Surrogate Labour: Exceptional for Whom?

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The desire for genetically related children is driving an exponential rise in assisted reproductive service provision worldwide, including the Global South. In India, the number of ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology) clinics has more than doubled over the past three years. This expansion has been accompanied by a similarly explosive growth in populist narratives that assert that one of the services offered by such clinics, commercial gestational surrogacy (CGS), is a form of labour that is so exceptional(ly) exploitative it should be banned. Provocative headlines proclaiming that surrogates are ‘Renting their wombs’ and ‘Pimping their pregnancies’ fuel such assertions, suggesting that surrogates become reduced to mere wombs, vessels for carrying the offspring of entitled and wealthy foreigners. Although superficially compelling, such arguments fail to withstand detailed interrogation. Utilizing insights from anthropology, the history of science and law and bringing to bear the findings of extended fieldwork in Mumbai, Jaipur and Delhi, I critically analyse three assertions made in relation to surrogacy: that it is (i) a particularly intimate or invasive form of bodily exploitation; (ii) a uniquely sacralized form of affective labour and (iii) a uniquely generative form of labour. In arguing against exceptionalism, I contend that such practices cannot be adjudged through application of universal ethical principles and norms, but rather must take account of the complexity of the lived experience of all the participants, placed in their sociological and geographical contexts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)214-233
Number of pages20
Issue number2
Early online date25 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • assisted reproduction, surrogacy, clinical labour, exploitation, surrogate mother, India


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