14 March 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 599
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Using a surrogate mother to have a baby has hit the headlines recently with two high-profile celebrity surrogacy cases - Elton John and Nicole Kidman - but surrogacy remains controversial. Many countries have an outright ban on the practice, while other countries limit surrogacy arrangements to those based on altruism. Perhaps the most controversial form of surrogacy is when significant sums of money change hands and the process becomes a commercial transaction. A new form of surrogacy takes the commercial aspect and includes a cross-border element, where couples go abroad to seek a surrogate mother.
The feature-length documentary 'Made in India' tackles cross-border surrogacy head-on by going beyond the sensational headlines to uncover for the first time the personal lives and choices of the surrogates and infertile people involved. The film follows an American couple, Lisa and Brian Switzer, on their quest to have a baby. Lisa is 40 and, although she has wanted a baby since she was 25, she cannot conceive naturally. The couple can't afford the average cost of between US$70,000 and US$100,000 for a domestic surrogate and instead turn to a reproductive outsourcing business to find an Indian surrogate to carry their embryo. To do this, they have sold their house and risked their savings to pay US$25,000 to undergo the process.
Cross-border reproductive tourism has become a booming business, valued at more than US$450 million in India alone and, as the clinic featured in the film attests, demand is increasing. Moreover, when this film was made there were few laws governing surrogacy transactions in India. What passed as 'law' was skeletal and mainly consisted of guidelines and regulations that were, to a large extent, unenforceable. As we journey with the intended parents and the surrogate we are shown firsthand the problems this brings. As well as this legal vacuum, other issues such as autonomy, dignity, global corporate practices, exploitation, commodification of the body, social stigma and the notion of motherhood are all brought to the fore in this 97-minute film.
We are introduced to Aasia, the surrogate woman who is carrying the baby Lisa cannot create. She is twenty-seven, impoverished, illiterate and has three children of her own. Aasia starts by explaining that whatever she is doing, she is doing for her children; for their happiness. Her husband can't earn enough to support the family and she would like to save the money for her children's future. She does not really understand surrogacy and IVF. She exclaims: 'How could a child be conceived without a man?!'
Throughout the film, scenes of a quiet American suburb are juxtaposed with a bustling Indian slum, displaying the obstacles faced by the US couple, and giving an intimate understanding of the surrogate's life story and motivations. We are shown the gruelling regime Lisa must undergo to have her eggs extracted, and we are also shown the strain and sacrifice Aasia experiences during her pregnancy.
'Made in India' is a powerfully poignant and sobering film that seamlessly weaves the interconnected stories of all the parties involved in 'outsourced' surrogacy into a well-rounded and educational film. The film eloquently reveals the legal, ethical and moral implications behind each party's choices, and presents the conflict between the personal and political dilemmas of cross-border reproductive tourism in a sensitive and informative way.
The film provides an even-handed account of this type of reproductive tourism. Not only do we hear from the intending parents and the surrogate mother, we also hear the views of the clinic and agency involved, the Indian Government, the women's rights movement and the US Consulate. However, one criticism is we hear little about the US legal system's approach to cross-border reproductive tourism - only glimpse its views through the eyes of the US Consulate based in Mumbai.
'Made in India' would be ideal viewing for those contemplating surrogacy abroad or as a tool to inform the general public about the issues surrounding the outsourcing of surrogacy. It leaves the audience questioning the evolution of surrogacy from an altruistic gift to a process that now involves serious questions of exploitation, human rights abuse and lack of autonomy. As Vaishali Sinha, the film's co-director and producer, explains: 'Our goal at this point is to talk about the issue and current ethical standards and to raise awareness both in India and globally to ensure women's rights are protected'.