CBC’s Tanya Springer talks surrogacy, India and journalistic passion. Be prepared to be unprepared.

By: Britt Harvey

Last Wednesday, Gaze friend and fellow Carleton journalism grad Tanya Springer aired her documentary ‘Of Mothers & Merchants: Commercial Surrogacy,’ on CBC’s The Current.

You can listen to Tanya’s documentary at the link below.


Tanya’s documentary explored the world of commercial surrogacy in India and the Canadian and International couples that pay Indian surrogates to carry their children. Paid surrogacy was made illegal in Canada eight years ago under the ‘Assisted Reproduction Act.’ The Act prohibited the commercialization of human reproduction, because it was seen as “not in keeping with Canadian values.” TheGaze‘s Britt Harvey talked to Tanya about her thoughts on Indian surrogacy and the challenges of crafting a story on what to many is a controversial and emotional issue.

Q: Tanya, how did you come to this story, why Indian surrogacy? Where did you first hear about the issue, and what about it did you connect with?

A: I’d been to India before, and loved it. I remember first reading about surrogacy and realizing that the controversies and complexities within the industry were reflective of the country’s larger challenges. The economy continues to surge – but India is still home to a third of the world’s poor, and remains deeply rooted in its religious and traditional values.  As I saw it, the women who rent their wombs in Anand, India are just one group of many, who are navigating their newfound place in the globalized workforce. In that regard, this story is more than just about surrogacy.

But I think most importantly, for a journalist it is compelling and so rewarding to share a story that will challenge people’s paradigms. That was my goal with this doc.

Q: In journalism, getting and maintaining sources for sensitive stories can be one of the most important skills we acquire. How did you get people to share their intimate stories with you, specifically the Canadian woman Angela? Was it hard for you to get people to trust you?

A: The most nerve-racking part of the whole process was leaving Canada knowing the only sources I had lined up in India were talking heads and expert opinions.  Because of the nature of the industry – and the fact that I was reaching out to sources from Canada – I had absolutely no ‘personal’ voices lined up; only clinic directors, academics, bioethicists, and industry critics. While I knew these characters would be critical in providing a balanced and informed piece, I was painfully aware that the story would need first-person and sensitive voices to resonate.

Once I was actually in India and in a position to talk to people who were personally invested in the issue, I had an incredibly impassioned, genuine and well-rehearsed plea.  Fortunately, most women – including Angela – were eager to share their stories. The truth is media coverage of this issue has focused mostly on policy and legalities surrounding surrogacy – very little light has been shed on the women behind the industry, on either side of the equation.

Q: Was it hard for you to separate your own personal feelings about surrogacy from the story? What is your take on surrogacy, is it a ‘choice’ as one woman in the documentary said, or a means of escape from a life of poverty, or perhaps somewhere in between?

A: I think most people would agree there’s a need for base-line regulation. As a Canadian, it was hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that such a lucrative and burgeoning industry operates without any policy parameters, basically outside of legal confines. It’s not illegal – but it’s not quite legal either. Surrogates aren’t entitled to health insurance, and would have no legal recourse if they experienced exploitation (financial or otherwise), because surrogacy isn’t recognized in the Indian penal code. And while some clinics, like Patel’s, pride themselves on adhering to self-imposed moral and ethical guidelines, the reality is that there is no accountability. And for every clinic like Patel’s, there could very well be a handful of others who operate with alarming difference.

But there’s worry that the pending legislation Pretti and SAMA (currently drafted bills that call for more regulation in India’s surrogacy industry) are fighting for might actually do more harm than good. The worry is that if regulations are implemented without any real mechanisms to implement them, than the whole industry could slip into the underground – in which case it would be even more difficult to regulate it.

That’s what happened in India nearly two decades ago, with prenatal sex determination. In 1994, the government completely banned the use of ultrasound technology, in the hopes of putting an end to the country’s longstanding pronounced gender imbalance.  But the mechanisms to implement the new law weren’t robust enough – the market for ultra sound machines and sex selective abortions quietly slipped underground -where it’s still thriving. This year, studies found the sex ratio in Indian children to be 914 girls for every 1,000 boys – the lowest ratio of girls in recorded history. Many fear that if the regulatory legislation for surrogacy is passed without the government’s willingness and ability to enforce it, there could be similar results.

So bottom line, while it’s tempting to argue to just implement the regulation and then reassess, it’s unfortunately much more complicated than that.

I guess the upside to that is after three years of researching, studying, interviewing, and producing work surrounding this issue, I’m still intrigued and conflicted in my personal views. It’s my hope that comes across in the piece. When it comes down to it, this is an incredibly multi-faceted issue, and deserves to be covered as such.

Q: What was the hardest part of the journalistic work for you? What were some of the challenges you experienced along the way?

A: India isn’t just a difficult place to work; but can be a frustrating, confusing, and overwhelming place to simply be. So many of my challenges came from navigating maze-like neighbourhoods and understanding how and why so many trains could be delayed or cancelled. But once I got to where I was going, and found myself holding a microphone, I was completely in awe of how candid and accommodating people were. I think because the industry is so contentious and is going through such growing pains, that the people involved are eager to explain and rationalize their personal perspectives.

Q: What is your advice to other journalists who want to tackle a large and complicated issue of this scope? Any tools/tricks of the trade to offer?

A: My first piece of advice would be to tackle an issue that resonates with you personally. That’s not to say I’m infertile, or a surrogate, or Indian, but as a former student of gender and development, I was incredibly fascinated by the issue. It stuck with me. I always know how attached or interested I am to a story if I find myself thinking about it during a time when my mind is allowed to be thinking about anything; like when I’m walking my dog. I’ve found there’s a direct correlation between the amount of time you spend daydreaming about a certain topic, and your propensity to create a compelling informative account on said topic. Simple as that.

Also, in embarking on a project like this, I would argue that it’s as important to be ‘unprepared’ as it is to be prepared. In the weeks before I headed to India, and even in the field, I allowed for a huge margin of flexibility and wasn’t married to one particular focus or character. I’d interview someone I thought might be the focal point of the story, but then afforded myself the right to change my mind. And thank goodness I did – because it ended up changing shape and focus many times.

Q: Did you think your gender affected access to the story?

A: It sounds terrible, but I really don’t think a male could have told this story. Even being a woman, I sensed a very healthy amount of cynicism and fear inside the surrogate hostels – and that was even before I pulled out my microphone and notepad. It’s not just about this being a taboo subject, but about gender functioning as an important and sensitive parameter in Indian society. I even stipulated that my fixer (journo speak for translator and travel companion) be a woman. And I’m incredibly glad that I did.

All photos courtesy of Tanya Springer.


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One Comment on “CBC’s Tanya Springer talks surrogacy, India and journalistic passion. Be prepared to be unprepared.”

  1. April 10, 2012 at 7:13 AM #

    its good documentary tanya, surrogacy in india is the best option to fulfill dreams of childless couples, Thank you for your valuable information on Indian surrogacy

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