Review of A Transnational Feminist View of Surrogacy Biomarkets in India. Sheela Saravanan, Singapore: Springer, 2018, 183 pp.

Reviewed Book

A Transnational Feminist View of Surrogacy Biomarkets in India. Sheela Saravanan, Singapore: Springer, 2018, 183 pp.

My children are living in India. Wherever human beings live, it is their home. India says the children are not Indians and that they were only born in India and Germany says the children are Indian because they are born through surrogacy, so which country does the children come from then … unfortunate to be born to a wicked country like Germany and a heartless country like India.

—Mary, intended mother of African origin married to a German man (pp. 149–50)

How can surrogate pregnancy in its most recent forms help illuminate debates and fractures within transnational feminist theory and practice? With a background in public health, Sheela Saravanan charts an ambitious course in A Transnational Feminist View of Surrogacy Biomarkets in India to synthesize feminist perspectives relevant to the analysis of surrogacy in terms of geneticization, racialization, and exploitation. Saravanan examines these theoretical contributions in light of her own ethnographic work with surrogates and intended parents in India.

The book joins a growing body of scholarship on transnational gestational surrogacy, which has blossomed in recent years not only as a topic for bioethical analysis but also as a rich area for ethnographic research on topics of core anthropological interest, such as kinship and relatedness, immigration, citizenship, nationalism, and hierarchy. Researchers working in this area have also made significant contributions by applying their work to influence national-level and global policy debates about the movement of reproductive materials and persons involved in surrogacy. Critical of what she sees as the romanticization of women’s agency amid larger conditions of oppression (p. 133), Saravanan aims to draw attention to inequalities and injustices in surrogacy practice, drawing on a range of feminist positions on postcoloniality, intersectionality, and reproductive justice. Engaging ethnographic, autoethnographic, and feminist theoretical materials, she concludes that surrogacy entails a violation of human rights and argues for changes directed toward achieving “humanitarian assisted conception” (pp. 7, 182).

The book offers a comprehensive review of feminist scholarship on reproductive inequalities across disciplines, including postcolonial, reproductive justice, stratified reproduction, intersectional feminist, and transnational feminist perspectives. The author puts this analytical framework to work drawing attention to the local nuances of reproductive stratification to evaluate the potentials and pitfalls of transnational reproductive practices and feminist alliances and advocacy for the specific contexts of transnational surrogacy practice in India. The theoretical discussion is at times quite dense for non-specialists and tends toward logical leaps in spots. Still, the theoretical critiques emanate from the ethnographic heart of the work, which involved interviews with 13 surrogate mothers, as well as a handful of intended parents seeking children through surrogacy, along with medical practitioners working in two infertility clinics in western India (pp. 5, 102).

The work focuses on a rather small number of participants, but it offers more longitudinal detail on particular stories than is often the case in works on this topic. Saravanan weaves autoethnographic material into the text in ways that are helpful for understanding the practical and ethical challenges associated with conducting research that moves between clinical spaces and homes and engages interlocutors from different cultural, national, and class backgrounds in ways that make the most of the author’s own global experience (p. 108).

Saravanan provides a sensitive discussion about how her origins as a middle-class woman from a Mumbai-based Tamilian (South Indian) family informs her feminist praxis (p. 52) and the relationships she developed with other Indians involved in surrogacy. At the same time, she describes how her ties to Europe, and Germany in particular, helped her interact with transnational intended parents, especially Europeans.

These ties drew her attention to the variety of experiences of intended parents who faced a constellation of challenges in pursuing surrogacy in India, for example, varying national regulations of citizenship for children born through surrogacy and discrimination linked to racial, ethnic, or religious factors. She also poignantly recounts how her own positionality led her into multiple and, at times, uncomfortable expectations from interlocutors in the field, such as intended mothers who wanted her to translate while they tried to recruit nannies from India or to convey messages to surrogates (pp. 136–37). As a researcher well poised to move back and forth between spaces and cultural worlds occupied by intended parents hailing from the global “one-third/haves” and those of “two-thirds/have-nots” in India (p. 23, citing Mohanty 2003), as well as amid Indian medical professionals, Saravanan articulates the extreme contrasts experienced by differently situated actors in surrogacy. She documents and interprets views of India expressed by foreign intended parents that are especially difficult for her to tolerate in light of her own Indian background.

While the book at times gives priority to theoretical analysis at the expense of ethnographic richness, Chapters 5 and 6 stand out as the ethnographic heart of the book. These chapters offer detailed accounts of the experiences of women who offer their bodies for surrogate pregnancy and of the intended parents who hire them, interspersed with autoethnographic reflections on the difficult dance of managing relationships throughout the research process. Chapter 6 highlights the contrasts and exclusions rampant in surrogacy practice through compelling stories of intended parents from Germany, Canada, and a woman of African origin, identified as Mary (quoted above), married to a German man. Here, disputes over the nature of citizenship come to the fore as intended parents struggle to claim the children they create through surrogacy and to take them back to their foreign homes. If the suspension of transnational surrogacy in India since late 2016 (p. 33) leads to more nuanced analyzes of inequalities and exploitation in domestic surrogacy in India, this book can provide important guidance about the potential and possible limitations of thinking with various feminist frameworks, including reproductive justice.

The book would readily fit into courses on transnational feminism for advanced undergraduates or graduate students. Sections of the book could contribute to courses focused on intersecting topics such as globalization, nationalism, identity, assisted reproductive technologies, biomedical ethics, and research methods. Selected chapters would pair seamlessly with journalistic or documentary film representations of transnational surrogacy in India, which are plentiful and engaging resources for students at all levels.

Reference Cited

Mohanty, C. T. 2003. “Under Western Eyes” Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles. Signs 28: 499–535.