Fertility tourism is a growing global industry, bringing in over $400 million a year in India alone. For the right price, people can buy IVF treatments, donated eggs and sperm along with a surrogate mother. The clients are often white and rich. The suppliers pressed into service are often neither.
In Margaret Attwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, a class of women exist solely to give birth to other’s children. Their bodies are no longer their own, but a commodity in perpetual servitude to richer, ruling classes.
This fantasy is more real than imagined when you consider the case of Gammy, born with Down Syndrome, separated from his twin and left to live in poverty with his surrogate mother, Pattharamon Janbua, in Thailand. Janbua has become the 21st Century Handmaid, the face of impoverished fertility offered at a price to the rich and most often white customers.
Gammy and Janbua’s case highlights the inequality of fertility tourism for what it is: the new face of human trafficking.
As always, the most powerful people will always be those with the most money but the question must be asked: what are they buying and is it ethical? By using money and vulnerability as a means to coerce women into exploitative service, fertility tourism is an abuse of power that reduces the trafficked from people into produce.
Based on the UN’s definition of human trafficking, fertility tourism often results in human trafficking by recruiting people by through coercion, twisting power and vulnerability and giving payments that result in physical exploitation.
According to Janbua, already a mother, the surrogacy fees promised were 350,000 baht (A$11,669) which far exceeded the 20,000 baht (A$666) she and her husband struggled to live off every month. Janbua entered into the agreement by the force of poverty, telling reporters “my husband agreed because we didn’t have money to pay our debt”. She also claims she has not been fully paid.
She’s not alone.
As an industry that relies on the labour of women, it doesn’t always treat them well. In India, women’s groups are campaigning against deceptive agents pressing young women into service and signing contracts they can’t read. Many surrogate mothers are separated from their families to live in quarantined hostels with other women while others go into seclusion fearing social shame. There are cases of women dying during childbirth. This is the reality hidden from the pristine white clinics and smiling hosts promoted on websites.
On surrogacy forums, where questions about personal experience are continually punctuated by offers of assistance by surrogacy agents eager to broker a new deal, people talk about God’s will helping them have a baby instead of their wallets. Surrogate mothers become nameless broodmares spoken of as objects and not individuals, reduced to a sum of parts from their womb to their donated eggs. One woman advises people to inspect the surrogate mothers because if they’re from the Ukraine they’ll be contaminated by Chernobyl and that “if you see the [Indian] surrogate mother consider yourself lucky. Maybe better not to see.”
The implications of it “better not to see” a surrogate mother or to reduce them to produce potentially spoiled by nuclear accident speaks volumes of how easily people can disregard others when money is involved.
The popularity of fertility tourism shows that the world can still devise unique ways to literally sell a woman’s body to the highest bidder. As with all forms of human trafficking, we must find a way to look past our mania for cheap labour and look to the real cost of what we are buying.
This is no way to start a life and it’s no way to respect the lives of others.