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MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Tue 01-Oct-13 11:52:21

BBC4's House of Surrogates - what did you think?

A BBC4 documentary last night explored the ethics of commercial surrogacy in India. Critics accuse Dr Nayna Patel of running a 'baby farm' for childless Western couples; the doctor counters that the sums the surrogates earn will change their lives forever. Read Sarah Ditum on a 'subtly questioning' film - and let us know what you think on the thread.

Sarah Ditum


Posted on: Tue 01-Oct-13 11:52:21


Lead photo

House of Surrogates: tonight (Tuesday), 9pm, BBC4

Humans have two fundamental drives, explains Dr Nayna Patel in House of Surrogates, a carefully observed and subtly questioning documentary about commercial surrogacy in India. We have a drive to reproduce, and a drive to survive. Commercial surrogacy fulfils both of these, says Dr Patel. The client couple get a child, the surrogate gets a life changing sum of money. Who could object to the mutual satisfaction of our most elemental desires?

The fee for the surrogate is paid in instalments through the pregnancy, adding up to $8,000 if the surrogate carries a single baby to term – a little over six times the GDP per capita for India. Vasanti, one of the surrogates and mother to two children of her own, puts it another way: “They’re all here out of their own desperation,” she says, looking at her fellow residents in the dormitory they share.

Dr Patel makes sure the surrogates get much more than just the money, though. For starters, they are given food, medication and accommodation for the duration of the pregnancy. (This isn’t just generosity, of course. Residency is compulsory for women, because controlling their nutrition and sanitation reduces the risk of miscarriage. It’s a way of protecting the clinic’s investment.)

They get advice, too: Dr Patel isn’t content to turn her surrogates loose with their sudden wealth, and during the film we see her advise her charges on getting bank accounts, purchasing property and disposing of abusive husbands. Dr Patel calls herself a feminist, and I don’t doubt her principles. If you feared seeing a reproductive class that looked something like the brutalised Handmaids of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, this will be reassuring viewing.

Neither simple exploitation nor an uncomplicated exchange of money for goods and services, commercial surrogacy is where two great needs collide.

At times, House of Surrogates feels like an advert for international sisterhood: this is redistribution by way of the uterus. And then, you catch sight of the profound inequality in which this common womanhood exists. In a consulting room, a Canadian couple size up a prospective surrogate with an agricultural eye: is she sturdy enough, do they trust their precious genetic material to the width of her hips?

Next to the Canadians, an Indian woman holds a baby: the baby is the Canadians’, and she is their first surrogate mother, retained as a wetnurse for the first few weeks. For Barbara, the Canadian mother, this is clearly a kindness: “What could be wrong with more than one woman loving my son?” she asks. The implicit opposing question – what could be wrong with taking a baby away from a woman who loves and cares for him? – hangs unasked.

While Dr Patel is clear that the women understand the rights they have to the child (none whatsoever), the surrogates do bond with the babies they carry, and they do grieve when the legal parents carry them off. However rationally it is accepted, that combination of empty belly, sore breasts and empty arms seems a terribly wrenching one. And it’s not only the physical cost that the surrogates bear. There’s a stigma against surrogacy in India, one that means Dr Patel must live under heavy security while Vasanti talks about using her money to move so she won’t have to live with neighbours who know what she’s done.

Surrogacy is an act of altruism, but even when the client parents take the time to thank the birth mother of their child (which most do, but not all), do they truly understand what they’ve been given? Not simply a child, but the pain, shame and sacrifice borne by another woman so that they could reproduce? Barbara speaks of wanting her newborn son (born from egg donation) to explore the Indian side of his heritage; Vasanti, having delivered the baby of a Japanese couple (she calls it “my baby” though she never gets to see it) and bought her new house, only hopes that her own daughter will never have to take the decision to become a surrogate.

Neither simple exploitation nor an uncomplicated exchange of money for goods and services, commercial surrogacy is where two great needs collide. Both sides clearly benefit, but how can it be possible for hundreds of families and individuals to meet like this without great hurt occurring? After watching House of Surrogates, the moral consequences of this collision are felt more keenly but not necessarily any clearer - Dr Patel’s calm and smiling certainty the only beacon in the mist.

If you missed it, you can catch up with 'House of Surrogates' on iPlayer. Do come back and tell us what you thought here on the thread.

By Sarah Ditum

Twitter: @SarahDitum

Hamwidgeandcheps Tue 01-Oct-13 13:01:16

Not for me. There was some dm drivel about commercial surrogacy a while back I recall the thread about it. It makes me feel as if we are closer than ever to the handmaids tale.

FannyFifer Tue 01-Oct-13 13:02:24

Sounds quite interesting, will prob tune in.

If someone offered me 6x what I earn in a year to be a surrogate I would seriously be tempted.

JazzAnnNonMouse Tue 01-Oct-13 13:33:20

I will try and watch it.
Before watching, I'm in two minds about whether I feel comfortable with the idea.

YDdraigGoch Tue 01-Oct-13 14:22:55

I'm with Fanny. I'll make my mind up after watching the programme, but suspect I would happily carry the baby of another couple if the payment was 6x my annual salary. Possibly even more than once. I'd never have to work again - just think of that!

PoopMaster Tue 01-Oct-13 14:39:06

I'll watch, it will be interesting to see how I feel after watching it...I'm very much on the fence at the moment about surrogacy as a whole. For me it's like the idea of selling your organs - if you donate a kidney to a relative or friend and they want to give you a gift in return, that's one thing...but turning poor people into organ farms because they're desperate enough? Wrong wrong wrong surely?

It also seems to be another way for women to sell their bodies, so not sure where feminism fits in.

Should be an interesting documentary.

OddBoots Tue 01-Oct-13 15:56:47

As a former (UK) host surrogate I will watch but I'll withhold judgement until I've seen it and probably beyond as I have plenty of experience of seeing surrogacy twisted in the media. It is such a complex subject and even more so when done internationally.

HorryIsUpduffed Tue 01-Oct-13 18:04:22

Someone I know has been a host surrogate twice (plus another surrogate mc) and I have the greatest admiration for her.

I do not enjoy pgy anywhere near enough to consider surrogacy for someone else. But if you offered me nine months' board and lodging, free medical and legal help, and the price of a house at the end of it... well I'm not sure what I wouldn't do for my existing DC.

sad that in the blurb above it's pointed out that some parents don't even thank their surrogate. Now that's truly indicative of a baby farm attitude.

MadameJosephine Tue 01-Oct-13 18:42:31

Didnt know thus was on, thanks for the heads up. I'll definitely be watching. While I have every admiration for the few surrogates I have met in the UK it's not something I could do myself and I am uncomfortable with the idea of this type of commercial surrogacy. However, like others have said, I will reserve judgement until I have seen the programme myself.

May09Bump Tue 01-Oct-13 20:56:05

No I won't be watching - I think surrogacy should be about wish to help rather than financial necessity to do it. In my opinion, it's as bad or even worse than going to these countries for organ donation.

I do truly feel for those who can't conceive, but I think this is another abuse of the poor. I also wonder how the child will feel when they find out how they were born.

Meglet Tue 01-Oct-13 21:05:00

45? hmm

Sleepyhoglet Tue 01-Oct-13 21:16:35


Sleepyhoglet Tue 01-Oct-13 21:21:29

I feel the whole concept is wrong, yet I also feel this medical centre does it quite well, which leaves me confused.

purpleroses Tue 01-Oct-13 21:26:31

Watching it now. Can't see a problem with it really. Is it really that different from paying for a child to attend boarding school for many years? Or leaving it with a full time nanny from the age of 6 weeks? Personally I think you bond with a child much more after birth than before - if I enjoyed being pregnant (which I don't) I'd gladly do it. And for 6 times annual salary or the price of a house, certainly.

Chanonica Tue 01-Oct-13 21:28:38

I think its ironic these couples are walking through a country where children are living in poverty and who could do desperately with a new home, and families might be happy to give their children up for a better life. This world is overpopulated as it is, I think this is wrong for so many reasons.

AmandaPandtheNightmareMonsters Tue 01-Oct-13 21:33:44

The whole thing makes me feel very uncomfortable. I'm still working through my feelings.

It does seem un-necessarily harsh to force them to live in the dorm though. I wonder what the reasons are for that - other than effectively treating these women as non-people who can be held under watch for rest and food.

AmandaPandtheNightmareMonsters Tue 01-Oct-13 21:34:20

The whole thing makes me feel very uncomfortable. I'm still working through my feelings.

It does seem un-necessarily harsh to force them to live in the dorm though. I wonder what the reasons are for that - other than effectively treating these women as non-people who can be held under watch for rest and food.

Sleepyhoglet Tue 01-Oct-13 21:45:55

I think the dorm makes sense. You need to ensure they are having adequate rest and nutrition and that cannot be guaranteed of they are at home.

purpleroses Tue 01-Oct-13 21:48:49

I assume the dorm is partly to ensure they keep healthy and partly to save them from the embarrassment of being at home - as it seems it's a bit badly thought of what they're doing.

And some rather strange (Indian?) idea that sex during pregnancy is a risk.

Sleepyhoglet Tue 01-Oct-13 21:49:05

You can see if from both sides. The joy of the non birth mother in taking home her child, but the emotional difficulties and physical trauma of the Indian woman

AmandaPandtheNightmareMonsters Tue 01-Oct-13 21:50:55

Purple - the stigma is a good point. I think that they are just coming onto that. As for rest and nutrition, I do get it, but it does seem to give the lie to the idea that this is an equal exchange where one party is doing work for payment from another. Instead, they are treated rather like a baby incubator non-person.

Sleepyhoglet Tue 01-Oct-13 21:51:17

One surrogate lives in a single room between 7 people. The dorm is more sensible

AmandaPandtheNightmareMonsters Tue 01-Oct-13 21:57:14

They live in a pretty similar dorm...

rhetorician Tue 01-Oct-13 22:10:40

The Canadian woman is pretty shocking...

PoopMaster Tue 01-Oct-13 23:27:09

Well that was depressing viewing on so many levels.

It raised a lot of questions for me about what is meant by "motherhood", and why adoption systems in so many countries fail couples who then feel they need surrogates instead.

I think the doctor has squared it all in her own mind and I believe she genuinely thinks she's doing a good thing, but this commercialisation of surrogacy just doesn't feel right - it is supposed to be a gift.

And the keeping surrogates on lockdown and away from their families? Just way too close to the Handmaid's Tale confused

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