by Wanjiku wa Ngugi
“Indeed somewhere in our psyche we have made it okay to trade in babies. As we do with corn and flowers, only perhaps the laws for transporting food from country A to B are probably more stringent.”
Somewhere in America, a couple responds to an advertisement. Weeks later hurled in a small air conditioned office in down town Mumbai, they make their specifications known to the bespectacled doctor seating on the other side of the wooden desk. Nine months later, a tall and dark woman lies on a twin-bed staring at the ceiling. Every other ten minutes, she seizes firmly onto the cold blue metal sides of the hospital bed. Blood curling screams from the adjacent room followed by the ever soft shocked cry of a new born baby startles her. Another woman has given birth. A warm feeling washes over her. Then she remembers and shakes her head as if to erase the feeling. She mustn´t be weak. The mid-wife finally arrives. Push. Moments after, the Indian woman jolts up, but she only gets a glimpse of the newborn baby. She looks down her tear soaked scrubs. She will relish those five seconds she saw the baby, replace the moment with the wad of cash in her palm. After all, the baby is now with her mother.
I wanted to begin my novel, The Fall of Saints, with an overly dramatic scene that would at once capture the contradictions of contracting wombs. Of how the transformation of a biological function of a woman´s body into a commercial contract may yet be another form of exploitation of poor women. I instead chose to visit this question from the perspective of a mother who adopts a child only to discover that the child may have come to her through questionable means. Years before, I had followed with trepidation, the story of Gilbert Deya, a Kenyan evangelist who claimed to have created miracle babies through prayer in the UK. He later lost a battle against extradition to Kenya to face five charges of kidnapping.
I am not against surrogacy but mostly worried about the moral and ethical questions in the industry. It’s indeed an industry. Supply and demand. There are buyers. Sellers. Middlemen. Advertisements. Recruitment. Interviews. Agents. Brokers. And like any industry it has created an immense opportunity for a black market. In Nigeria, police discovered what they referred to as a baby factory for 32 teenage girls some of whom were allegedly being held against their will, raped and their newborns sold on the black market. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/08/nigeria-baby-factories_n_3889300.html In another case it was reported that five Albanians had been arrested near the Greek-Albanian border for the alleged sale of eight Roma infants. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-424450/The-shocking-truth-baby-factories.html
Indeed somewhere in our psyche we have made it okay to trade in babies. As we do with corn and flowers, only perhaps the laws for transporting food from country A to B are probably more stringent. It should be alarming to think that children can be literally manufactured for exportation. It reeks of days when youthful men and women were kidnapped assembled and then sold off into slavery. Now babies are the ones being assembled in the wombs of often poor and low income women for the gratification of the needs of the rich. That we live in a world where poor women are disposable for a price.
There is an argument to be made that the exchange of currency indicates that no coercion was in place therefore a legit transaction. But given the economic conditions of these women in surrogacy arrangements, can we really argue that they have a choice? Instead I think surrogate motherhood highlights troubling questions about the relationship between choice and global inequality.
“…Not in my entire life do I want my daughter to be a surrogate,” says one surrogate mother in India. In yet another case an Indian mother weeps for her dead daughter, who convulsed and died during her last stages of pregnancy as a surrogate. In this case one wonders whose responsibility her death is, amongst all the players, who include the clinic as well as the contracting parents of the baby who survived.
This leads us to examine what it will mean to women´s reproductive rights if embryos become legally defined. In cases of surrogacy it could mean that the fetus belongs to the client, and not the woman it is dependent on. That the contracted womb of the woman does not belong to her, reducing her to a mere incubator. There are other questions too, pertaining to genetics, and if the baby has a right to access the birth mother´s genetic history.
How about the recipient parents, other than dishing out cash, should they take responsibility of knowing the history of the babies they buy? Or does one´s need to be a parent supersede all moral and ethical questions. It should be troubling to anyone to buy the womb of an economically and socially vulnerable woman. We ought to be concerned about vulnerable young girls, as well as the babies born in these arrangements. We need to protect them, from the violence, from the greed. Most importantly we need to address the inequalities that make it possible for a woman to contract her womb to make ends meet.
Wanjiku Wa Ngugi is the author of The Fall of Saints, Atria Books, 2014. She is also the director of the Helsinki African Film Festival. Her short stories have appeared in The New Black Magazine as well as The East African. Her essays have been published in the Herald (Zimbabwe), the Daily Nation, Business Daily, Pambazuka News and Chimurenga amongst others.