Talk by Sharmila Rudrappa, "India's Reproductive Assembly Line and its Surrogate Mother Workers"

Nov 9th, Noon-1:30 pm: University Hall 1000
Moderator: Rachel Washburn, Ph.D. Department of Sociology


Though the United States is the top destination for surrogacy services, India is emerging as a key site with heterosexual and gay couples and individuals from countries such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan traveling there for surrogacy purposes. Dr. Rudrappa's larger research agenda, based on interviews with 70 surrogate mothers and 31 egg donors in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, examines the lives of the surrogate mothers who are mostly recruited from urban working class communities. An interesting fact that emerged in one year of research in Bangalore is that many of the surrogate mothers have opted for sterilization, or tubal ligation, as a method of permanent birth control. Their voluntary sterilization does not hinder their abilities to be gestational surrogate mothers because the embryos implanted in them are prepared through invitro-fertilization with third party eggs, and the intended father's sperm. Thus, while they themselves are unable to birth children to grow their own families, they now bear babies for the upper middle class in India and around the world.


An examination of these working class surrogate mothers' lives leads Dr. Rudrappa to recognize that surrogacy in India has become contextualized in the larger, longer history of reproduction interventions in the nation. Sterilization as a form of birth control is popular among working class women because of its widespread use (and misuse), and routinization through India's population control policy. India's policies of desisting reproduction, and assisting reproduction play out on working class women's bodies. Whereas one set of policies actively seek to stop working class women from having more babies, new legislative developments such as the Assisted Reproductive Technologies Bill of 2010, posit surrogacy as a way by which working class women can earn money. The unintended effects of these reproduction interventions is that working class women are seen as "baby machines", their reproductive capacities to be harnessed for the Indian, and global middle class. Thus, it is not surprising that surrogacy in India is posited in popular media as the "rent-a-womb" industry. The women are deemed not as workers; instead, they are believed to rent out their bodies, their wombs leased out to the contracting couple/ individual who will then grow "their baby" in that empty space. To summarize, this presentation answers two seemingly unrelated questions: How are the policies of desisting and assisting reproduction in India related? Why are surrogate mothers in India seen as women who rent their wombs rather than as laboring women? These two questions allow Dr. Rudrappa to examine the ethics of transnational surrogacy.


Sharmila Rudrappa is associate professor in the Department of Sociology and the Center for Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Ethnic Routes to Becoming American: Indian Immigrants and the Cultures of Citizenship. Her larger research interests are on immigration, gender, and labor. Working from interviews with 70 surrogate mothers and 31 egg donors in Bangalore, and with heterosexual and gay couples/ individuals in various parts of the U.S., and Australia she is writing a book length manuscript tentatively titled Outsourced Labor: Surrogate Mothers on India's Reproduction Assembly Line.

This forum event will be available after it occurs by podcast.