An advertisement for a trip to Yellowstone National Park

FOR RENT: Perfect home for a growing family. small, but very warm and cozy. Nine-month lease only, cash in advance. Call Dr. Anoop Gupta at Delhi IVF.

A variety of news reports like this one have highlighted the way surrogate motherhood has become a growth industry in India, proving that tech support and accounting are not the only candidates for outsourcing to that burgeoning nation.

Women who seek a surrogate mother but face delays and mountains of red tape in America or other countries — not to mention fees upwards of $70,000 — can find healthy women in India who would much rather bear children than harvest rice, and at a lower price. The practice is supported by an established medical community and clinics such as Delhi IVF, mentioned above, whose web page includes the assurance that“We have arrangements for egg donor/rent womb.”

While I can imagine a host of ethical questions that might be raised about the practice, it seems to be a win/win for all concerned. Though some would argue that the practice is inherently exploitive, there seems to be no lack of willing surrogates who see the process as a positive thing.

On the one hand, women who can’t conceive or bear a baby, but who want a child that shares their genes, have a ready option available. The cost is considerably lower than in the U.S., there are fewer restrictions, and there’s a much smaller likelihood that the surrogate mother will start hanging around or wanting joint custody.

From the surrogate’s position, she gets the equivalent of 10-15 years’ income for a peasant woman for less than a year’s labor, and almost certainly gets better medical care than when bearing her own progeny. The practice is not without risk, but long days in sweatshops an rice fields are not without risk, either.

Though we often think of surrogate motherhood as something new, the deep desire for children and the practice of using surrogate wombs is an ancient one, though pregnancy had to be accomplished the old-fashioned way rather then via test tubes and petri dishes. The concept of surrogacy is attested in the Bible as far back as Abraham, who fathered a child by the servant woman Hagar. Genesis 16 asserts that it was Sarah’s idea, and quotes her as telling Abraham “You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2, NRSV).

We know from reading the rest of the story that it didn’t turn out as Sarah expected, but it didn’t stop the practice. Both of Jacob’s official wives (Rachel and Leah) reportedly asked him to foster multiple children by their handmaids (Bilhah and Zilpah) who would count as their own (Genesis 30). Rachel described the practice of having the child delivered “on her knees” in the cultural language of adoption: “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her” (Gen. 30:3, NRSV).

The Hebrew Bible even attests to surrogate fatherhood through the practice of levirate marriage. If a married man died childless, his brother was supposed to marry the widow and father at least one child to inherit the brother’s estate and carry on his name. As the unfortunate Onan would learn (Gen 38:1-11), that didn’t always work out well, either.

The most memorable example of biblical surrogacy, and one that did turn out well, is Jesus Christ. The gospels claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, fathered by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26-35). That scenario clearly puts Mary in the role of being a surrogate mother for Jesus.

I’m sure the current practice of outsourcing motherhood to countries like India will have its share of problems, but it does offer hope for many women who otherwise could not have children. And, if those children discover later in life that they have an inordinate taste for curry, perhaps it will help India’s farmers, too.

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