Gender justice 3: Women for sale

Sarah-Louise Johnson


This week Heather, Herj and I are blogging about gender justice, and highlighting how our research fits in with this theme. My research focuses on the problem of commodification of bodies and persons. I focus on three markets in particular: commercial surrogacy, prostitution and organ sale. In all three markets women are usually the ones who are for sale. This is a matter of gender justice, because it is rather suspicious that women are much more likely to be in the position of vendor in these markets.


Commodification is a term used to describe the process by which someone becomes an object of trade, and how they come to be regarded as less than a fully-formed person. Being reduced from a person to an object is the process of objectification; and being reduced from a person to an object which is also for sale is the process of commodification. Therefore in my PhD thesis I argue that you cannot commodify someone without first objectifying them.

In this blog post I will outline one case study of commercial surrogacy in India, but first it is worth noting the status of surrogacy as a practice in the global context. Surrogacy contracts differ widely and the practice is only legal in some countries. For example in the UK only surrogacy agreements without financial compensation (non-commercial) are legal, whereas in other countries like the USA and India surrogacy agreements with financial compensation (commercial) are also legal. India legalised commercial surrogacy in 2002 and the country has since become “renowned internationally as a pre-eminent location for this practice.” (Ashenden 2013: 196).

So, onto the case! Dr Patel runs a clinic in western India, where she matches infertile couples from around the world with local women who are hired for their gestational labour. (Lee 2010: 58). These surrogates are housed together for the duration of the pregnancy and cared for by a team of doctors and a matron throughout this time. It is compulsory for the surrogates to live in the house provided by the clinic and there are strict rules concerning the women’s conduct during their stay. For example, the surrogates may not have sex during the pregnancy, must eat the meals and vitamins given to them, and are encouraged to rest for most of the day. The rules of the house also emphasise that the hospital and the commissioning couple are not legally responsible for any risks or complications that might occur during the pregnancy. Around 100 surrogates live in the house at any one time, with up to 10 surrogates staying in each room. Local women can be a commercial surrogate up to three times with the clinic. Some surrogates are employed by commissioning couples after the birth to look after the baby and be their wet nurse, while the couple remain in India to organize relevant paperwork and visas required to take the child home.

Commercial surrogacy is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion a year in India. Dr Patel explains that there are several reasons for this success; she says that good medical technology is available in India and the cost is comparatively low (globally). She says Indian law is also favourable, “… the surrogate has no rights over the baby or no duties towards the baby, so that makes it easier. Whereas in the Western world… the birth mother is considered the mother and the birth certificate is in her name.” (Wallace 2013). Commercial surrogates who take on this work are paid around US $8,000 – $10,000, but if miscarriage occurs within three months then the surrogate is only paid $600. Commissioning couples are charged around $28,000 for a pregnancy that leads to a successful birth.

Vasanti worked as a commercial surrogate at the Kaival Hospital, carrying a Japanese couple’s baby. Dr Patel performed a caesarean section on Vasanti and the baby was taken directly to a neonatal hospital where the commissioning couple would collect him and take him back to Japan. Vasanti recalls this, “I saw him when I had my caesarean. I saw my son, but then they took him straight away. I must have seen him for five seconds, so I saw that he was living… the couple wanted a girl and it’s a boy. It’s good whether it’s a boy or a girl. She’s got a child at least.” (Wallace 2013). In this example Vasanti is vulnerable because of her situation being one of entrenched poverty.

In my doctoral work I claim that commercial surrogacy is morally problematic for two connected reasons. First, because the practice exploits vulnerable women, such as Vasanti; and second because the practice treats reproductive labour as a marketable good, and as such objectifies and commodifies women. If you would like to read more about this you can find our recently published paper.

Useful links:

Ethics, Law, and Commercial Surrogacy: A Call for Uniformity: Drabiak, Wegner, Fredland, & Helft

The exploitation argument against commercial surrogacy- Wilkinson

Commercial surrogacy in India- Pande

High Court approves commercial surrogacy

The cautious case for commercial surrogacy

Why commercial surrogacy is unethical- Anderson

Contested commodities: The trouble with trade in sex, children, body parts and other things’ –Radin

Rethinking Commodification and Prostitution: An Effort at Peacemaking in the Battles over Prostitution- Van Der Veen

Feminist Debate over prostitution reform- Freeman

Commodification arguments for the legal prohibition of organ sale- Wilkinson

Bodies for Sale, Whole or in parts- Scheper Hughes

Commodification, exploitation and the market for transplant organs- Wolfe

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