The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill 2019, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on Monday, once again denies women agency over their own bodies. The bill seeks to outlaw commercial surrogacy, and allows only “altruistic” surrogacy for “needy” couples with proven conditions of infertility. Women are once again being asked to use their bodies for the greater good without getting paid for it. Sperm donors will continue to get paid. Men in general are masters of their bodies. But women’s bodies need to be regulated, policed and legislated into dependence. Such seems to be the way of the world.

Let us give the bill the benefit of the doubt. There is clear evidence of malpractice surrounding commercial surrogacy in India. Middlepeople take most of the money, and women are robbed of the income that they deserve. It is also alleged that surrogates are not allowed to choose whether to become surrogates – they are forced into the business by their greedy families.

But even as this brief sketch makes clear, the problem with surrogacy lies in the structure of the workplace, not with the work itself. Rather than implementing ways for paying women directly into bank accounts in their names, making doctors accountable for the welfare of surrogates, and insisting that social welfare workers monitor every surrogacy from start to finish and beyond, the government has done what it does best: it punishes the weakest sections of society. In the name of saving The Poor Indian Woman, it ties her into even greater networks of poverty.

We have seen such narratives before: let us rescue people who do not have a voice by taking away their voice altogether. This has been the ideological bedrock of patriarchy and colonialism and multiple forms of domination across time. Let’s save the women by not allowing them out of the house. Let’s save Dalits and Muslims by ghettoising them. For their own good. The threat of “danger” is wheeled in to curtail opportunities and freedoms.

Under the thumb

But the problem is not with the colonised or the women or the Dalits or the Muslims: the problem is with us. It is with us who are in positions of power. It is with us who legislate against weaker sections of society in order to make them weaker still, and utterly dependent on us for their welfare.

The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill is in the service of a patriarchy that insists women be dependent on men for their financial well-being. From rich to poor, from white to brown and black, this is the fate in store for women around the world. Some of us fight against this script by using our education in our favour. Many of us do not have the advantage of such education and such privilege. But all of us have our bodies. And universally, we are encouraged to use our bodies to sexually satisfy men and bear offspring. This we are allowed and encouraged to do.

A surrogate at a clinic. Credit: AFP

So why not monetise what we are sanctioned to do? One of the arguments that has been made in favour of the bill is that surrogates are not given the choice of whether to carry someone else’s child, and they are therefore being taken advantage of. But this argument immediately begs two questions, one rhetorical and the other logistical, but both principled.

First, how many women in India are given the choice of when and to whom to get married to and whether to have children? They are simply expected to comply with the dictates of marriage and childbirth because that is what women are expected to do.

Second, if that is the case, then why not pass a “Marriage (Regulation) Bill” or a “Childbirth (Regulation) Bill”? If even the possibility of such bills seems absurd to us, then it is because we have completely naturalised violence against women, and completely forgotten that in fact millions of us have no choice whatsoever about bearing children. So again, I ask: why not make money out of the one thing that we are universally allowed to do?

Punishing independence

Because it would make us financially viable, and therefore less dependent?Addressing this question of financial viability in a different context, the Kamasutra spends several of its pages speaking admiringly about courtesans. They work with and on men, but these women are their own people in terms of money. Vatsyayana gives advice to the courtesans on how to steer clear of abusive men, but he never says courtesans should not get paid for their labour. With the coming of the British, courtesans were labelled as prostitutes, demeaned, and outlawed.

With the passage of the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, women will be cut off from what could be a guaranteed source of income. Motherhood will be mystified as sacred, and women will be punished for being independent. The wrongdoers will continue to do what they do, and women will find that their choices – meagre enough to begin with – have shrunk alarmingly.

Madhavi Menon is Director of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University.