Unit Eight: Surrogacy: Thinking about Ethnography and Bioethics

Hello! this is Niharika Pathak writing for Unit 8. Unit 8 included an article from Elly Teman, “The Social Construction of surrogacy research: An anthropological critique of the psychosocial scholarship on surrogate motherhood.” Social Science and Medicine and the film, MADE IN INDIA.

The film explores the challenges of infertile women or women who have problems conceiving and what they have to go through in order to have a child. This film exploring the surrogacy option and the reproductive out sourcing business with some women not having an available surrogate or the healthcare coverage to afford one, they would travel to foreign countries in the east such as India in order to find a surrogate at price financially fit for them.

The film shows how far both mothers will go for their children, the surrogate mother trying to earn money that she will be offered, by going through with the pregnancy, and the American women who is trying to become a mother and is willing to travel many miles to create her family. This shows how many problems the American healthcare system has if there has been an increase of foreign patients in Indian fertility clinics because of the steep price American families would of have to pay in the American healthcare system for the surrogacy. Even in Indian culture, as seen in the film, many husbands of the surrogates were also apprehensive about having someone else’s child in their wives and often misunderstood, thinking that another man’s sperm would impregnate their wife. As well as a social stigma of giving birth to children that are not your own. The cultural norm of the man not wanting sperm donation for his wife was also seen in the study done in Lebanon we read.

Being Indian myself, and seeing first hand how intensely horrible the living conditions and poverty can be in India, it is very understandable to see why the reproductive out-sourcing is becoming more popular for American couples to try, there is some moral conflict about surrogacy and creating it into a business all for profit. But because both parties are initially benefiting, with the infertile American couple getting a surrogate and child at much lower price. As well as the indian surrogate women in poverty will now be getting a large sum of money that will definitely be of use to her family. This film being made in early 2000s, there were some different legal protocols and guidelines issues with the birth certificates of the children being in the name of the surrogate mother and not the genetic mother so she was not allowed to see her children. There was also policy to be made advocating for the surrogate’s rights.

The article from Teman describes her methodology of exploring the western assumptions on family and how it can differ from the eastern customs. She researches the scientific and phycological effects that participating in surrogacy can have on the women, and what kind of attachments are made between the host and child and what happens when the child is taken away. It explores the reasons of women choosing to become a surrogate and the results of that action. She argues that wanting to become a surrogate in exchange for money is not a normal behavior. This brings up the question of the ethics and morality of surrogacy, is justified to have a women go through pregnancy just for them to give the child up, even if they get attached?


  1. Hi Niharika! Great post! The only writing pointers I’d give would be to watch out for run-on sentences, be careful about spelling, and make sure sentence structure is sound internally. Besides that, you did a great job of summarizing both the film and the article, although you may have benefitted from adding a quotation or two. I love how you interwove your personal experience being an Indian woman because it provided an informed, unique point of view.

    As far as morality and surrogacy goes, I think it is completely a personal choice. Creating ethical or moral guidelines around a topic as subjective as human emotions is tricky. One surrogate could feel completely differently than another because every human experience is different. Additionally, each of these women more or less knows that she will give up the baby at the end of the pregnancy, so they should all be prepared for what will happen. Being a surrogate is a choice.

  2. Pairing the film with the reading really allowed me to visualize the interactions and exchanges that occur during this blatant form of transactional relationship. The social stigma associated with surrogacy seems to induce a sense of shame and secrecy as women hide away to avoid explaining the situation to their partners and family. I wonder whether or not men would experience the same need to keep sperm donor situations private? Especially since their contribution to the system doesn’t manifest physically or outwardly, what are the double standards that exist and how do they navigate these challenges differently from women? Contractual agreements must differ between men and women when serving such important roles in assisting reproductive desires of different families but how might religious background further affect the terms of the agreement? Being that the woman in the film belonged to practices of Islam, how might situations change with suurogates led by a different holy doctrine? How does the context of surrogate tourism challenge kinship systems if the commissioning family returns overseas and doesn’t maintain relations with the birth mother after the child is born?

  3. Hello Niharika!
    I really appreciated your input into In Elly Teman’s article, I interpreted the information differently; however, my initial approach and assumptions entering the reading were also different. In the motivations of the surrogate to participate, I initially assumed that these women had financial reasons to pursuing surrogacy.

    I believe Teman is actually fighting the assumption that a surrogate’s main motivation is reparative, whether that is a miscarriage, abortion, loss of a child, or divorce. She says that “the studies usually find very little evidence of a reparative motive but place undue emphasis on the few cases in which such a motivation is found.” Teman argues that these assumptions stem from the imposition of traditional Western cultural conceptions: family and motherhood. Surrogacy turns these values into a capitalistic market, so that families are “a matter of choice rather than fate and reveal that families are social constructs.” Thus, it is easier to “blame” this destabilization only on non-normative women, with a history of being unstable, distressed, and traumatized, than to accept surrogates as normal women happy to both preserve an identity of a mother to their own children while relinquishing this title towards the surrogate baby.

  4. Hi Niharika!

    Like Audrey said, I think Teman’s research is defending surrogate mothers and dismissing gendered assumptions on why these women chose to become surrogates. Regarding financial incentives, I believe Teman is not suggesting that being motivated by financial compensation is not normal, but rather undermining previous claims that beneath monetary incentives, these surrogates are actually driven by reparative motives caused by previous loss or trauma.

    In regards to your question about whether it is justified to force a woman to give up their child even if they grew attached, I agree with Willie’s argument that becoming a surrogate is a choice that the woman actively made. As we read in Elly Teman’s other article, “Knowing the Surrogate Body in Israel,” the surrogate mother thinks of the fetus in her body not as her own child, but the child of the intended mother. This creates a sense of detachment between the birth mother and the child, and the surrogate instead builds a strong bond with the intended mother. Teman suggests that upon the termination of the surrogacy contract, surrogates feel more loss over the ending of their relationship with the intended mothers than over departing with the child.

    I think the movie supports Teman’s argument that surrogacy does not have to be motivated by abnormal personalities and traumatic events, nor will it necessarily cause relinquishment issues. Like you said, the Indian mother was motivated by her love for her own children–she agreed to become a surrogate so that she could save up dowery money for her daughter.

  5. Hi, Niharika Pathak. I appreciate your summary and think it was very succinct. However, I wish Teman focused less on the surrogate mother and moreso on the Americans seeking the service. I do agree with Teman that these indian mothers do have financial incentives, as well as moral obligations to become surrogates. However, where is the moral obligation of American women seeking to become mothers not to exploit poverty and a broken system. I find it incredibly ironic that American and other western societies will lament the system they actively participate in and made, when that system does not benefit them any longer. The increased expense of surrogacy in America is juxtaposed with increased safety, regulation, and the added expenses of being privileged in America. To impose western ideals of “Choice” on a group of women of a different culture to justify why their feeling of abandonment is invalid , is wholly unethical. The only reason there is a market for international surrogacy is due to the reduced cost. But I wonder if the American women whom take “their” children back to America, will their children have less privilege? Should they? These women circumvented the surrogacy system in their home countries to seek low cost options, should their children be considered of lower value. In practice, of course not, but it reveals the issue of privaledged individuals often times causing more problems than the issues they solve, all the while having their cake and eating it too. That is what international surrogacy looks to me as I feel the indian women do not benefit, especially monetarily, as much as they should.

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