Discounted Life

The Price of Global Surrogacy in India

224 pages

December, 2015

ISBN: 9781479825325



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Sharmila Rudrappa is Associate Professor in Sociology and the Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is also director of the Center for Asian American Studies. She is the author of Ethnic Routes to Becoming American: Indian Americans and the Cultures of Citizenship.

All books by Sharmila Rudrappa

Winner, American Sociological Association Asia and Asian America Section Best Book on Asia/Transnational Asia

Finalist, 2015 C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems  

India is the top provider of surrogacy services in the world, with a multi-million dollar surrogacy industry that continues to grow exponentially, as increasing numbers of couples from developed nations look for wombs in which to grow their babies. Some scholars have exulted transnational surrogacy for the possibilities it opens for infertile couples, while others have offered bioethical cautionary tales, rebuked exploitative intended parents, or lamented the exploitation of surrogate mothers—but very little is known about the experience of and transaction between surrogate mothers and intended parents outside the lens of the many agencies that control surrogacy in India. Drawing from rich interviews with surrogate mothers and egg donors in Bangalore, as well as twenty straight and gay couples in the U.S. and Australia, Discounted Life focuses on the processes of social and market exchange in transnational surrogacy. 
Sharmila Rudrappa interrogates the creation and maintenance of reproductive labor markets, the function of agencies and surrogacy brokers, and how women become surrogate mothers. Is surrogacy solely a labor contract for which the surrogate mother receives wages, or do its meanings and import exceed the confines of the market? Rudrappa argues that this reproductive industry is organized to control and disempower women workers and yet her interviews reveal that, by and large, the surrogate mothers in Bangalore found the experience life affirming. Rudrappa explores this tension, and the lived realities of many surrogate mothers whose deepening bodily commodification is paradoxically experienced as a revitalizing life development.
A detailed and moving study, Discounted Life delineates how local labor markets intertwine with global reproduction industries, how Bangalore’s surrogate mothers make sense of their participation in reproductive assembly lines, and the remarkable ways in which they negotiate positions of power for themselves in progressively untenable socio-economic conditions.


  • "Discounted Life is compassionate, critical and somehow as heart-warming as it is heart-breaking...Sharmila Rudrappa takes us into the socially and economically precarious worlds of the garment-factory workers in urban Bangalore who also constitute the recruiting ground for a lucrative global business turning poverty in India into babies for the West."


  • Discounted Life is compassionate, critical and somehow as heart-warming as it is heart-breaking. Most of all it is an utterly captivating look into the lives of women who made the production line of India’s surrogacy industry at a time when it was still legal and booming.”


  • Discounted Life is a detailed ethnography on the industry of commercial gestational surrogacy in Bangalore, India. Describing the women who engage with the transitional surrogacy business as ambitious and witty instead of poor and exploited, Rudrappa offers a counter-narrative to the common discourse on Indian surrogate mothers.”

    Sociology of Health & Illness

  • “This is an engaging and well-written ethnography that will be interesting to scholars of labor markets, reproduction, and India. I would also recommend it for teaching general sociology and methods courses.”

    American Journal of Sociology

  • “This is a book many of us have been waiting for: a serious ethnography on commercial surrogacy. Sharmila Rudrappa utilizes the best social and cultural analysis to get inside the heads of the surrogates, the parents, medical professionals and the middlemen that participate in this growing international industry. Rudrappa shows there is no easy answer to the moral and ethical dilemmas raised in the brokering of reproduction. Discounted Life elicits debates on who the winners and losers are in commercial surrogacy. It is a must read for anyone interested in the field of reproductive labor and reproductive inequalities in the 21st century.”

    —Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, author of Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work

  • “Of all the books, articles, documentaries and discussion on this topic, this is the one. Rudrappa has gone the furthest, deepest and most thoughtfully into this troubling issue.”

    —Barbara Katz Rothman, author of A Bun in the Oven: How The Birth and Food Movements Resist Industrialization

  • "Discounted Life makes a compelling read and will appeal to academics interested in the transnational trade of reproductive labour...A particular strength of the book is the explicit, transparent, and reflexive account of participant recruitment strategies and struggles...[T]his is a truly excellent book and a crucial contribution to the field of assisted reproduction in a global market."

    —Christina Weis, De Montfort University , Sociology of Health & Illness