The Handmaid’s Tale and Surrogacy in India

Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Nightmare

I take the liberty by invoking one of the most controversial works of all time. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. The book is her best known works till date and is now adapted into an award winning web-series on Hulu.

A near-future dystopia, it is situated at the peak of the second wave of feminism in America. It is crucial for someone in the 21st century, attempting to write this in the “new normal”. I juxtapose this with the current state of affairs. Pardon my dismay, but the situation is far from different. Atwood’s work shows this “new” theocratic country, “The Republic of Gilead” as a “near-future reality”. It seems like a raging reality. Albeit in a subdued form, or is it? That we are slowly assimilating ourselves into this “mode” and way of living. Reminding ourselves that – it is the “the need of the hour”.

“Walking Wombs”, Negation of Womanhood

“Walking wombs” or the “Handmaids” are in complete subservience to men. The second wave of Feminism has given us the infamous slogan of “Personal is Political”. This, along with the radical protests in demand of reproductive freedom for women. It looks as a warning to religious fundamentalists and feminists alike. About being “careful what to wish for”. Atwood draws this fine line through her master storytelling.

The Handmaid’s Tale constantly produces a flux between dystopian/utopian. This ultimately subjugates women of all “castes”. Colour-coded women with their functions relating to their body and its reproductive order. The “Commanders” are leaders of the system who are atop the hierarchy, and “own” all these women segregated into various castes. These women are “nameless” and “faceless”.

The Handmaids of Gilead are the fertile women. They are forced to bear children for the elite, to the Commander and their wives. Their names changing with the change in ownership of their Commander. Preceding them with ‘Of’, followed by the Commander’s first name, for example, Fred. The protagonist of the novel goes by the name, “Offred”, which could be a possible work-play for “offered”, “afraid” or “off-red”. These women have only one function – of becoming an artificial womb to the couple. To increase the declining birth rate of Gilead. It’s nothing short of the state sanctioning rape. 

Surrogacy and The Reproductive Labour

It brings us to the larger debate of surrogacy and the ‘value’ accosted to this reproductive labour. Digressing from the novel, I branch out the debate further. In the context of India. Although not to draw any comparison but to situate the universal “second-class” nature of women.

Without engaging on the morality of surrogacy, can we recognize ‘pregnancy’ as a service also? Pondering over various stakeholders and the surrogate mother involved – in this exchange of buying and selling of a “womb”. How much should we compensate the surrogate mother for the emotional, psychological and physical ‘burden’ she is carrying for ‘her’ child? Ultimately being ‘borne’ for another couple. The classic trope of “motherhood as natural”. It is a form of alienation especially when contrasted to the Surrogacy Bill tabled in the parliament last year.

Overlooked Intricacies in The Bill

The Surrogacy Bill is another means of state-control over women’s bodies. Although the premise behind it speaks of curbing the rampancy of transnational surrogacy and exploitation of women’s bodies in India. It underlines the male-controlling state trying to protect the “wombs of India”. So that the children born out of this womb don’t ‘travel’ cross-continent. A power-play in the name of banning commercial surrogacy and promoting altruistic surrogacy. Where the latter has many riders, one among them being, “biology as destiny”.

The negation of the “reproductive labour” still looms large among other loopholes in the bill. One of them being that members of the LGBTQIA+ community still cannot use surrogacy as an available option.

Keeping other arguments aside, there are concerns more towards the baby born of the surrogate mother than the biological mother itself. The altruistic surrogacy does not account for enormous hormones pumped into this mother’s body, among other artificial ways of impregnating the surrogate. This is an alienation. We us feeling the entire “act” as “compassion”. It lacks intercourse. The Bill proposes to establish a National Surrogacy Board and State Surrogacy Boards to regulate surrogacy in India. The proposed insurance cover for a surrogate mother is now 36 months up from 16 months.

India – Hub of Reproductive Tourism

Over the years India is becoming a hub of the global fertility industry. With the nation emerging as a popular destination for “reproductive medical tourism”. With the technological advancements in this area, India has been offering assisted reproductive technology (ART) services.

Some of them being – gamete donation, in vitro fertilisation (IVF), intrauterine insemination (IUI), intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and gestational surrogacy. With each of these categories there exists several ethical, social and legal implications. With the increasing cases of exploitation of surrogate mothers, there was an urgency in banning commercial surrogacy. There stands no strong replacement in protecting the rights of women who choose to be surrogates. Instead the focus shifted to promoting altruistic surrogacy. Which leaves one hanging with the question of – how should we compensate a woman’s bodily labour?

But, it is not just the “womb being rented”, it’s also the way society thinks of it to be. The emotional, mental, physical labour of carrying a foetus, the exhaustion that arises out of pregnancy. Nowhere is the Bill adressing these questions for women. It is solely to protect the “children” being born out of it.

The Gileadean ideal is somewhat similar. Measuring the worth of a woman solely by her reproductive capabilities and prohibiting them from education, property or even working. Reproductive labour and its operation is a study of power. 

Finally, the Bill appears more as an imposition on morality. It excludes gay couples, single men and women. Unmarried couples who want a child. Moreover, it’s overlooking the needs of many same sex couples and single parents. And ofcourse, the question still remains. That of a woman’s body and its agency that seemingly still rests with the state. 

About The Author

Ayushi Mehta (She/Her) is a masters student of Gender Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is an intersectional feminist and is passionate about women’s rights, gender, & policy related research. A trained Bharatanatyam dancer, who swears by Faiz’s couplets. Here is another blog by Ayushi that you might enjoy. Follow her on Twitter

Image Source: DNA