age, and contract their services to women who are infertile, or otherwise incapable of carrying their own babies to full term. The surrogates are paid Rs. 200,000 - 300,000 (USD 5000-7500) to nurture the fetuses in their wombs until they are born. After that, the surrogates relinquish any right to the babies, and the principal parent(s) take over the caring for the babies until they reach an age when they have learnt to fly the coop. The surrogates after fulfilling the contract are free to do whatever they want to do with their lives.

Wordsmith intellectuals, as Nozick calls them in this essay, use colorful terms to describe this business — "Womb for rent", "India's outsourcing starts in the womb", "Handmaid's Tale", "Baby farms", "Incubators on legs", yada yada. The usual suspects on the left complain that this is rank exploitation of women in need by the capitalists. Dehumanization as a result of globalization, observe the post-modernist literary windbags. The conservatives chastise the doctors and scientists for transgressing moral boundaries and playing god. Slice it in any manner you like, it's still baloney all over.

In an otherwise cautious opinion piece in her New York Times blog, Judith Warner quotes the ruling by the French Supreme Court (the Court of Cassation) in 1991, outlawing surrogate-mother agreements. The court invalidated a contract between a surrogate mother and an infertile couple, agreeing with the solicitor general's argument that "the human body is not lent out, is not rented out, is not sold." Now, how could any reasonable person object to this lofty pronouncement? Well, what am I doing when I walk into that lecture hall everyday to conduct an inane case discussion for three hours, standing on two feet and waving my hands furiously? Am I not lending my body, renting my voice, and selling my services for a wage? Why is it morally reprehensible to lease one's womb but not vocal chords, shoulder muscles, and brain?

They say that these women did not want to rent their wombs, and would not have done so if their economic situation had not warranted the renting. There's nothing special about this argument either. Nobody who did not want to sell a service, would sell it if their economic situation had not warranted the sale. A Japanese saying that I came across went something like this:

Lucky are those who know what they want to do in their lives; luckier are those who get to do what they want to do; and the luckiest are those who get to do what they want to do, and do it well!

Perhaps, the women who rent their wombs belong to the billions who are not as lucky as the second and the third kind, even if they were lucky enough to know what they want to do. It's unfortunate that many of us end up in trades that do not measure up to our likes and dislikes, but hey, such is life!

They say that these poor women from a country where maternal mortality rates are unacceptably high, are putting their lives at risk. So does a soldier who goes to Iraq to fight to protect someone else's freedom and life. Or a police woman responding to call for help in a domestic violence case. Firemen and all kinds of rescue workers lose their lives saving others. A construction worker, a doctor attending to cholera patients, a social worker, even an inner city school teacher, puts her or his life at risk on a daily basis.

They say that this surrogate business is a cultural affront to the people of India, who seem to frown upon anything sexual, from kissing in public to sex education in the classroom. These are nothing but political gimmickry. Carrying the child of someone other than the husband has not been a taboo in India for millenniums. The women have done it routinely to serve the interest of the State.

In the Indian epic Mahabharatha, Vyasa, the author and a sage-in-residence for the Kingdom of Hastinapura, fathered babies for the two princes, Chithrvirya and Vichitravirya, who were both impotent. Mind you, it was not in vitro or artificial insemination, but the good old way of making babies through copulation! Vyasa himsef was born out of wedlock. There's no need to squirm about cultural sensitivities, okay? In Iran or Saudi Arabia, may be, but not in India.

If you were a woman with few, if any, marketable skills, and desperately needed a decent livelihood, what would you rather do? Contract for a lifelong servitude with some good for nothing fellow who drank away his paltry wages, or offer your labor to earn a lifetime of wages in just nine months? I think, for an astute merchant of birth, the answer should be obvious!

1 comment :
  1. Well said! Great post, and every word pregnant with truth!
    Was missing your posts!


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