Book Review: Transnational Reproduction: Race, Kinship and Commercial Surrogacy in India

Transnational Reproduction: Race, Kinship and Commercial Surrogacy in India. Daisy Deomampo, New York: NYU Press, 2016, 288 pp.

What ideologies of race, kinship, and inequality make the practice of transnational surrogacy in India possible? To answer this question, Transnational Reproduction relates stories of people, histories, technologies, flows of capital, and imaginaries as they come together through the practice of gestational surrogacy in India. Contributing a new ethnography to the rapidly growing scholarship in this area, Daisy Deomampo analyzes the cultural narratives and economic motives that brought people to what was a rapidly growing industry prior to the Indian government’s ban on transnational surrogacy in late 2015.

Based on 2010 fieldwork (when the practice of transnational surrogacy in India was escalating), the book focuses on Mumbai but extends to other cities and includes Internet-based ethnography with continuing follow-up. Deomampo describes transnational reproduction as “an emergent social formation” (p. 8), examining imaginaries of race and kinship as these constitute one another in contexts of stratified reproduction. She argues that transnational reproduction, as viewed through the ethnography of surrogacy clinics, is a “racialized social structure” (p. 225). Each chapter illustrates the interactions and imaginaries through which surrogacy practice becomes a place where actors “make race” in particular ways. Working with translators, Deomampo interviews participants, follows surrogates to their homes, meets several commissioning parents in the United States, and interviews egg donors, doctors, recruiting agents, and others.

The introduction and initial chapters offer a general history of how Euro-American concepts of race are imagined in the context of transnational reproduction. These chapters also include a historical overview of public health and assisted reproductive technology in India. By the third chapter, we begin to see how these categories are enacted and engaged in particular contexts. Chapter 3 includes a brief historical discussion of the complexity of race in India’s history, where skin tone (rather than race) is entangled with caste through British colonial rule and into the present. Deomampo shows how imaginaries of skin color and education are classified and differently valued in a stratified egg donor market, and how even the ethnographer herself becomes the object of the system’s gaze as she is solicited as a possible donor.

Excerpts from interviews relate stories of primarily white, North American, and northern European client parents navigating phenotypical difference when selecting egg donors. For example, Deomampo describes one pair of white client parents flying white egg donors into India until they run out of funds, at which point they must negotiate and re-narrate what skin color means when they must purchase ova from Indian donors.

A comparative discussion of how U.S. and Norwegian client parents negotiate state structures of citizenship underpins Chapter 4. As she describes client parents working to secure citizenship for infants born through surrogacy in India, Deomampo points to how transnational reproduction puts state structures of citizenship into crisis. Two vignettes highlight the inconsistent application of U.S. citizenship regulations, which recognize only genetic descent from a citizen or birth on U.S. soil. Deomampo compares this to Norway, where a woman who does not give birth to a child has no rights to it because genetics and gestation together constitute citizenship. Deomampo concludes that:

In the context of ARTs [assisted reproductive technologies], soil and blood are not always interlinked, complicating citizenship practices that link the right to citizenship to being born on the soil of a place (jus soli) to the right of citizenship through having blood descent from citizens of a state (jus sanguinus). (p. 127)

The fifth chapter shows how physicians and surrogates imagine surrogacy as work. Deomampo draws attention to physician prejudice against surrogates, whether due to classism, casteism, or racism. The brief treatment doesn’t leave space to get into the independent histories of these three frames of reference or how they interact. This means that essential aspects of the origins, frameworks, and consequences of these different forms of prejudice, in particular the ways in which they are not commensurate with an Anglo-American global framework of racial inequality, are not fully explored. But these nuances of prejudice are a facet of surrogacy that remains understudied, and this chapter provides a valuable contribution. Also included is a brief section on how both physicians and surrogates view client parents and the fetus.

Chapter 6 affirms the predominance of non-medically necessary Caesarian sections for women delivering infants as surrogates. Other scholars have made similar observations about medical risk, surrogacy, and the lack of informed consent and risk counseling for women who are considering becoming surrogates, but this chapter adds close attention to “race talk” as it is used by doctors to justify C-section deliveries. For example, Indian surrogates are described as by nature too physically small to deliver “Western” babies, which are described as universally large in size (p. 177). Here, Deomampo shows how what she describes as “racializing the population of surrogate mothers as naturally small … erases the social and structural factors that influence population height and weight” (p. 179).

The seventh and final chapter advances the concept of “constrained agency” to describe the choices made by women considering and choosing surrogacy in the context of what Deomampo describes as racial stereotypes of “the docile and virtuous, or manipulative and shrewd” Third World woman (p. 196). Focusing on the imaginary of surrogates by presumably white U.S. and northern European client parents and potential clients, this chapter focuses on surrogates’ experiences in their own homes, challenging “homogeneous images of Third World women” as “helpless, oppressed and thus in need of rescue” (p. 200).

Transnational Reproduction reveals the variety of ways that actors in transnational surrogacy participate in structures of inequality and how these structures are imagined through the entangled tropes of race and class. The broad scope of the study means that the evidence of transnational surrogacy as “a structure of race” can be abbreviated at points. It seems to sometimes assume a uniform global structure of market-based valuing of race and racial characteristics, for example, by largely excluding analysis of non-white and non-U.S. and European client parents. Such perspectives could potentially destabilize this seeming uniformity, while enriching the analysis of surrogacy as a “racialized social structure.”

Deomampo’s study retraces some of the ground already covered in existing ethnographic studies of Indian surrogacy without always engaging and building on existing scholarship. Nevertheless, Transnational Reproduction clarifies exactly how the compensation for surrogacy is inadequate to the promises made by recruiting agents and doctors. The chapters explores a variety of sub-discourses on how commissioning parents from the United States and Europe (though a substantial percentage of commissioning parents come from other parts of the world and about half come from within India) use contradicting notions of biological versus social motherhood, or of phenotypical or genetic racial difference to distance themselves from surrogates and to justify their economic exploitation.

Overall, Deomampo’s study offers new ethnographic insight into transnational assisted reproduction arrangements in India. Transnational Reproduction contributes an analysis of transnational surrogacy markets as spaces of racial formation in a wide variety of contexts. Accessibly written, it could be taught in undergraduate courses or modules on transnational surrogacy or assisted reproduction and social/economic inequality at lower and upper levels. The book promises to be an important resource for scholars of global markets in reproductive services.

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