Biotechnology and the world of tomorrow

Elo Luik - runner up 150Elo Luik, a student at the University of Oxford, was joint runner up in Making Sense of Society, the ESRC’s writing competition 2017 in partnership with SAGE Publishing. This is her essay.

“Look at us! We are creating the world of tomorrow!” exclaims Mike. His words bounce off the walls of the high-tech fertility clinic we are in. Outside, the sun is slowly sinking into the smog of New Delhi’s skyline as the streets fill with commuters. The brutal socioeconomic inequality between the haves and the have-nots of India’s economic miracle is laid bare in rush hour traffic. Shiny luxury cars, taking wealthy businessmen from high-rise offices to palatial homes stop at the traffic lights outside. Beggars approach them, knocking on tinted windows to beg for a fraction of that economic wonder, a share of the spoils of India’s integration into global neoliberal trade systems, so that they can feed their family for the day.

The traffic is a distant background noise in our meeting, where a handful of entrepreneurs from different parts of the world are building a business out of bringing together the inequality outside the clinic with the biotechnology inside it. They are all in the business of transnational commercial surrogacy, where women are paid to carry and birth babies for foreign ‘intended parents’. Their clients are people who are unfortunately unable to have children themselves. Surrogacy’s underlying technology of IVF, where a baby is conceived in a petri dish, rather than in the womb, is impressive. But surrogate women to carry those pregnancies can be hard to find in many countries. This shortage, combined with high costs and regulatory restriction, has given rise to the outsourcing of surrogacy to low-income countries like India.

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In this globalised economy, surrogacy has quickly become a lucrative business. The same women who stitch our clothes can now, thanks to biotechnology, also produce our children. The neoliberal Indian economic miracle is reaching beyond the employment of local labour in call centres and factories and into the extraction of biological vitality.

The issues of worker rights and safety that continue to plague outsourced production now find new manifestations in surrogacy. A place with stark socioeconomic inequality like New Delhi is perfect for such industry. Those in chauffeured cars provide investment in technology and expertise while the poor provide its biological resource. Surrogacy is one of a growing set of industries, such as some medical trials, or tissue and organ trade, that are developing around the medical sciences and that rely on lax regulation.

Therein lies the reason for our meeting that evening in New Delhi. India had begun limiting foreigners’ access to surrogacy; there were rumours of a ban. This is where Mike came in. Getting around patchy global regulation to make profits in the intersection of biotechnology and inequality is what he does for a living, by setting up the surrogacy business elsewhere or moving women between existing destinations in ways that make use of legal loopholes. Mike is a sort of biotech hustler. But his proclamation about him and his partners making the world of tomorrow is not an entirely unfounded one. Perhaps he is? I wonder what this world is like – a future where, according to one of Mike’s business plans, women are flown in batches between various low-income countries to become pregnant in India and give birth in Africa to best extract value out of their capacity to bear children.

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Governments often accept the need to regulate surrogacy within a framework of ongoing public debate but fear the political penalty involved in legislating on a matter that the public is still unsure and deeply divided about. This passive approach has allowed the likes of Mike to become the driving forces in determining the place of biotechnology in human existence. My research is a case for a renewed sense of urgency but also confidence for the public to play a role in who we are and who we are becoming. Making sense of society is about making sense of us and the tomorrow that we choose to live in. Social science and anthropology’s core method of ethnographic fieldwork, of living amongst the people and phenomena one seeks to understand, offers the kind of first-hand experience that grounds political discussion in the lives of ordinary people. It can provide the public and our policymakers with the knowledge to help make important decisions on complex matters.

If, without such knowledge, we avoid grappling with difficult questions about biotechnology’s role in society, then the future may indeed be created by, in the words of one of my research participants, “a bunch of mercenaries going around the world” who make money first and ask questions later. I have learned in my research that biotechnology itself is inherently neither good nor bad. It is potential, both
wonderful and dangerous. It is up to us to decide what kind of tomorrow we make of it.


You can follow Elo on Twitter at @eloluik.

Read more about the winning essays and catch up on news from the writing competition on Twitter using #esrcwriting

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