The Virgin Birth

In the beginning, there was a virgin birth. Or perhaps there were many. A hundred, or a thousand years before the man from Nazareth was born, another by the name of Zarathushtra came to be in Middle Persia, some say by “an immaculate conception with a ray of divine reason.” Around the same time, somewhere in South Asia, all five Pandava brothers whose story is held within the pages of the Mahabharata were born of mothers who had only been touched by the loving hands of gods. These sexless unions are the starting point for stories of myth and holy magic.

But I’m not thinking of virgins or births as I sit down to dinner in an upscale hotel in Mumbai, India. I’m thinking of a Kingfisher beer accompanied by papadams. A baby sleeps in a stroller at the adjacent table flanked by a married couple of indeterminate ethnic origins, speaking English with an accent that seems vaguely familiar but which I can’t place. I look at them over my menu, trying to suss them out, playing the default game of the solo diner. They debate fish vs. prawns, and dishes that come with rice versus those that—inexplicably—don’t. They order. They change their order. There is a coming and going of multiple staff people. Knowing I should just keep to myself, but not knowing better, I interject and suggest the Goan fish curry that I had last night. Delicious, rich with coconut milk, and rice comes with it. By this time they already have ordered and say they’ll take note for tomorrow night, but the walls between strangers have fallen, and we begin to converse, tossing out the test questions of identity to each other.

The couple, somewhere around my age, are Americans, from New Jersey, no less. The first of my countrymen I have met on this trip, most apparently scared into staycations due to pesky things like swine flu, terrorism, and/or unemployment. But here is this friendly couple, of Indian descent three generations back, now on their second trip to India in under a year. The accent lingers from their birthplace on a Caribbean island, though they’ve been in the States for many years. They rave about the Taj Mahal and India’s ice cream—the best.

I ask about the child, nodding to the stroller, and they tell me there are two. Two! In there? They’re only ten days old, they tell me. I am instantly confused, or maybe just daft, as I often am. Did they come to India planning on having the births here? Why are they going to the American embassy tomorrow? And my, doesn’t mom look great for a little over a week since giving birth to twins. One word clears up all my confusions. Surrogate.

I’ve read about this before—the worst-case-scenarios in a recent Times story, and an earlier window into the world of this new version of Indian outsourcing—but I had never yet met someone (at least that I knew of) who had finally, defeated by her own body, turned to another woman to make a child. The couple had tried on their own to provide a sibling for their now-teenage daughter, and they had sought the help of special clinics, and then they turned to a place endorsed by Oprah, in the land that their forefathers had come from. Our own modern-day virgin birth: his sperm, her egg, an Indian woman who spoke no English.

Now, the birth mother is somewhere with an aching belly, full breasts, and enough money in her pocket to buy a very small apartment or a new car. The couple before me have not one, but two babies who the wait staff lean over and say, “Oh, this one looks like the father” and “That one, like the mother.” Midway through our sag paneers and vegetable tandoor platters and shrimp dishes that we have begun to share, one baby starts emitting small sounds and she picks him up, holds a bottle to his lips.

When I get up to go to the washroom, I move over to their table to peek at the two tiny precious creatures, one slowly opening his eyes. As they said, one has dad’s round face and the other mom’s long face. And when Round Face starts to fuss, I stroke his tiny capped head to calm him. When I ask their names, she can only remember one, and the husband prompts her on the second. It is all so new. They are both so new. She rocks the child and eventually tucks him back in the carriage where, at least for a short moment, he can fit comfortably nestled against his brother. Not unlike the past nine months they spent inside a woman whom they will likely never meet again.

How do we even begin to ask questions about giving birth to a child in this way? Our good books and great thinkers couldn’t contemplate such possibilities. Can a child be a transaction? Can a body be a laboratory? What part of making a life has to actually take place within an organic environment and when is a Petri dish sufficient? On some sentimental level, and as one who never carried a life within my body, I think it must be hard, impossible, unbearable, to hold a life in your womb, bear it, and let it go. But what life is not impossible? What beginnings are all pure love and bliss and responsible choice? Maybe, I think, very few. And how many babes are born and raised by women who are their biological, genetic, daily wipe-the-snot-from-your-nose mothers, and those same life-givers whom I place such sentiments upon are responsible for incomprehensible abuses or a quiet ongoing neglect? Maybe, I think, too many.

Then again, I consider myself pro-choice, drawing some invisible line in my mind before the time of quickening, justifying the removal of that unique combination of cells for the sake of the rest of the mother’s life. Maybe this is no different, with a cash bonus at the end that makes the life of the surrogate mother, and maybe the children she already has, better. Is it easier to be a surrogate than to give up your own biological creation for adoption, if the genetic material is foreign, the chromosomes contained within the bounds of the embryonic sac unrecognizable?

The science is out. The few studies done to understand the psychosocial impacts on the triad (at least) involved in a surrogate pregnancy have looked at tiny samples, lacked any theory, and included only a small number of longitudinal studies or ones comparing different populations. It’s too new to have even begun to study the offspring of these birthing experiments.

The jury is out, too. Paid surrogacy in the US ranges from outright illegal to “difficult to categorize.” Most of the industry, and it is a highly lucrative industry, takes place within the private realm, with little to no public regulation or oversight. There’s money to be had; would-be parents pay $80,000 – $120,000 for a surrogacy in the States. Psychological screening? Not necessary. Personal motivation? No need to share.

No one knows answers to any of these questions, except the ones we make up for ourselves, as we go along. There are no new priests to interpret the texts because there are no new texts.

We have all finished eating. The couple tells me goodnight, wheeling their newborns away as I wish them good luck, and I turn my attention to the street below, still crowded though the hour is getting late. Life is abundant in India: 1.2 billion and counting. And cheap: an Indian surrogate mother costs a third of an American one. Even if we begin to answer some of these questions on a philosophical level, it always comes down to a person wanting something that they can’t have—until technology provides a way. For there is life in theory and there is life in practice. How do we say no to the siren song of science? So efficient and effective. So enticing and capable. What degrees we go to in the developed world to create new life when it is spilled daily on the streets of South Asia, Africa, the worst of the West’s inner cities and rural outposts. Somehow we remain biological creatures, wanting to recreate a part of ourselves, the ultimate goal for any living organism, whether an orchid or a sea spider or a suburban couple from New Jersey.

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Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at