20 June 2016
ByAppeared in BioNews 856
Discounted Life: The Price of Global Surrogacy in India
Published by New York University Press
ISBN-10: 1479825328, ISBN-13: 978-1479825325
Buy this book from Amazon UK
Discounted Life is compassionate, critical and somehow as heart-warming as it is heart-breaking. Most of all it is an utterly captivating look into the lives of the women who made the production line of India's surrogacy industry at a time when it was still legal and booming. Sharmila Rudrappa takes us into the socially and economically precarious worlds of the garment-factory workers in urban Bangalore who also constitute the recruiting ground for a lucrative global business turning poverty in India into babies for the West.
Rudrappa's long fieldwork and Indian heritage allowed her to get a close look at the lives of surrogate women beyond the clinic and the surrogate hostel. She traced their steps through the winding streets of overcrowded urban neighbourhoods, sat on their floors for dinner and coffee, and became a part of the networks of friendship and obligation that sustain surrogacy in Bangalore. As a result, desperate and destitute women are replaced in the book with real-life characters hustling to make a life for themselves in an uncertain world, engaged in an industry that is set to reduce them to reproductive bodies.
Rudrappa carefully maps out the personal relationships and local networks through which surrogacy markets are created and sustained, showing just how much goes on behind the image of docile brown bellies that are advertised to the world. Indeed, Rudrappa's rich ethnographic account of the relentless drive and endless creativity with which these women pursue the prospect of a good life, of social worth and familial acceptance in the face of their undeniable despair would in itself make for a phenomenal read.
Yet this colourful detail is always kept firmly in the context of its wider significance to conversations about the meanings and impacts of transnational commercial surrogacy. Rudrappa locates surrogacy within the histories of politics and control as well as aspiration, nationalism and modernisation that the bodies of working-class Indian women have long been subjects of and subjected to.
In the past such interventions have sought to restrict these women's reproduction as part of population control policies. Now that these same bodies can be harnessed to global reproductive assembly lines for the production of desirable white babies, they have become a lucrative source of revenue in their interactions with biotechnology as ova donors and surrogates.
Her focus on surrogacy as a form of labour allows her to connect surrogate women's decisions and experiences to the broader context of the precarious, unhealthy and dehumanising work in garment sweatshops that can make the underpaid, undervalued, risky and traumatising work of surrogacy seem life affirming. These women have been part of global production markets for a long time, a fact that shapes their experiences of surrogacy. Current practices are set against a backdrop of the local custom of child-sharing in families, experiences of being forced to give up their babies for wealthy patrons or the theft of newborns.
Despite Rudrappa's sharp criticism of cross-border commercial surrogacy, 'Discounted Life' is not a call to end the business. In fact, one of the most theoretically powerful lines of argument in the book is an interrogation of the assumption that money corrupts intimate relations. A brilliant ethnography, this book is a lot more nuanced, informed and complicated. It is an ambitious and rewarding attempt to flesh out and unpack the ambiguities of surrogacy, to find both exploitation and love in the new, extraordinary relationships created on this frontier of kinship, labour and technology.
This book, as Rudrappa lays out early on, is a 'story about the intrusion of the market in life processes we could not have imagined being commodified, let alone globalised'. But in its pages is also a powerful call to push back on these processes and the false promises of neoliberalism that inform them, to remember that surrogacy cannot and does not need to turn humans into production lines, women into wombs or babies into products.
Buy Discounted Life: The Price of Global Surrogacy in India from Amazon UK.